Cecilia Braekhus putting belts on the line in HBO's first women's boxing match

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist

A boxer who has a perfect record, 21 consecutive title defenses and recognition as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world almost owns a license to print money.

Unless, sadly, that boxer happens to be a woman. Then, particularly if she wants to box in the U.S., it’s a massive struggle.

That’s the plight facing Cecilia Braekhus, widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound woman in the world. Braekhus, who is 32-0 with nine knockouts and is 22-0 in championship matches, will defend her IBF-WBA-WBC-WBO welterweight titles Saturday at the StubHub Center in Carson, California, against former middleweight champion Kali Reis.

It’s the first time in the 45 years that it has televised boxing that HBO will put on a women’s fight. And while that has gotten a lot of attention in the build-up to the show, which features Gennady Golovkin against Vanes Martirosyan in the main event, it’s not right.

HBO shouldn’t be commended for finally putting women boxers on its air; the question that HBO Sports executive vice president Peter Nelson and his compatriots should face is, “What took you so long?”

But HBO isn’t alone. Women’s boxing hasn’t been a priority in the U.S. for many promoters, and they certainly don’t get pushed the way their male counterparts do.

As a result, it’s a self-fulfilling prophesy. Promoters will say they don’t highlight women’s boxers because people don’t watch, but if you don’t give them visibility and promotion, how can people watch?

Cecilia Braekhus (32-0, 9 KOs) will make HBO history when she faces former middleweight champion Kali Reis (13-6-1) on Saturday at the StubHub Center in Carson, California. (Getty Images)

Braekhus, who was born in Colombia but lived most of her life in Norway, has heard the question repeatedly this week about women’s boxing and can’t come up with a good answer.

“Outside of America in Europe, Norway, Germany, all over Europe, there are girls selling out arenas and being put on television,” she said. “It’s doing well in Latin America, Japan, it’s all over the world that female boxing has become very popular. Why it isn’t catching on in the U.S., I really don’t have an answer for that.

“It’s funny, because the U.S. is normally the one who sets the trends and the rest of the world kind of follows. In this case, it’s the complete opposite.”

There are a number of women, including Braekhus, who could help to change that. Katie Taylor, a 2012 Olympic gold medalist, improved her record to 10-0 last week when she won the IBF lightweight title and added it to her WBA championship.

Claressa Shields, the only American to win back-to-back Olympic gold medals, has won a super middleweight championship and will fight for the middleweight title in June.

A fight between Shields and Braekhus would garner massive attention and could be the bout to finally push women’s boxing to the mainstream in the U.S. It’s a fight that Braekhus, who has held a welterweight belt since 2009, is open to accepting. She also mentioned interest in boxing UFC women’s featherweight champion Cris “Cyborg” Justino.

“[Cyborg] really wants that fight. She’s on me all the time. She wants that fight. She wants the female version of the [Floyd] Mayweather-[Conor] McGregor thing.”

Cecilia Braekhus celebrates after her Welterweight World Championship fight against Chris Namus at Gerry Weber Stadium on February 27, 2016 in Halle, Germany. (Getty Images)

There are plenty of options for Braekhus down the road. But first, she must take care of business against Reis and then worry about what’s next.

There is considerable pressure on Braekhus, because it’s as if she’ll be carrying the flag for women’s boxing. But she’s only carrying the flag for herself and not the sport at large. No one would say Golovkin is carrying the flag for male boxing in the fight with Martirosyan.

But if Braekhus wins impressively on Saturday, it could lead to far more women’s fights appearing on TV in the U.S., and in far more prominent positions.

“All I can say is, it’s about time,” Braekhus said.

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