By Sarah Deming
Cecilia Braekhus wears her nickname well. The “First Lady” of boxing is poised as a diplomat, fluent in three languages, undisputed, and undefeated.
When she takes her ring walk on Saturday through the warm California night, the Norwegians who follow her everywhere will shout and wave their flags. Trainer Lucia Rijker will help haul the five world title belts that make Braekhus the only reigning undisputed champion. And supporters of women’s boxing will cheer as HBO broadcasts its first female bout.
Braekhus (32-0, 9 KOs) makes the 22nd consecutive defense of her welterweight crown on May 5 against former world titleholder Kali Reis (13-6-1, 4 KOs) of Providence. This historic ten-round co-feature kicks off the Gennady Golovkin vs. Vanes Martirosyan middleweight championship event, broadcast live from the StubHub Center on HBO World Championship Boxing, beginning at 11 PM ET/PT.
Braekhus has spent her life crossing boundaries. Born in Cartagena, Colombia, she was adopted at age two and raised in Bergen, Norway, where she spent her childhood hiking, skiing, and recovering from frequent sports injuries that alarmed her parents. When she started kickboxing, she snuck out her fourth-floor window every night to train.
“At that time, it was not usual at all for girls to do martial arts,” she explains. “For a young boy, it was not a big deal, but for a young girl…” She pauses with characteristic thoughtfulness. “It only comes from not having enough information. If you don’t know so much about something, then of course you get more afraid.”
Once she brought her parents to the gym, they understood its culture of humility and discipline. Now they are her biggest supporters.
Braekhus went 75-5 as an amateur boxer. She turned pro in 2007, but was unable to fight at home because Norway had imposed a ban on professional boxing in 1981, the year of her birth.
With difficulty, she convinced Sauerland Promotions to sign her, and she relocated to Berlin to train under legendary German coach Ulli Wegner. She was the only woman in his stable of ten men that included world champions Arthur Abraham and Marco Huck.
“I was fighting for my life,” she says. “Fighting for attention. As a female fighter, you have to take part in the whole process in a completely different way than the male boxers are doing.”
In 2009, in her eleventh pro bout, Braekhus decisioned the undefeated Vinni Skovgaard to claim the vacant WBC and WBA world titles. Three fights later, she added the vacant WBO belt with a decision over Victoria Cisneros. In 2014, she took the belt from IBF titleholder Ivana Habazin with another unanimous decision, becoming undisputed welterweight champion of the world. With each fight, her fan base grew.
Her next defense, against Jennifer Retzke, proved the most brutal of her career, when she fractured her foot in round three.
“It hurt like hell,” she says. “But you make a choice. Either lose the bout and go home and feel sorry for yourself, or continue to fight. If you continue, then you cannot bitch about it. You just have to do it.”
Braekhus pulled out the ten-round unanimous decision, but it was over a year before her foot healed. The enforced layoff gave her time to reflect.
She had been in Germany seven years and felt stagnant. So she left Sauerland and signed with K2 Promotions. She began training with Wladimir Klitschko’s trainer Johnathon Banks, heir apparent to Emanuel Steward’s Kronk legacy.
“My goal was to have her use her power to start knocking girls out,” Banks says. “I told her, ‘You’re undisputed now. It no longer matters if you win or lose. It matters how you look when you win. The more impressive you are, the more people are gonna pay attention to you.”
Braekhus had always been aggressive, particularly in the clinch, but the German school emphasized movement, high hands, and efficient defense. Her relationship with the Klitschkos and Banks would bring new explosiveness and freedom to her style.
“Cecilia has a winner’s mentality,” Banks says. “In my opinion, she’s got two motivations. One is the desire to be champion.”
“Another desire is to let all men know that we can do this just as well as you can, at the same highest level in boxing. We can generate the same amount of income that you all bring in.”
Indeed, Braekhus was so popular in Norway that she used her influence to win a different kind of battle. It had taken years of lobbying, letter writing, and meetings, but Norway had finally lifted its ban on professional boxing in 2013.
In her triumphant 2016 homecoming, Braekhus rematched with her French rival Anne Sophie Mathis, a former world champion who had kayoed Holly Holm. (Braekhus herself had campaigned unsuccessfully for a showdown with Holm before the Albuquerque star switched to MMA ) The sold-out crowd at the Oslo Spectrum roared as Braekhus knocked Mathis out in two. After the fight, the prime minister came to the ring to congratulate the First Lady.
Braekhus fought three more times in Norway, generating sizable live gates and PPV revenue. The weigh-in for her most recent outing, a sixth-round knockout of Mikaela Lauren, is required viewing.
Now she sets her sights on the only prize that has eluded her: the American market.
“The legendary fights come out of America,” she says. “The biggest hoopla, the biggest promotions. It’s just a fun, crazy circus.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives, but women’s boxing in America is actually having its second moment. During its heyday back in the ‘90s, when Christy Martin battled in blood-spattered pink trunks, the talent pool was relatively shallow. Celebrity daughters and Playboy bunnies got their moments in the ring, and crusty pundits got to dismiss them as novelty acts.
The sport disappeared from American television but flourished in markets like Germany, Mexico, Argentina, and Japan. Holly Holm’s MMA victory over the seemingly invincible Ronda Rousey put women’s boxing back in the spotlight here, while the 2012 Olympics debut launched new stars like middleweight world champion Claressa Shields. Now the future looks bright.
Asked about a meeting with Shields, Braekhus said, “Everything can happen!” She also speculated about a Mayweather-McGregor-style meeting with UFC star Cris Cyborg.
Shields says, “I think Cecilia is genuinely a good person. She’s undefeated and has all the belts at 147. I want to unify with Christina Hammer for her two belts, then drop down to 154 to face Cecelia Braekhus, because I want to be the best, pound for pound.”
But first Braekhus will have to shine in Saturday’s meeting with Kali Reis, a seasoned former world champion on a three-win streak. The 32-year-old Reis carries the ring name “Mequinonoag” as a proud symbol of her Native American heritage. She will look to pull off a huge upset Saturday, and both women will look to show the world just how far their sport has come.
“HBO is so big and has had so many historical fights,” Braekhus says. This is kind of the last big hurdle. This is a big deal.”