The rise of women’s boxing in 2020

IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks back on a year where women’s boxing shed off its reputation as a supporting act to become a headline performer.

If there was a positive development in this difficult year it was that women’s boxing really came into its own. More than in any year that I can remember, it seemed that the women were involved not just in exciting fights but ones that could engage the boxing public.

We had probably the most anticipated women’s rematch ever when Katie Taylor defeated Delfine Persoon in August. Many felt that Taylor was fortunate to get the decision over Persoon at Madison Square Garden in June 2019. This was a fight that needed to happen again, which it did on one of Matchroom’s outdoor summer shows on the company’s grounds at Brentwood, Essex.

Taylor cemented her superstar status with a repeat win over rival Persoon.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

As before, lightweight champion Taylor was under fierce pressure as the 35-year-old Belgian fighter practically charged into her, fists flying. But Ireland’s undefeated Olympic gold medallist produced the crisper, cleaner punching. 

After eight rounds, it seemed the fight was finely balanced but Taylor, 34, dug down and produced her best round of the fight in the ninth, completely outboxing and outfighting Persoon. Both women showed the marks of battle, with Persoon swollen under the right eye and cut under the left eye, while Taylor suffered a welt on the forehead from a clash of heads. It was probably the women’s fight of the year.

Rachel Ball was one of the year’s success stories in women’s boxing. The slender southpaw edged out British rival Shannon Courtenay in a rousing eight-rounder on the Matchroom Fight Camp series, then easily defeated Argentina’s Jorgelina Guanini to win an interim championship at 122 pounds. Guanini came in three-and-a-half pounds over the division limit but that didn’t bother Ball as the 29-year-old from the Midlands gave her opponent a boxing lesson. With her height, reach and southpaw style, Ball looks hard to beat at 122 pounds.

Ball (right) enjoyed a breakthrough year, starting with an upset win over Courtenay.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

And let’s give Courtenay some credit. Down in the first round against Ball, Courtenay came back so strongly that there wasn’t much in it at the final bell. Then, trimmed down to bantamweight, the Hertfordshire 27-year-old lived up to her “Baby Faced Assassin” tag when beating up Poland’s game but outgunned Dorota Norek for a seventh-round TKO. Courtenay is surely one of the best punchers at any weight in women’s boxing and she makes for exciting fights.

The popular Courtenay regrouped with a stoppage of Pole Norek.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

Talking of exciting fights, 130-pounders Terri Harper and Natasha Jones staged a 10-round battle that held the attention for every second of every round. Rather unkindly written off after her shocking KO defeat against Viviane Obenauf two years ago, Liverpool southpaw Jonas showed she still has plenty to offer at the age of 36 by battling Yorkshire’s 23-year-old Harper to a draw. Harper was a 1/10 favourite but Jonas made a mockery of the odds. The women’s rematch I’d most like to see in 2021 would be Jonas vs Harper II.

Harper (left) and Jonas (right) drew in one of the fights of the year.
Photo: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.

And on the topic of rematches, how about a return fight between Jessica McCaskill and Cecilia Braekhus? McCaskill waged a gritty, hard-working working fight to upset Braekhus by majority decision in Oklahoma in August to win the welterweight title. It was the upset of the year in women’s boxing. 

Norway’s “First Lady of Boxing” had won 36 bouts in a row but the Chicago challenger had her tactics spot-on, crowding Braekhus and not giving the more experienced champion the room to utilise her boxing skills to the fullest. It was quite a performance from McCaskill in only her 11th contest. Braekhus feels she wasn’t at her best and will put things right in a rematch, but Cecilia is now 39. Braekhus was a 1/6 favourite but the odds would be much closer should the two women meet again.

McCaskill (right) deposed the legendary Braekus (left) in August.
Photo: Ed Mulholland/Matchroom Boxing USA.

Claressa Shields calls herself the greatest woman boxer of all time and maybe she has a point after two Olympic gold medals and world pro titles at 154, 160 and 168 pounds. But Shields plans to enter the MMA arena in 2021 although she will continue to box. She has a ready-made challenger at middleweight in her old amateur rival, County Durham’s Savannah Marshall, who boxed smoothly and punched with real authority in stopping Scotland’s Hannah Rankin — who went the full 10 rounds with Shields.

Shields has dominated in boxing and hopes to replicate that success in MMA.
Photo: Showtime.

There are many good women boxers out there.

US Olympic representative Mikaela Mayer progressed nicely in 2020, winning a championship at 130 pounds and taking her record to 14-0. Mayer, 30, is tall for the weight, with solid textbook skills.

American star Mayer won her first championship in 2020.
Photo: Mikey Williams/Top Rank.

I really like Seniesa Estrada, the unbeaten 28-year-old from Los Angeles who boxes at 108 pounds. Estrada is skilled and hits hard and I don’t think she would mind me saying that she has a mean streak when in the ring. She likes to hurt her opponents, which is just fine for a pro boxer. Unfortunately, through no fault of her own, Estrada was involved in the women’s mismatch of the year when she speedily bombed out a novice-like 42-year-old from Kansas named Miranda Adkins.  It was all over in seven seconds.

The stiff-punching Estrada fights with ‘bad intentions’.
Photo: Hogan Photos/Golden Boy.

And Amanda Serrano, the Puerto Rican southpaw who lives in Brooklyn, is another woman boxer who really brings it. Serrano, 32, is quite an amazing woman who has won titles in multiple weight divisions, from 115 to 135 pounds. Her only loss came eight years ago in Sweden. A match between Serrano and Katie Taylor has been mooted. For me, that would come into the category of a women’s superfight. 

A bout between the decorated Serrano and Taylor would be regarded as a superfight.

And there’s more. Eddie Hearn has just signed a new female fighter, Hyun Mi Choi, a champion at 130 pounds who is unbeaten in 19 bouts. Born in North Korea, Choi moved south and calls herself “Defector Girl Boxer”. Choi won a hard-earned decision over Colombian veteran Calista Silgado on last weekend’s GGG undercard in Florida. That fight got quite tough for Choi, who doesn’t have the greatest defence in the world. But Choi’s pressure-fighting style means that the 30-year-old will be involved in some entertaining match-ups.

And then we have Maiva Hamadouche, the French 31-year-old with an all-action style. Hamadouche is a 130-pound dynamo whose relentless aggression breaks down opponents, as we saw when she swept over Serbia’s game and defiant Nina Pavlovic in eight rounds in Milan last week.

A fight between Hamadouche and Choi would likely be an absolute war. Neither woman likes to give way. The term punch-for-punch would surely apply.

So, as 2020 winds down, let’s hear it for the women, whose skill, will and fighting spirit provided some of the year’s best action while giving us much to look forward to in the year ahead.

Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.