Cecilia Braekhus – Whenever a woman – any woman — enters a ring, she is fighting for something more than herself. She is fighting to shatter that figurative glass ceiling, the one that long has kept boxers with two X chromosomes from gaining their full and rightful places at the table of their sport.
It remains to be seen whether that barrier has been fully broken through, but recent developments suggest that further resistance to the inevitability of gender equity, or at least a form of it, is futile. And the fighter striking perhaps the most significant blow to date for members of her sex is Cecilia Braekhus, who Friday was named the first recipient of the Christy Martin Female Fighter of the Year Award from the Boxing Writers Association of America.
The Colombia-born, Norway-based Cecilia Braekhus, 36, who won all three of her bouts in 2017, each of which were world-championship defenses against elite competition, will receive her history-making award from Martin herself at the 93rd annual BWAA Awards Dinner in the spring, the date and time of which have yet to be announced.
“I’m very excited about this,” Braekhus, who has compiled a 32-0 record with nine victories inside the distance since she turned pro in 2007, said upon learning of her selection by a blue-ribbon panel of BWAA members. “This is important to me because it’s part of boxing history, and it’s very important because of the young girls that may think about boxing in their future.
“I think also of all the girls whose names should be on this (award) who went to the gym and trained hard twice a day, only because they loved the sport of boxing. They gave everything and didn’t get anything back – not money, fame or anything. They did it because they loved it and wanted to compete and represent their countries. It’s been a long road for women’s boxing, so it’s great for the BWAA to recognize a female fighter of the year. I’m very proud to be the first, but there are a lot of women that came before me that made this possible.”
The groundwork for wider acceptance of women’s boxing was laid by such pioneers as Jackie Tonawanda, Polly Burns, Rosie Danvers, Helen Hildreth and Jeanne La Marr, who toiled in the shadows for small purses and little recognition, frequently enduring putdowns from condescending males whose attitude seemed to say – and in many cases, they flat-out said it — that the ladies were more suited to stay home, bear children, bake cookies and, if they really needed to get out of the house and earn a paycheck, serve society as nurses, secretaries, waitresses, beauticians and stewardesses.
But there have been a number of women in other fields such as Susan B. Anthony, Annie Oakley, Babe Didrikson, Amelia Earhart, Gloria Steinem and Sally Ride who resisted being placed in boxes not of their choosing. They said “Yes, I can,” when many of their male counterparts insisted, “No, you can’t,” each refusal to meekly conform a step forward in a revolution played out over years and on multiple stages.
Women’s boxing enjoyed a period of increased visibility and popularity in the 1990s led by Martin and the “Dutch Destroyer,” Lucia Rijker, along with such celebrity daughters as Laila Ali, Jacqui Frazier-Lyde, Freeda Foreman, Irichelle Duran and J’Marie Moore (Archie’s daughter). Martin, who appeared on the undercard of several Mike Tyson-headlined shows, was the first female fighter to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1996 while Mia St. John frequently turned up on cards whose main attraction was Oscar De La Hoya.
But although that surge abated somewhat, a new generation of women bided their time before making their presence known. The introduction of women’s boxing in the Olympics was a step forward, as was the emergence of Cecilia Braekhus and other elite competitors who proved that they could, yes, entertain audiences while filling arenas.
In addition to Braekhus, other finalists for the first Christy Martin Award included, alphabetically, Mexico’s Jessica Chavez (30-4-3, 4 KOs); Japan’s Naoko Fujioka (17-2, 7 KOs); Mexico’s Mariana Juarez (47-9-4, 18 KOs); Puerto Rico-born Brooklynite Amanda Serrano (34-1-1, 26 KOs), Michigan’s Claressa Shields (4-0, 2 KOs) and Ireland’s Katie Taylor (8-0, 4 KOs).
It is in recognition of all of the aforementioned women’s contributions, as well as others, that the BWAA – which has been at the forefront for implementing needed and even overdue change in the sport, as well as in boxing journalism – correctly decided that the 18th year of the 21st century was the proper time to give women boxers their just due. But there are other entities which have been sounding the same drum; The Sweet Science also broke new ground when it named 22-year-old Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist who has received star-making television exposure on Showtime, Prospect of the Year for 2017, the first woman to be so honored. It would surprise no one if she and Taylor, 31 and another Olympic gold medalist, become the faces of women’s boxing moving forward and future winners of the Christy Martin Award.
For now, however, Braekhus – who was adopted by a Norwegian family as a toddler – remains the “First Lady of Boxing,” the only woman ever to hold the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO titles simultaneously, a distinction held by only three men (Bernard Hopkins, Jermain Taylor and Terence Crawford). Martin admits to being a fan, and said Braekhus’ selection for the first such BWAA Award is more than justified.
“To have an award named for you is really flattering,” said Martin, who will present the award, crafted by noted sculptor Carl LeVotch, to Braekhus, a woman she’s never met but has admired from afar. “I’m really happy that it’s Cecilia. This is someone who has a great body of work. She’s had great support in her country, and she’s the perfect and logical choice. I’m honored Cecilia would ask me to present and meet her. She’s deserving, and she still has plenty of career left.”
Tom Gerbasi, chairman of the BWAA selection panel, concurs with Martin. The list of finalists was indeed impressive, but the sporting heroine of Norway was like cream rising to the top.
“When we look at Cecilia, she fought two former world champions (Klara Svensson and Mikaela Lauren) and one current world champion in Erica Farias, who was moving up in weight, making it a superfight between two of the pound-for-pound best,” Gerbasi said. “Cecilia did all of this with a target on her back because she had five world titles to defend.
“Think about that. (She’s) not just a fighter, but a female fighter who had such an impact in a male-dominated field, you have to put that in the equation as well. Add her social impact to her three wins over the year, defending five world titles and doing so against world-championship competition, there was little doubt as to who was the winner.”
Cecilia Braekhus / Check out more boxing news and features at The Sweet Science.