Claressa Shields may have styled herself the ‘GWOAT’, but for this writer’s money the CV assembled by Cecilia Braekhus over the past 13 years takes some beating when it comes to assessing the greatest woman to ever lace up a pair of professional boxing gloves.
A Colombian-born orphan with adopted Norwegian parents, Braekhus ticks boxes for pugilistic accomplishments, out of the ring legacy and wider influence.
The Norwegian is the finest ambassador and role model the sport of boxing could ever wish for. Indeed, it’s impossible to dispute the fact that her nickname of the ‘First Lady’ of boxing is invariably worn with the stateswoman-like dignity it suggests.
The 38-year-old undisputed welterweight champion’s unbeaten record now extends to 36 fights, an incredible 26 of which have been world title fights, including 11 for the undisputed welterweight crown.
Remarkably, if she wins her next fight against Jessica McCaskill, Braekhus will surpass the great Joe Louis’ world leading mark of 25 for the most successful title defences in boxing history.
Braekhus’ response when Boxing Social asks her about the Louis landmark is indicative of her penchant for modesty and good grace.
“To be honest, I try not to think too much about it!” she says, sounding endearingly embarrassed. “I try to work on things which are right here, right now. If that should happen, well then we’ll have to have a huge celebration. It would be making history. I can’t really explain what I would feel about it because it would just be on another level.”
As well as her astonishing run of successful title fights, Braekhus has also had a transformative impact on boxing in her adopted home of Norway, having been a potent force in helping dismantle a ban on professional boxing in the Scandinavian country that stretched from 1981 until 2014.
“I had the first legal fight in Norway and it was a huge deal,” she recalls. “The [Norwegian] Prime Minister, Wladimir Klitschko and Michael Buffer were all there and we sold 10,000 tickets. It was just huge. The atmosphere and everything gave me goosebumps everywhere.”
Perhaps it’s the enforced lay-off due to the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, or perhaps it’s the fact that she is – slowly but surely – approaching 40, but Braekhus seems to be in something of a reflective mood as our conversation advances.
“It’s two different worlds when I started [pro boxing] compared to today,” she says when asked to assess the rapid growth of the women’s fight game. “To see women’s boxing taking these huge giant leaps forward is something that keeps me motivated. We’ve seen a lot of changes in the last years. It’s been amazing to be a part of that worldwide.”
In the short-term, Braekhus’ has her sights set on her promoter Matchroom’s mooted ‘Final Four’ tournament, which will see the Norwegian square off against McCaskill while Ireland’s Katie Taylor faces Puerto Rican Amanda Serrano, with the two winners then expected to face each other in an unofficial contest for the female P4P crown.
“This tournament is going to be big not because it’s women boxers and not because it’s new but because it involves four absolutely brilliant fighters who are going to meet each other in a mini tournament,” Braekhus enthuses. “It’s going to be great.”
Taylor’s status as a rival does not stop Braekhus from lavishly praising the Irish woman’s talents. “I like Katie very much. She’s a brilliant fighter and she’s very important for our sport.
“Outside the sport she is this calm, very polite person who is pushing the sport forward in a fantastic way. Inside the ring she’s hungry and she works really hard. I think she wants to prove she is the best.
“I love her boxing style. I do see something that I can use. Some flaws I can take advantage of if we are to meet. I enjoy watching her fight and I hope that we will meet somewhere down the line.”
Braekhus also stresses that she has the utmost respect for McCaskill. The duo were due to fight in Oxon Hill, Maryland, on April 17 before Covid-19 intervened and are now expected to face off in July or August.
“She’s not as polished as Katie Taylor,” Braekhus says. “She doesn’t have the same background as both me and Katie Taylor, who have been travelling the world and fighting everyone and everywhere as amateur boxers.
“But Jessica McCaskill is dangerous in another way – she’s a fighter. Anyone you put in front of her she will just try and go right through them and she will do that for all 10 rounds and she will never give up. We know that and that’s what we are preparing for. Of course, I don’t want to reveal all that we are working on but I think we should have a pretty good gameplan.”
It’s a gameplan that Braekhus is currently devising with trainer Abel Sanchez, whose services she engaged last year after a long spell working with Johnathon Banks.
Right now, Braekhus is training at altitude at Sanchez’s famed Big Bear training facility in California while she awaits confirmation of the date for her fight with McCaskill.
“It’s going good,” she says. “I’m just keeping my strength and conditioning up. We will start boxing training as soon as we get a date. Then we’ll try and get some sparring up here.
“I’m very well taken care of both by Abel and the whole team, the whole group of guys. It’s a completely different type of training to what I’ve been used to. Training up here in the thin air, it took me some time to get adjusted.
“I think I showed a little bit of what we’ve been working on in my last fight in Monaco against [Victoria Noelia] Bustos [in November 2019]. But, of course, after such a short time [working with Abel] it was not possible to make the biggest changes. But I think in my next fight it will really start to come together.
“I feel really comfortable with Abel in my corner. He’s a great trainer and he has so much experience. I know I can rely on him to take care of everything that’s going on. What he says in the corner is accurate and exactly what I need to hear.”
Although Braekhus suggests that a much-speculated catchweight showdown with Claressa Shields is unlikely (“it’s boxing so nothing is impossible, but right now I’m very focused on this mini tournament”), it is equally clear that she is far from finished with boxing yet.
“I love travelling the world, meeting new people, training with different teams, learning new stuff,” she admits. “I’m never done developing.”
It’s an approach and philosophy that marks Braekhus out as a truly global champion. While some title holders cling to the comfort of fighting at home, Braekhus has fought professionally in nine different countries throughout her career thus far, breaking down barriers and demolishing outdated preconceptions wherever she can.
“Being asked to fight in Russia to represent boxing at the [WBSS] tournament final [on the undercard of Aleksandr Usyk vs Murat Gassiev] was a big deal,” she points out. “That was special because women’s boxing is a little bit behind in Russia and there’s a bit of scepticism there.”
In her own quiet and unostentatious way, Braekhus also ensures that she uses her sporting fame for good, with a long-running commitment to charity work projects in Uganda.
“I think that started maybe 13 or 14 years ago,” she says. “Back in Norway, one of the people I was training with was a refugee from Uganda [named Richard Kiwanuka]. Boxing had helped him get a life. He’d been through some pretty heavy stuff.
“What he then did was go back to Uganda because he wanted to work there and help people by getting a school and children’s home started.
“He asked if I would join him. We travelled back and forth to Uganda a couple of times and I fell in love with the country. I opened the First Lady school in 2018. It has room for 600 pupils and it is an equal number of boys and girls. That was a huge deal for me to be part of that.
“Alongside the boxing, it is important for me to do something like this. Sport makes you incredibly egocentric – everything goes inward. So to be able to catch these feelings and work with projects like this gives me a lot of positive energy.”