Undisputed welterweight champion Jessica McCaskill has been fighting against the odds her whole life and career. How did she and manager/trainer Rick Ramos conquer the female boxing world? Boxing Social’s Luke G. Williams speaks to the Chicago-based duo and explores the making of an unusual and inspiring champion…
In the immediate aftermath of her historic August victory against hitherto unbeaten pound-for-pound queen Cecilia Braekhus, an emotional and elated Jessica McCaskill spoke memorably in front of the television cameras:
“This is for the fourth-grade homeless Jessica,” she declared, her voice breaking in the face of a tsunami of of emotion which momentarily threatened to engulf her. “This is for the little girl that just didn’t care what people thought about her, and learned to love herself even though she was really weird.
“And [it’s] for the ‘me’ now that sacrifices everything to put this sport first and make a difference. That’s what that fight was about.”
Speaking to Boxing Social via video call a few days after the fight, McCaskill’s elation and emotion had subsided somewhat, but the steely determination that has driven her to the peak of female boxing was still on display.
Sat on the ring apron at the Body Shot Boxing Club in Chicago alongside her long-time trainer/manager Rick Ramos, the St. Louis, Missouri-born pugilist seemed a woman at peace with herself and what she had achieved – a woman who somehow sensed all along that winning the undisputed championship of the world was pre-ordained.
“I feel great,” she smiled. “It’s been very busy this week. I’ve been trying to get back into my normal routine. I’ve had a lot of interviews. It’s been kind of non-stop but in a different kind of way.
“But I feel very normal at the same time. I asked Rick a couple of days after the fight, ‘Do you feel different?’ And he was like, ‘no’. And I was like, ‘I don’t either but I don’t know whether I should!’
“Maybe it’s because this was something we had expectations for and we weren’t surprised by the win. It was what we were aiming for. Maybe that’s why we feel normal.”
McCaskill made a convincing case that the fight – which she won via majority decision scores of 97-94, 97-93 and 95-95 – had played out pretty much how she and Ramos had planned all along.
“There were a lot of things in the fight that we trained for,” she explained. “Like some of the inside punches when you would see me come with a right uppercut right in the middle.
“I knew she [Braekhus] would hold but I wasn’t expecting it to be to let her have a rest. I thought it would be a hold to stop me from punching. She just kind of had my arms around me and was resting.
“When we clinch here at the gym, if for some reason we get tangled up, we’re always looking for the next punch every second. There’s no time to rest. So I feel like I was very prepared for a lot of things that she brought. The first minute of the round I was gauging how she was going to approach the fight. I saw her coming right at me and I thought: ‘Okay, let’s go!’
“It was probably the fastest I’ve ever started in a fight. I usually take a couple of rounds to warm up. I tried to push that pace throughout the entire fight.”
Ramos shares McCaskill’s sense of satisfaction and vindication.
“It felt really great,” the amiable 43-year-old declared with a grin. “I knew I was up against two [future] Hall of Famers, right? [Trainer] Abel Sanchez in her corner and Cecilia herself. I kind of feel like there was maybe a sense of entitlement with them [going into the fight].
“Jess and our thinking was: we need to beat two Hall of Famers to be in the Hall of Fame so let’s just go get ‘em. It wasn’t really personal for me against Abel but then it was. I mean I love him and his work but this was a win I needed to get underneath my belt. It was an honour to be across the ring from both of them.”
The Ramos-McCaskill connection extends back seven years to the days when McCaskill was a newcomer to Chicago, having moved to the ‘Windy City’ in December 2012 to work in investment banking for R.J. O’Brien and Associates as a regulatory reporting analyst.
“It took me about nine months to find this gym,” McCaskill recalled. “I already had a couple of amateur fights under my belt and I was looking for a gym to continue.
“While I was looking, I worked out in my office. I found Rick on Instagram. He posted that he was promoting an all-female show. I was like – ‘That’s the card I need to be on!’
“Everyone I had contacted before that hadn’t emailed me back or, if I walked in, they’d told me: ‘This is an MMA gym’ or ‘We don’t hit people here’ and that wasn’t going to work for me! Rick was the only one that said: ‘Show up’. I came down the next day and it just worked from there. Everything that he said would happen, did happen. I was never let down so I stayed.”
Ramos added: “Obviously, at the beginning, I didn’t know anything about Jessica. I knew she had had like a couple of amateur fights. But then I get crazy emails every day saying, ‘I want to be the next world champion!’ I always say, ‘Yeah? Come on in!’ A month or two passes, they never show up and you forget all about them.
“So when I got the email from Jessica I thought, ‘Yeah, I’m probably never gonna hear from her again’. But she came in the next day when I told her to. She hung out. We spoke about what we expect and what her background was and stuff. I said, ‘Okay, come tomorrow and I’ll put you in with some girls for some sparring’.
“I had a girl here at the gym who was decent and in her first session Jessica dropped her with a body shot. I could see right away that she was aggressive and strong.”
McCaskill’s toughness and determination were born out of the adversity of a tough upbringing, free of frills and luxuries.
Alongside her brother, McCaskill was raised by her great-aunt Christine in St. Louis. After Christine divorced, the tight family unit fell on hard times. Money was virtually non-existent and, at one point, they were thrown out of their home and ended up living in the back room of a church.
A move to Belleville, Illinois, followed, as did better times, and McCaskill worked hard through high school and college. Indeed, she defines herself as a “worker bee” and credits Christine, who she calls ‘mom’, as the source of her fierce pride and determination to succeed.
“I saw my mom do it over the years,” she explained. “Even when we were homeless, I would see her get up in the morning. She didn’t have work to go to but she would still get up and put her make up on and make coffee. She kept a regimen and a schedule.
“I didn’t know why she was doing it at the time but it was a mental thing. She was preparing herself, putting herself in the right frame of mind. Telling herself, I still have a job to do. I get a lot of my motivation from her. I’m a worker. That’s how I’ve always been.”
McCaskill’s account of her daily schedule reinforces her point.
“A typical Monday? I’m up at 3.30am in the morning. I get myself ready. I have two rescue pitbulls at home so I have to make sure they’re taken care of before I leave the house.
“I go to strength and conditioning at 4.45am for about an hour then I come here to Body Shot. I’m able to work remotely under the current circumstances. I log in at about 6am. By this time, the girls I train with are coming to the gym for a second workout.
“I work [my job] from about 6am until 3pm. Somewhere in there I’ll get an extra work-out in myself – maybe running at lunchtime. After that, the girls come back for a third workout at about 3.30pm. I’m then around to pitch in and make sure the classes at the gym run smoothly or I might do some personal training with some clients.
“I make it home at about 7 o’clock. Bedtime is 9.30pm. Then I get up and we do it again. It helps me to have a tight schedule. I don’t like to sit around thinking about it – I like to be go, go, go.”
The words ‘holiday’ and ‘break’ barely figure in McCaskill’s vocabulary. After beating Braekhus her ‘holiday’ extended to one day.
“I had a great breakfast and chilled out a little bit. But I like to work and be active so I didn’t want to take too much time off,” she said.
Boxing came late into McCaskill’s life, but she has always been a keen competitor. “I’ve always been a part of some kind of sport growing up. Whether it was cheerleading, basketball or softball when I was younger all the way up to high school.
“I didn’t start boxing until my mid-20s, so I’ve only been boxing for about 12 years or something like that. I started out by just walking into a gym and taking a class. I didn’t have any other outlet at that time which gave me an opportunity to compete or give my athleticism a chance to thrive. I jumped into it.
“The big tests everyone talks about is the first time you get hit. Well, the first time I got hit I thought, ‘That wasn’t too bad, now it’s my turn!’ I’ve loved the sport ever since.”
McCaskill lost her second pro fight to debutant Katonya Fisher and her seventh – a world title challenge – against Katie Taylor, but insists these setbacks merely fuelled her desire to succeed.
“In my amateur career, I saw the lack of love and passion for the sport that some of the girls I fought had. They gave up so easily. I knew that wasn’t me. Rick told me after my first loss, ‘This is a great opportunity – to learn how to deal with a loss when you’re in the public eye and have supporters’.
“We still got a lot of love and support and, from there, I just kept going. I didn’t want anything to stop me. I fought people at higher levels, I gained levels myself and it turned out to all be good.”
As well as her accomplishments and formidable work ethic, Ramos points out McCaskill is also distinguished by her lack of ego and willingness to muck in with everyone else at the Body Shot.
“We’re in the gym all the time, whether it’s working on the next project or working with other fighters. Jessica was holding the mitts yesterday for other fighters,” he said. “I know she made history but it’s not just about Jessica or me or the next person. It’s a team effort.”
Largely under the media radar, Ramos has built something special at the Body Shot. He is, to an extent, an overnight sensation that has been years in the making.
“A lot of people think I’m new to the sport, but I’m not. I’m new to this level, obviously, but I’ve had a gym for 14 years. I partnered up with someone 14 years ago. We were partners for six years. We had different methods and ideas so I went my own way. I’ve had my own gym for eight years now and I’ve done things the way I want to do them. I’ve been very successful on my own.
“At the beginning, I had to believe in my ideas and stick with them,” said Ramos. “I’ve been in the boxing game since I was 12. I fought. I’m now 43 so I’ve been around a long time. It’s been a long ride. I’m happy with it. And now at this high level I don’t feel out of place.
“I feel like I belong at this level and, obviously, Jessica does, too. I feel like a lot of my ideas and strategies are working. These other guys aren’t smarter than me. It’s taken me 14 years to get here so I don’t plan to go backwards, that’s for sure.”
The Braekhus win has ensured that McCaskill and Ramos has been subjected to increased mainstream media interest, as well as excited attention on the streets of Chicago.
“I was getting goofy emails before and I’m getting even more now,” Ramos laughed. “Everybody wants to turn pro now even if they haven’t thrown a punch before! The win has definitely put us on the map. We were out today shopping and people were saying: ‘Hey, is that you Jess and your trainer?’
“People have been stopping both of us and taking photos and stuff. It’s definitely improved our popularity but it’s also solidified our credibility. And I’d rather have credibility than popularity. I also think it solidifies our position in Chicago, for sure. I’m pretty proud about that.”
McCaskill has also enjoyed the attention her achievement was garnered, and is particularly proud of the fact that her fairy-tale rise from homeless child to world champion boxer has served to inspire many, particularly among the younger generations.
“[Providing an inspiration and being a role model] is probably one of my favourite things,” she said. “To see the ‘wow’ in a kid’s eyes when they ask me a question is great. The idea that I can help people get through things or inspire them to keep trying and fighting is definitely one of my favourite things to do and have a platform for.”
The challenges for McCaskill will now come thick and fast. Braekhus has invoked her contractual right to a rematch. Win that and a second showdown with Katie Taylor could be on offer. “We’re the spoilers,” Ramos laughs. “We want to spoil another unbeaten record.”
However, an eventual exit strategy from the ring is also in the back of the duo’s minds.
“From a business perspective, a Katie Taylor fight is a must, financially and for the public,” Ramos said. “That fight would sell itself. A rematch with Braekhus also makes sense – we owe her an opportunity. In a perfect scenario, we beat both. We’ll see what happens. There’s also [Claressa] Shields and Amanda Serrano.
“After that, Jessica can come and work on this side. Sign fighters with me, train fighters. We have other fighters coming up like Summer Lynn, who is just 19 years old and is a beast. There’s options.”
And with that McCaskill and Ramos are gone.
Back to what they do best… working, grafting, and always looking forward.
Main image: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.