Cecilia Braekhus: A special fighter prepares for a special night
You won’t find a word more perverted and misused in boxing than “champion” and you won’t find a group more overlooked or belittled in the sport than its female participants. Cecilia Braekhus is just one of a handful of real champions in boxing, regardless of gender, and, in the same sense, she’s just like any other fighter.
“It’s not for the money. It’s not for the celebrity. It’s not for all the hoolahoo. Basically you start out when you’re 13 years old and walking into the gym to find something you truly, truly enjoy and love to do. I’ve been so lucky to make a living out of it,” said Braekhus.
Before Wednesday’s final press conference in Los Angeles, Braekhus sat down with American writers to discuss a historic Saturday night, when, for the first time ever on HBO, (11:00 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT), a female fight will be televised during the network’s 40-plus years of boxing programming. To the unsuspecting eye, Braekhus doesn’t look like your typical female fighter nor does she look Norwegian, for that matter but the female welterweight champion of the world also has the same aspirations as anyone about to make his or her United States debut.
“America is the dream for every fighter to come and make it big. Every fighter on the planet wishes and dreams to be on the biggest stage in the world,” she said.
Braekhus looks to defend her unified IBF/WBA/WBC/WBO welterweight titles against Kali Reis, and add a chapter to a longstanding reign of nine years, since she first won the unified WBA/WBC belts.
“I hope this leads into more female fights on HBO,” Braekhus said, agreeing that it’s important to put on a show, given this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. “This is the first female fight and we have all eyes on us. I think it’s only positive for me and my opponent. We are both really looking forward to this. I think this is motivating for both and she’s a very strong opponent. I think we will bring out the best in each other, considering all the different elements inside and outside of the ring. It’s a historical moment. I think everybody is feeling that something very special is going to happen. There is something in the air.”
There always seems to be something in the air at the outdoor boxing venue of the StubHub Center, in Carson, California, and whether she knows that or not, Braekhus feels this way because of the attention received in the weeks leading up to the fight, citing how different it’s been compared to back home, where she is considered a superstar. Helping that cause is the spotlight from the man headlining the HBO card, Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, who will be looking to defend his unified IBF/WBA/WBC middleweight titles against Vanes Martirosyan. The entire event was cobbled together in the aftermath of the rematch between “GGG” and Canelo Alvarez getting canceled and the promoter of the show, Tom Loeffler, would even call it a very challenging promotion later on at the press conference, at the Sheraton near LAX.
“We have 5,000,000 people there and being a superstar in Norway is something completely different than here in America. First female fight in HBO history, the two best pound-for-pound fighters male and female and, of course, my opponent, ranked number two in middleweight. Two divisions over me and coming down to try and get the belts. There is so much about this fight, it makes my head spin. On top of everything, I feel very calm; I feel good. I had a great camp, which, of course, is the most important. I had great sparring. I have a great trainer with me. I feel calm; I feel good. I’m just really ready to get this done.”
Braekhus, 32-0 (9), has an interesting match-up in front of her on Saturday night, when, once the bell rings, all the pre-fight obligations will fall by the wayside and the instincts and talent she’s built over the course of an 11-year boxing career shall take over. Reis, 13-6-1 (4), has fallen short in most of her big fights as a career middleweight but she has fought under 147 pounds before. Fighting out of Providence, Rhode Island, Reis, 31, won the vacant WBC middleweight title in 2016 after beating a green Maricela Cornejo in New Zealand but more renowned fighters Christina Hammer (twice) and Hanna Gabriels beat her by convincing unanimous decisions. The expectations to win are nothing new for Braekhus, who is a 60-1 favorite heading into Saturday night. However there are added pressures, given the stage.
“In Norway, I headline cards and we have like 10,000 people coming to my fights,” she explained. “So it’s nothing new about that but this, of course, is on the other side of the planet for me. It’s far away from home. It’s her home turf and everything is new. You just kind of have to be prepared. Things are different here, like with the media. I’ve never done so much media in my life. Like everyday. We don’t do that at all. It’s amazing; it’s overwhelming but it’s so much fun. As long as you have a good team and people around you, it’s fine.”
Sitting next to Braekhus at the round table was one of the best female fighters of all-time. “The Dutch Destroyer” Lucia Rijker had the talent to be exposed to the American public but flourished in a time when female boxing wasn’t all that prevalent or even really consider, in the mid-to-late-1990s. Her boxing career didn’t last long but she ended it undefeated after enjoying another undefeated career in kickboxing. If you ask any personality in the sport, they will all say she was the best to lace them up.
“She knows boxing,” Braekhus said about her coach. “She’s been in the game. She knows the American scene. She’s been in tough fights inside the ring and outside the ring, so we have a lot in common and she knows how to be a female fighter. It’s been really nice to have her in my corner. We have had some good weeks together. She has her experience and she has a very good eye on boxing and, also, I think the most important thing is that she is just here to make me better. We haven’t changed anything or she hasn’t come in and changed me or come in and said I’m gonna give you a new punch, technique or strategy. It’s basically taking her point of view with my boxing and develop my style and make it stronger.”
Rijker, 50, was compelled to give her thoughts on Saturday night’s occasion and there really is no better perspective to get coming from someone who could’ve been in Braekhus’ position, had the timing been right.
“It’s not necessarily a responsibility; it’s a major opportunity for Cecilia to do what she does,” Rijker interjected. “She’s a great, fierce fighter. If she is just true to her nature and drop all the hoohah around it, which is the media and when people say who and what and just does what she does: She’s the greatest. And that’s it. It’s an opportunity, a duty, as a great woman and fighter, as articulate as she is and as powerful as she is in the ring, to just do what she does. It’s nothing more than that and it’s great that the world finally gets to see that.
“Don’t underestimate that she is Colombian and that is a fierce DNA she brings to the table,” Rijker added, surely an important point, seeing as how her roots also come from South America.
Braekhus was adopted at the age of two by parents she described as the classic blonde-haired and blue-eyed Norwegians. Her mother and father worked at a university and if you’re looking for a classic story of struggle in a fighter’s upbringing, you can look elsewhere.
“Norway is a very safe country,” Braekhus explained. “We are very spoiled. It’s a rich country and a very peaceful country. I was looking for something that fit me. When I walked into that gym, right away I knew this was it. It was like meeting your husband or the love of your life. It was like love at first sight. You just know. At that time, it was very unusual for young girls to do martial arts, so I had to sneak out for training.”
For a whole year, starting at the age of 13, Braekhus snuck out of her bedroom window to go to the kickboxing gym, where she spent time with her first love.
“I took (my parents) to the gym and introduced them to my trainers and my team,” Braekhus said. “They understood that they were good people, that boxing and kickboxing only develops self-confidence for a little girl. Discipline. Makes you strong physically and mentally. I think the unknown is very scary for many people and that is the reason why they maybe have a little bit of an issue with the sport. When they get more educated about the sport, it is easier to understand why we’re doing it.”
The Braekhuses will be there ringside to watch their daughter make her American debut and, the following week, will get to see Cecilia be awarded with the first-ever Boxing Writers Association of America award for “Female Fighter of the Year” in 2017. It’s actually named the “Christy Martin Award” but Rijker made it clear that she wasn’t too fond of that distinction. Being the first of everything is a good way to describe Braekhus’ career so far and the “First Lady” has been a perfect moniker for her but when it was first bestowed upon her, little did everyone know it would foreshadow such an accomplished career.
“I got that in Germany 10 years ago because I was the first woman in the biggest German boxing stable,” Braekhus explained to UCNLive.com, after the formal presser. “At that time, there were no women there and they were actually a little bit against female boxing, so that’s why they gave me the “First Lady” (nickname) – and I always kind of tried to live up to that.”
Female boxing hasn’t had great success in the U.S., for various reasons. How people feel about women partaking in such a machismo sport is one of them; the rarity of knockouts or action fights can be another but the talent pool is what really hurts the females overall. Without good opponents, not even the men would be able to thrive or be taken seriously. Things have changed since Rijker’s days, however, and the biggest female fighter of all-time – Ronda Rousey – will happen to be ringside to support her close friend Martirosyan. Never did anyone think a female fighter could get as big as Rousey and one would be doing a disservice to think Braekhus’ fight will change things overnight. What you will see, however, is a real boxing champion looking to prolong an already impressive reign and hoping to inspire a new generation. Not only is that necessary for women’s boxing but all fighters are emboldened to those to whom they admire and why should it be any different for the women?