The stock of women’s boxing has been rising rapidly over the past few years, spearheaded by the emergence of gifted athletes building a global appeal. Ireland’s Katie Taylor and America’s Claressa Shields have been the two names leading the charge, both with Olympic-gold pedigree, large online followings (in excess and close to 1 million combined), and an unquestionable desire to be the best.
Earlier this year, Katie Taylor headlined an unprecedented fight against Amanda Serrano at a sold-out Madison Square Garden in New York. On Saturday (October 15), it was Claressa Shields’ turn to play the trailblazer for the sport as she sold out London’s O2 Arena in a headline fight against bitter rival Savannah Marshall on a card that was entirely devoted to women’s boxing. Selling 20,000 tickets is no easy feat, with most male boxers unlikely to get close to a sell-out in a stadium of that size, offering a true reflection of how much momentum women’s boxing finds itself with.
The fans bought tickets in the absence of male fighters and in the knowledge of shortened contests, with two fewer rounds on offer per fight and only two-minute rounds being fought, rather than three-minute contests seen in men’s boxing. Instead, the card offered real fights of interest, attracted new fans to the sport, and produced one of the fights of the year, regardless of gender. In reality, women’s boxing has come a long way in a short period of time.
In the UK alone, the British Boxing Board of Control (BBBC) had refused female boxing licenses until 1998, with the first sanctioned fight in November 1998. Its position in the Olympic Games program was also only first secured for the 2012 London games. That, in particular, really progressed women’s involvement in the sport at the top level, with many of these early gold-medal-winning athletes now at the forefront of the professional ranks.
Claressa Shields is the now self-proclaimed ‘GWOAT’ (Greatest Woman of All Time), and she began with Olympic success at both the 2012 and 2016 games, while Lauren Price has been another name rising through the ranks since her 2021 success in Tokyo and featured on the Shields-Marshall undercard at the weekend. Olympic success has thrust many male fighters into the limelight in the past, with Olympic champions such as Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, and Anthony Joshua having enjoyed heightened popularity from the very start of their professional journeys. Female boxers are now also enjoying the same type of acclaim.
Women’s boxing is also not falling into the same traps as we are continuously seeing in the men’s side of the sport. Fans have long been left frustrated by the lack of ‘big’ fights that have not materialized, with failed negotiations between rival promoters an all too regular feature of the sport. Unfulfilled hope for an all-British dust-up between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua was another recent prime example of how fans are being deprived of the most sought-after fights. These barriers seem barely to exist in women’s boxing, however, as the best pound-for-pound fighters seek to unify weight divisions and fight against the best level of opponent available to them.
Saturday night was another example of this, with Claressa Shields fighting the only opponent to have ever defeated her (once in the amateurs), with both fighters going into the bout with undefeated professional records and all middleweight titles on the line.
The night’s co-main event saw Mikaela Mayer lose her undefeated record to another top-ten pound-for-pound fighter, Alycia Baumgardner, in a fight that had all belts except for the WBA on the line. The cards being offered to fans are stacked with the biggest names in the sport, something that again can rarely be said about men’s cards, on which the quality of fights is regularly diminished below the headline bout.
Boxing as a sport in general has been plastered with negative stories and headlines of late. Positive drug test results are a long-term issue in the sport and only earlier this month deprived fans of a much-anticipated fight between Conor Benn and Chris Eubank Jr, with the former testing positive for Clomifene. The issue of drugs in the women’s side of the sport has been far less of an issue, giving a more positive and cleaner image.
The credibility and integrity of the sport have also been a long-term issues, with judges’ scorecards often being at the center of controversy. This has been a real issue at the Olympics in the past, and the sport is in serious danger of losing its place on the Olympic program beyond Paris in 2024. Indeed, it has has already been left out of the initial Olympic program for Los Angeles in 2028, with the International Boxing Association (IBA) currently required to meet the IOC’s reform criteria.
Women’s boxing is unable to rid itself of this, mainly because of the personal and subjective nature of scoring fights – as was proven in the Baumgardner-Mayer fight on Saturday, in which TV experts disagreed with the former being declared the winner, while the result was also met with audible boos from the crowd at the O2 Arena. Removing boxing from the Olympic program after 2024 could prove detrimental to the progress of the sport, particularly for women, for whom Olympic success has offered fighters a global platform to build their profile on and carry momentum into their professional careers in the sport.
Regardless of what the future of the sport looks like without Olympic inclusion, women’s boxing is clearly riding a wave of popular appeal that needs to be capitalized on. Saturday night’s first all-female televised fight card in the UK offers a glimpse into how big the sport can grow to be. The Shields-Marshall fight alone has only enhanced the interest in the pair’s ongoing rivalry, while its coverage on a major broadcaster has helped showcase the sport to new audiences.
The quality of the fight, mixed in with the historical rivalry between the two fighters has grabbed wider interest from international fans of the sport and a quick rematch, potentially in the States, seems like a must for all involved to ride on the back of Saturday night’s success. The greater the level of exposure afforded these fighters, the greater the commercial interest will grow across the sport, as brands will find female athletes they can champion and who embody positive attributes with which they want to be affiliated.
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