Mark Baldwin looks at Saturday night’s high-profile WBA bantamweight title clash between Watford’s Shannon Courtenay and charismatic Australian Ebanie Bridges, whose artful self-promotion has stolen the limelight and earned an unlikely world title shot.
World titles have long since lost their true meaning. They should mean everything, but in reality, they mean very little, at least in comparison to what they once did.
Belts are seemingly constantly multiplying in numbers; it’s almost deemed mandatory for any fight, regardless of its place on a major card, to have some title on the line to justify it being there.
Sanctioning fees always come in handy to those who are supposed to care about the sport. A promoter often needs a world title tag to convince, some would even say con, the public to buy their PPV or watch their product in this age of views over credibility.
Savannah Marshall, a world champion in every sense of the world and maybe even the best female boxer on the planet, has been relegated to a less than supporting role this weekend. Marshall has struggled to find an opponent and be seen in equal measure. All the headlines have been largely reserved for another world title fight on Saturday night’s Matchroom card.
Shannon Courtenay and Australian Ebanie Bridges are fighting for the vacant WBA bantamweight championship of the world. Neither fighter warrants a shot at a vacant world title at this stage of their careers, based on their current ranking. They are ranked at No.8 and No.9 respectively by the WBA, why have higher-ranked fighters been overlooked or avoided? Rankings, like titles, should mean something.
A vacant title should be contested by the two highest-ranked available contenders. Another Australian, Shannon O’Connell sits at the top of the WBA rankings. O’Connell has told me she wasn’t asked if she was available. Were any of the other fighters ranked above Courtenay and Bridges? If not, why not?
A Commonwealth title fight would be a better fit for Courtenay and Bridges, but some other fighters would even disagree with that. Is either fighter even the best in their country? Maybe, but it’s by no means proven. A world title has come before domestic dominance is achieved.
But politics in boxing are nothing new and the world title will mean everything to Courtenay and Bridges, and no blame can be laid at their door. Neither fighter has to justify their right to challenge for a world title, that should be reserved to those who promote and sanction the fight as being worthy. The fighters are often innocent victims of their sport.
Bridges has quite brilliantly promoted herself over the past year or so; some criticise her methods, they could instead learn from them. Courtenay has the right connections; you don’t have to be that cynical to understand why they are fighting for a vacant title on Saturday night. This is a world title fight of convenience.
As a fight, Courtenay vs Bridges has its merits; it brings eyes, and plenty of them, to the sport and for women’s boxing, a still fledgling sport, it delivers in many ways. There is real animosity between the two fighters, and the fight will almost certainly justify the hype around it.
Some try to label it as some kind of WWE ‘bra and panties’ type of freakshow, an embarrassment to boxing, it is anything but. For clicks, the same predictable, tiresome and lazy questions repeatedly get asked, a narrative that takes away from the fight itself. Media outlets have their responsibilities also, everything in boxing evolves around one thing.
Looking at Courtenay when she had the world title belt in her hands in the excellent behind the scenes footage that Matchroom constantly produce, says everything that it means to her. What decisions are taken elsewhere, Courtenay will not care; win and she will quite rightly call herself and feel like a world champion. The victory won’t mean any less to Courtenay.
Behind all the pre-fight Bridges banter, lies a fighter through and through. The Australian has big plans; superstar status will be achieved with a victory, she believes. A win for either will be life-changing, a loss will be a bitter pill, equally life-altering.
Each woman has overcome plenty in their lives and deserves credit for doing so. Both at one time had little hope or future, there are certain similarities in their stories. They have reached this point by a different road, but Courtenay and Bridges are really not that much different.
We are still in that new beginning phase for women’s boxing and, despite the cynicism around it being for a vacant world title, it can still take their sport forward. Regardless of the criticism of the world title tag, it is a fight of much importance.
The division will get started again, other challengers will eventually receive their opportunities and, over time, the world title will carry more meaning than it will on Saturday night. It has to start somewhere. Those who lie in wait will need a little patience; hopefully, that patience will be rewarded.
For Bridges, it is her moment of truth, there are plenty of words already written in advance about her demise, those critics waiting with glee to publish their preconceived thoughts. The unknown quantity has it all to prove where it matters. The long odds say victory looks remote, but spend any time in her company, you start to believe. Bridges is very believable.
She has her critics, Courtenay included, but she is the primary reason people are talking about the fight. Without Bridges, it becomes less of an attraction. If, as the bookies predict, Courtenay wins, she will become a much bigger name than she would have been fighting anyone else. Courtenay might have a lot to thank Bridges for in the months ahead.
Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.