The lady is a champ: Cecilia Braekhus interview
Luke G. Williams
Cecilia Braekhus isn’t just a unified champion, she played a huge role in getting a ban on pro boxing overturned in her homeland. Luke Williams talks to Norway’s ‘First Lady of Boxing’...
The Cecilia Braekhus story is inspiring and unlikely on several levels.
A Colombian-born orphan whose Norwegian adoptive parents have backed her all the way in her ring career, the 35-year-old has also found time to campaign successfully for the end of a ban on professional boxing in the Scandinavian nation she is proud to represent.
Undisputed welterweight world champion and now a pay-per-view headliner, Braekhus is an icon and trailblazer for young female boxers worldwide. Her professional CV is fast approaching legendary status; she boasts a perfect record of 31-0, and has headlined three huge fight cards in Norway in the past nine months, each of which have attracted five-figure live gates, including her most recent appearance against Erica Anabella Farias, in an outdoor event in her hometown of Bergen on 9 June.
Widely regarded as the pound-for-pound number one in women’s boxing, Braekhus is the only active boxer in the world — male or female — to hold the world title belts of all four major sanctioning bodies.
An impressive technician, with fast hands, excellent movement and the ability to deliver rapid combinations, Braekhus is also tough, something she demonstrated in December 2014 when she beat Jennifer Retzke despite fracturing her foot in three places in round three and limping through the remainder of the bout.
All things considered, Braekhus, billed as “First Lady of Boxing”, has a case to be considered the greatest female boxer ever. Yet when she was a child growing up in a country where professional boxing was banned, the idea that she might become a famous fighter bordered on the unthinkable.
Call it what you will — instinct, destiny or perhaps fate — but something drew the young Cecilia towards the sport, even though it meant initially hiding her interest in boxing from the parents who adopted her when she was two years old. “It was kind of random,” the charismatic Braekhus laughed over the phone. “I was 13 when I started with kick-boxing. I had tried everything — football, running, swimming, every sport — and I hadn’t quite found anything that I really wanted to do. Then I tried out kick-boxing and from day one I was hooked.
“I think maybe I had some kind of an idea from the beginning where I would end up. There was always something there. Even though everyone told me as a young girl that I could never do professional boxing for a living, I knew I could. Of course, it wasn’t considered a normal thing for a young girl to want to do.
“My parents had this vision of fighters being big, ugly and scary and of course they didn’t want their little girl to hang around people like that. For the first year I had to sneak out of my home to go training — we lived on the fifth floor so I would go down the fire escape to go and train.”
Eventually, Braekhus’ secret was discovered but she managed to win her parents’ approval. “They soon understood how much it meant to me,” she said. “They came to training, got the information they needed and realised that this was actually something very good for their daughter. Ever since then they’ve been my biggest fans.”
Indeed, her parents’ support was an underlying theme throughout our conversation.
“My parents always told me that I should and could do whatever I wanted to do,” Braekhus emphasised. “They always told me I was just as good as anyone else and that I should always follow my dreams. When I was small I was very physical and often getting injured, and they were so patient — it was probably like having a little boy for them.
“They always had the attitude that I should figure stuff out for myself — they supported my choices even though they’ve not always been the choices a girl might normally make. They’ve always supported me and told me ever since I was a little girl that the sky is the limit and I can do whatever I put my mind to.”
Yet although she enjoyed a stable upbringing, Braekhus has had to overcome significant obstacles.
After an accomplished kickboxing career that saw her become European and world champion, Braekhus fell in love with traditional boxing, winning a silver medal at the 2005 world amateur championships and gold at European level the same year.
At this stage, women’s boxing was not part of the Olympic programme, so she made the decision to join the pros, a gutsy move given the fact professional boxing was then illegal in Norway.
Braekhus had to move to Berlin to pursue her professional ambitions. Signed by the Sauerland brothers in 2007, the then 26-year-old found herself the only woman in an all-male environment.
“There were only males in the gym,” she said. “Male boxers, and all the trainers were male, too. I trained with guys, I sparred with guys. There was also the challenge of coming to a new country and culture and learning a new language.
“At that time Berlin was the heart of boxing in Europe. I learned everything about the sport inside and out of the ring — it was like going to school. Knowing that I had a family and friends supporting me in Norway gave me a sense of confidence while I was out in the world trying to make it.”
In 2009, in just her 11th pro fight, Braekhus won the vacant WBA and WBC welterweight titles. She added the WBO belt in 2010 and the IBF in 2014 after a unification showdown with Ivana Habazin. For over eight years now she has dominated her weight class, successfully defending her various titles 20 times. Along the way Braekhus, through a mixture of patient lobbying and success, became a force in helping dismantle the ban on professional boxing that stretched back to 1981.
“What people don’t know they are scared of, and people in Norway didn’t know about or understand boxing,” Braekhus said. “[Overturning the ban] was a huge job on so many different levels.
“One side of it was educating people about boxing. To do that the most important thing for me was to win fights and reach out to the Norwegian audience with my boxing.
“The other side, of course, was the political stuff — meetings with politicians, with the anti-doping programme, a lot of talks. It took many, many years. Overturning a law is a huge thing. There’s a lot of people involved. It was very interesting and I learnt a lot from the process.
“We were turned down many times before it finally happened. Some people didn’t have the stomach to go all the way, but luckily there were people who went with me on this and it finally went through. We definitely had some dark times, though, when we thought maybe we should give up, this is never going to happen.”
The lifting of the ban in the Norwegian parliament in December 2014, by 54 votes to 48, enabled Braekhus to compete as a professional in her home country after a peripatetic career fighting mainly in Germany and Denmark, with appearances in Switzerland, Belgium, Finland and Florida.
Braekhus’ homecoming contest in October 2016 saw her score a spectacular second-round stoppage in a rematch with French rival Anne Sophie Mathis, who had previously provided arguably the toughest test of her career.
It was a contest that attracted a huge television viewing audience in Norway, with Braekhus insisting that it be available on free-to-air TV, although her subsequent bouts have moved to pay per view.
“It was the first professional fight in Norway since 1981 so it had to be on free TV,” she said. “I couldn’t have asked for any more — my first fight in Norway and I won by knockout. We also had Michael Buffer and Wladimir Klitschko there. Of course, I would love to have everything on free TV, but it’s really expensive to put on a big boxing show. You have to be realistic about how to finance your career and a huge show with 10,000 spectators, and unfortunately right now pay per view is the only way to go.”
Klitschko’s presence at ringside was a direct result of Braekhus’ move from Sauerland to K2 Promotions, a decision she made during her injury lay-off after the Retzke fight.
“It was the right time,” she explained. “I had the injury and I wanted something new. I wanted to take my career to Norway and take myself to a new level. So I did what I’ve always done — I moved on. I’d gone from kick-boxing to amateur boxing, from amateur boxing to professional boxing, so I left the Sauerlands and took charge of my own career.
“I hired Johnathon Banks as my new coach and got a new physical team here in Norway. Today I feel like a new boxer and it’s a whole new chapter in my career. My boxing style is different, I have professional people working on my health and conditioning. I have more power behind my shots, I’m more aggressive and I’m definitely hurting my opponents much
“Johnathon has given me the confidence to know I can go out there and hurt girls. Before, I didn’t see myself as that type of boxer, I just saw myself as a technical boxer. My ability is getting better and my shots are getting harder. I’m learning all the time.
“I love Johnathon and Wladimir so much. From day one they just treated me like a boxer, a fighter — the ‘girl thing’ was never an issue. And that’s the only thing any female boxer could ever dream of.”
Another interested spectator at the Mathis bout was the Norwegian Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, who was photographed alongside Braekhus in the ring after the fight.
“That was a very big deal,” Braekhus said. “Her support means so much. In Norway the people who are against boxing, there aren’t so many of them now, but they are very loud and they can be a little bit nasty sometimes.
“The Prime Minister had the balls — even though she’s a woman! — to go out and say: ‘This is a great sports achievement.’ She’s a tough, tough woman.”
Braekhus is highly conscious of the fact that — like Solberg — she is a hero and role model for many young girls and women. It’s a responsibility she takes seriously.
“Being a role model is very important,” she said. “Right now I’m organising a boxing camp for girls in Norway for this summer. Unfortunately, even though I have made it, it’s still hard for girls to be boxers in Norway.
“I want to try and do something about that — I want to tell girls what my parents told me: They can do whatever they set their minds to.”
The best of Braekhus
Five fights that have helped define the women’s pound-for-pound number one, plus one that got away and one that may still happen.
14 March 2009 vs Vinni Skovgaard: Braekhus becomes WBC and WBA world welterweight champion in her 11th fight
“It was huge. There were a big group of Norwegians following me and I was one of the country’s only female fighters. This fight was at a point where female boxing might stay or go. My career was also at stake — if I lost I might as well have packed my bags and gone back to Norway. So there was a lot of stuff in play. She was a very strong opponent, she had been a European champion as an amateur and had been one of the best amateur boxers out there. We had many hard fights [as amateurs]. She was very tough.”
22 September 2012 vs Anne Sophie Mathis: Braekhus retains her WBA, WBC and WBO titles after a hard-fought bout, winning 97-93 on all three judges’ cards
“I don’t know if it was the toughest fight of my career but it was definitely one of them. She [Mathis] had knocked out Holly Holm in a very brutal way [KO7 in December 2011]. Basically she had knocked out everybody she had met. She was huge and very dangerous. Everybody said that I wouldn’t beat her. So it wasn’t only the fight that was memorable but the fact that I was the kind of underdog. That was one of my big moments.”
13 April 2013 vs Mia St John: Braekhus retains her WBA, WBC and WBO titles by TKO after three rounds
“Mia was a huge icon. What can I say? I have so much respect for her and she’s a lovely woman, but I should have fought her earlier when she was at the top of her form. I think maybe it was a bit late for her to fight me.”
29 November 2014 vs Jennifer Retzke: Braekhus retains her WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO titles by unanimous decision (100-90, 98-92, 100-90) despite suffering a broken foot
“It hurt and it was painful, but the body is such a clever thing — it kind of numbs you to the pain with adrenaline. If someone had told me during the fight that I had broken my foot maybe I would have fallen down right away — but no one told me. I thought I just had a sprain or something. So, mentally, it wasn’t a big deal. I thought I would be up and walking again in a couple of days and then I found out it was broken. One of the fascinating things is the mental part — your body can go so far, it’s only the head that stops you!”
1 October 2016 vs Anne Sophie Mathis: Braekhus retains her WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO titles by TKO2 in her first pro fight in Norway
“It exceeded everything I imagined. Normally when you work so hard to reach a goal and then you achieve it, there’s kind of a sense of anti-climax. Fighting for the first time in Norway was everything I’d dreamt of and more.”
On a proposed fight vs Holly Holm, which fell through after the US southpaw moved to MMA
“That was a big disappointment. I think the biggest disappointment was that we were negotiating for a long time. We were very close. I’d told the media how close we were. Then she called a press conference and said she was going to MMA.”
On a proposed contest vs MMA superstar Cris “Cyborg” Justino
“Absolutely. If she wants to do it, I’m ready. Cyborg vs the number one female pound-for-pound boxer, and then [Mayweather vs McGregor] on the undercard [laughs]. That would be spectacular. It would be an adventure. It would be so much fun.”