Photos: Ed Mulholland
By Kieran Mulvaney
CARSON, CA. – Seven months ago, Cecilia Braekhus made history.
When her hand was raised in victory at the end of a hard-fought decision over Kali Reis at the StubHub Center in May, on the undercard of Gennady Golovkin’s demolition of Vanes Martirosyan, she became the first female boxer ever to win a fight on HBO.
A little more than half a year later, she will make history again. Her clash this Saturday night (10:20 PM ET/PT) with Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes will be the HBO main event – which for female fighters is unprecedented, and will also be forever unmatched, as theirs will be the last fight of any kind to be aired on the network.
Braekhus, while acknowledging the significance of the event, chooses not to dwell on it, at least not yet. “You know what? When I’m old and retired, I can look back and I can really, really say that I made history.” For now, she is fixing her attention on Magdziak-Lopes, fully aware that her foe is made of stern stuff.
“I have to be focused on my fight,” she said after the final pre-fight press conference this week. “I have a tough competitor, and I need to be 100 percent focused on her, and I cannot allow myself right now to take in the historical event that this is for boxing. The most important thing is that I have to produce my best performance ever.”
That said, on the three previous occasions that Magdziak-Lopes has challenged for a world title belt, she has fallen just short. Braekhus can expect another tough night but will anticipate it ending with her in position to move on to one of the higher-profile challenges that await.
Perhaps that challenge will be in the form of MMA star Cris Cyborg, who has long coveted a bout with the Norwegian, who was ringside when Braekhus fought Reis, and who will be present again on Saturday – and who will in fact be walking to the ring with another possible future Braekhus opponent, Claressa Shields, who opens the HBO broadcast against Femke Hermans.
Shields’ presence on the card – and indeed, her fame and status as the only American Olympian to win back-to-back boxing golds (in 2012 and 2016) – is testament to a rise in the attention being given to women’s boxing in the United States. Such increased attention is exemplified by the fact that, by the end of the broadcast on Saturday, the number of women’s bouts on HBO will have risen from zero in 45 years to four in seven months. (Heather Hardy defeated Shelly Vincent at the Theater at Madison Square Garden in October, in the second female bout on the network.)
“I think what’s happening now in the States is extremely beautiful to watch,” said Braekhus, who has fought most of her career in Germany, where women’s boxing has long had a higher profile – to the extent that she has headlined pay-per-views. “I just hope that this will continue.”
(It is not just women’s boxing that has long battled for the spotlight. Lower-weight male fighters have also traditionally been given short shrift, but the flyweight and super-flyweight divisions have received a shot in the arm over the last couple of years, a consequence of a remarkable concentration of talent in their upper reaches. Roman Gonzalez and Srisaket Sor Rungvisai may be the cream of that particular crop, but Juan Francisco Estrada, who has lost close decisions to both men, is right behind them, and has perhaps been the biggest beneficiary of his division’s moment in the sun. The only fighter to appear on all three iterations of the “Superfly” franchise, he steps in for an injured Gonzalez and takes on Victor Mendez in the middle bout of Saturday’s triple-header.)
For Shields – who is facing Hermans just three weeks after defeating Hannah Rankin to run her professional record to 7-0 – Saturday night is an unexpected opportunity to realize a lifelong dream.
“Growing up in the amateurs, I watched HBO, and I told myself, ‘I want to fight on HBO.’ And then I thought my chance was gone, but boom! Here we are. I’m just so happy that HBO thought of me and gave me the chance.”
At the end of the day, however, boxing is boxing, whoever is filming or calling the action, and what matters most is what happens when the combatants enter the ring. Asked to predict how events will unfold on Saturday night, Shields underlined that when that happens, issues of history, weight class and gender are largely irrelevant, and the attractions that keep people tuning in to watch boxing are fundamental and simple to articulate.
“I’m going to break down her body. I’m going to punch her in the face. And hopefully we’ll see some blood.”