Cecilia Braekhus has challenged and changed boxing

HALLE, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 27: Cecilia Braekhus punshes Chris Namus during their Welterweight World Championship fight prior to the IBO Cruiserweight World Championship fight between Marco Huck and Ola Afolabi at Gerry Weber Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Halle, Germany. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images)
HALLE, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 27: Cecilia Braekhus punshes Chris Namus during their Welterweight World Championship fight prior to the IBO Cruiserweight World Championship fight between Marco Huck and Ola Afolabi at Gerry Weber Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Halle, Germany. (Photo by Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images) /

Cecilia Braekhus, the best pound-for-pound female boxer in the world and current owner of five welterweight championships, is set for her second fight in Norway after leading the charge to overturn the country’s boxing ban.

The most widely circulated anecdote about the seemingly unbeatable Cecilia Braekhus is of her, as a precocious and athletic 13-year-old, jumping out of her bedroom window to escape unnoticed in order to purse her training. Boxing was something her parents did not approve of at the time; it was also illegal in Norway — and had been since 1981.

It’s precisely that kind of eerie dedication and focus that has allowed Braekhus (29-0, 8 KOs), who is originally from Colombia but was adopted by a Norwegian family at the age of two, to develop into the most respected and feared female boxer on the planet despite circumstances that would have stifled almost anyone else. And it’s that kind of gumption that has allowed her unmatched in-ring success to serve as a springboard for her becoming a leading figure in the often laborious evolution of women’s boxing.

Female fighters, beyond battling their literal opponents, are forced to navigate boxing’s antiquated patriarchy, which until recent developments expressed its disdain towards the remarkable women who box through the categorical refusal to actively promote them and nurture their careers.

As such, perception, or false perception, is something Cecilia Braekhus has had to tackle since her introduction to the sport as a teenager. Indeed, initial resistance to her boxing came in the understandable form of concerned parents.

“It was only because they didn’t have the knowledge about the sport,” Braekhus told FanSided over the phone. “So I had to sneak out for a year. I took my bag and climbed out the window and down the fire escape and went to training. That happened for almost a year until my parents found out.”

But once Braekhus was able to educate her parents, their attitude shifted. They got to know the sport and the people involved with her training, and soon their prejudices evaporated. They also had to accept that boxing was the only outlet in sports-mad Norway that gave their daughter the athletic rush she craved. Typical teenage activities and experimentation bored Braekhus, which was largely due to the recognition that she had discovered something special in boxing.

“I found something I really wanted to do,” Braekhus confidently answered when pressed about why she didn’t give up when faced with early obstacles.

However, as Braekhus embarked on her record-setting professional career, which included winning a world title in only her 11th fight, the frustrating reality of Norway’s boxing ban, and her resulting inability to fight or even train in her home country, set in. While she had developed a strong cohort of fans and was unanimously recognized as an elite athlete at home, being ostracized due to ignorant legislation took its toll.

“It was hard,” Braekhus said. “It was very sad for me because all the other athletes were in Norway and had communities. They were talking to each other, helping each other out, and exchanging knowledge — like a community. And I was forced out of the country because of my sport.”

What followed was an odyssey of nearly seven years that saw Braekhus lobby politicians and tirelessly work to correct the public’s misconceptions about fighters, who can easily, and erroneously, be typecast as violent brutes solely defined by the ruthless nature of the sport they pursue. So while Braekhus worked to overturn the ban with the likes of Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, a crucial aspect of her project involved humanizing boxers.

“We had to show them that boxers are normal people like everybody who walks around on the streets,” Braekhus said. “We are absolutely normal people. Also, we worked with an anti-doping committee because that’s a huge deal in Norway.”

Imagine being the best practitioner of your sport in the entire world — an undefeated champion set to finally defend your titles at The Spectrum in Oslo in front of a sold out audience of 10,000. The Prime Minister is in attendance, as is Wladimir Klitschko (Braekhus is promoted by K2) with partner Hayden Panettiere. And to give the evening the appropriate level of ceremonial significance, Michael Buffer has been flown over to serve as the ring announcer. It’s an unfathomable amount of pressure.

While every elite champion is subject to the extreme tension of a title bout, the stakes are even higher for female boxers. Losses are maddeningly and disproportionately damning in boxing, and even more so for women who struggle to get pedestrian recognition and exposure. Braekhus’ fight on Oct. 1, 2016 against knockout artist Anne Sophie Mathis was the culmination of everything she had worked for since first jumping out of that window to train. Simply put, she had to win — not just for her own career, but to further the progress of her sport in Norway and to actualize the narrative of her overdue and triumphant return home.

In an explosive and cathartic performance, Braekhus won by technical knockout in the second round.

“I think it’s hard to describe it because we worked so many years on it,” Braekhus admitted. “So when it happened, it was pretty unreal. But I think often when you work so hard against doubters and you achieve something, it can be a bit of an anti-climax. But this time, everything was perfect. Every second was unreal.”

On Feb. 24, Braekhus will return to The Spectrum in front of yet another sold out audience, and her title defense against Klara Svensson will likely match, if not exceed, the incredible stat that 50 percent of Norwegians watched the win over Mathis on terrestrial television. Although Svensson (17-1, 5 KOs) is more of a pure boxer who will likely stay on the outside, the added element of a Norway versus Sweden rivalry bout will imbue the evening with added intensity.

Despite her laser focus ahead of the Svensson fight, Braekhus is more than just the best female boxer in the world. She’s also started her own promotional outfit, which should enable her to help develop the sport in Norway and become a substantial presence in the boxing-crazed pockets of Europe. In this role, she can also usher in a new era of equality for women pugilists.

While the United States should largely be ashamed of how it has ignored female fighters, a perceptible shift has occurred since two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields embarked on her professional career. After winning her debut against top amateur and longtime rival Franchon Crews, Shields will make history on March 10 when she becomes the first woman to headline a premium cable fight card: a ShoBox event from Detroit, MI.

Braekhus agrees that the winds are indeed shifting with regards to women’s boxing and that Shields can be the catalyst for significant progress in America. And yet, it was both sobering and unsurprising to find Braekhus grasping for words when lamenting how the perception that women can’t fight still lingers, even with someone like Shields emerging as the most decorated American Olympian in boxing — ever.

“America has, for god’s sake, a gold medalist — an Olympic gold medalist,” Braekhus said. “From an outsider’s perspective, I’m almost embarrassed. But I think things are going to change. It’s changing slowly, but I think it’s going to change.

“If everybody in America sees Claressa, I honestly think not one person will say she cannot fight.”

Part of the problem that has plagued boxing is that women are seldom, if ever, featured on television, and they languish as promotional afterthoughts. That, Braekhus argues, is finally changing, and fighters like Christina Hammer in Europe and Heather Hardy in the U.S., for example, are either stars or quickly gaining traction. Stateside, promoter Lou DiBella is leading a progressive charge, as is Showtime Sports executive Steven Espinoza (who was integral in brokering Shields’ ShoBox deal).

Braekhus is clearly aware of her role as an ambassador for her sport, and she wholeheartedly embraces it. She knows that not everything she does will be applauded and that further resistance to her broader goals will surface. In a sense, it’s tempting to think of this journey Braekhus and other elite female fighters are on as some sort of movement or crusade, but that kind of outlook is overly symbolic and actually detracts from their concrete accomplishments and abilities as fighters. Because that’s what they are: fighters.

Ultimately, what everything boils down to, championship belts and sold out stadiums aside, is an unconditional love for boxing. It’s this love that motivates Braekhus to keep fighting at 35, when her credentials are already unimpeachable.

“I think it’s the same thing that made me go down the fire escape when I was 13-years-old. It’s [boxing’s] really something I love to do. I think it’s so much fun. Some days are hard, but I’m extremely lucky to have found something so interesting and amazing to do, which I can also have as a job.”

Next: Tony Harrison aims to take family legacy to new heights

As for her goals regarding the progress and future of women’s boxing and what she hopes to achieve in the larger sense as a fighter and promoter, Braekhus hit on a perspective that American fight fans would do well to adopt when watching any bout.

“In my world, in the end, it is not about if you are a girl or a guy boxing,” Braekhus said. “It’s just about good boxing. And I want to have that in my life.”