Cecilia Braekhus is renowned for her warmth of personality and generosity of spirit. But ahead of her rematch with Jessica McCaskill the First Lady of boxing had some things she wanted to get off her chest when she spoke to Boxing Social’s Luke G. Williams …
Something seems to have changed within the psychological make-up of Cecilia Braekhus.
The former undisputed welterweight champion of the world is as gregarious, engaging and polite as ever when she speaks to Boxing Social from her training camp in Big Bear, California.
But there is also a new tone in the 39-year-old boxer’s voice.
A tone I haven’t heard before.
I wouldn’t go so far as to call it harsh or resentful, but there is certainly a new-found steeliness there; a sense of resolve, if you will, which makes it clear that the Norwegian is determined to right what she sees as a clear wrong – namely the evening of August 15 last summer when she lost her precious undisputed championship to Jessica McCaskill via a majority decision that was hotly disputed and debated.
It was a loss that ended Braekhus’ 36-fight unbeaten run as a professional pugilist, a run that began in January 2007 and encompassed an astonishing 25 successful world title defences – a figure only matched by the great Joe Louis during gloved boxing’s long and glorious history.
On that dramatic night in downtown Tulsa, despite her disappointment with the judges’ decision, Braekhus maintained a dignity that befits her hard-earned nickname of ‘The First Lady’, paying warm tribute to McCaskill and declaring: “I’m proud and happy to pass the torch to her.”
Fast forward six months though and the tone and the rhetoric have changed.
Now Braekhus makes clear her belief that not only should the torch not have been passed to McCaskill at all, but that the American’s ongoing verbal invective towards the woman she deposed and sections of the media means she is unworthy of carrying it at all.
“Jessica and her coach [Rick Ranos] basically talked me into a rematch,” Braekhus says, with a laugh that carries an undercurrent of seriousness. “Initially I was thinking: ‘okay, this was a horrible decision but maybe she’s a worthy champion’.
“But that was not the case. I think it was only 24 hours after the fight that Jessica started talking trash about me and my whole team. That was before I had even mentioned anything about a rematch.
“I don’t want to see my belts with her. It just doesn’t fit right with me. One thing was the way she got the belts but the other thing was how she behaved after she got the belts. It was definitely not worthy of a champion.
“Those belts have so much history – why would you be miserable? Why wouldn’t you use those belts to elevate boxing and women’s boxing, for doing good?”
McCaskill and Braekhus recently traded some noticeably barbed comments at an online press conference to promote the rematch, which takes place on Saturday March 13 in Dallas
The champion accused Braekhus of being “mentally out of the game” and Braekhus responded forcefully, refusing to cede ground or the psychological initiative.
The Norwegian explains the motivation that lay behind her words at this event.
“I just wanted to let Jessica know that if she wants to trash talk me then everything she gives out she will get back.
“That was just a press conference though. My style is not trash talking. I’m really not comfortable with that. It sends too much negativity out and I don’t enjoy it at all.
“But Jessica and her coach think they can bully me, so of course I have to give them a clear message that’s not going to happen at all!
“Now that’s done I’m just going to focus on myself and my training and I’ll just leave them to be miserable because they always talk bad about people.
“They complain that people don’t appreciate them and ask why they don’t get everything they deserve and all the credit they deserve. But you know – you get what you give to be honest.
“I’m just focusing on myself now. I don’t like to trash talk because I don’t like to spend too much time in that world. It’s too miserable for me.”
With that, Braekhus shrugs off the memory of the press conference and turns her attention to outlining the intensive training programme she has been following as she prepares for what could be the most significant fight of her long career.
“It’s been crazy!” she says when I ask her about the photos I have seen on social media of her running through huge snow drifts near to her Big Bear training camp in the Californian mountains.
“There were a couple of days where there were storm blizzards. Trucks were driving in shuttles to clear snow away from the streets so cars could get on the roads.
“There’s been so much snow. The temperatures been down at like minus eight minus ten degrees. But, you know, it toughens you up.
“We’re out running every morning at 6. It’s tough but it really makes you focused. We’ve been running in high snow up here in the mountains. It’s definitely like a Rocky movie!”
Last year, prior to her loss to McCaskill, the pandemic trapped Braekhus at Big Bear for an extended period, a circumstance she points to when asked to explain a performance that was – by her own lofty standards – below par.
“We were a little bit off because I got stuck here for six months,” she says. “It was completely a crazy situation. It was just crazy being up here in the mountains for so long. Being so far away from my friends and family I think definitely that was pretty rough.
“But I still felt I won. There were five belts – it was for the undisputed championship – and I didn’t feel Jessica did what is required to take the throne.
“I know I’m a better boxer than Jessica. In the rematch I have to do what I always do and be me again.”
Braekhus emphasises that she will enter the rematch with a sense of reinvigoration and renewed motivation after having the opportunity to spend several months back in Norway prior to beginning her training camp.
“It was great,” she says. “I got to spend three months, almost four, at home. To see my friends and family and to see they were okay and to give them a hug and be home with everything around me which is familiar to me – that was really, really good.
“That’s given me a lot of strength to come back and get my titles. Win and everything will be where it should be. Everything will be right again and I will definitely represent the belts in a completely different way [to Jessica].
“I need to win and I have to do it in a way that everyone says: ‘that’s the real champion’. After the last fight I can’t believe Jessica had a good feeling because there were so many people that disputed her undisputed status.
“This time I have to go in and make a clear statement and that’s what I’m going to do and then we’ll see what the judges do.”
Ah yes, the judges!
With so many questionable decisions in boxing of late, and so much discussion of the fact that the American judges favoured McCaskill last time around (one scored it a draw, but the other two gave the fight to McCaskill), I have to ask Braekhus whether she will be nervous if the rematch goes to the cards.
“Last time we weren’t happy about the decision at all and people back in Norway weren’t happy,” she stresses. “But in the back of my mind is the fact I have a whole country behind me.
“That’s why I don’t have any problems going into Jessica’s home country having her have three American judges. I have a whole country behind me – I also have my record and my history behind me. That’s why I don’t need to talk trash about anyone either.”
Braekhus even hints that – if she regains her crown – she may stick around in boxing beyond her 40th birthday in search of further glory and further challenges.
“Right now, my full focus is on the rematch and we’ll see after that. Women’s boxing right now is just exploding – I’m really lucky to have been in this game for so long and to be a part of this.
“It would be hard to walk away from that right now if I have the chance to get some big fights.”
With her new no-nonsense mindset, and her clear desire to depose a woman she feels unworthy of the title of undisputed champion, only a brave man (or woman) would bet against the First Lady regaining her crown.
Main image: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.