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Dublin: 2°C Monday 12 April 2021

Shields and Hammer get ball rolling for women's superfights, and Taylor's big nights should follow

After 15-odd years in the wilderness, women’s professional boxing is about to explode.

Claressa Shields (L) and Christina Hammer (R) will square off in a battle of undefeated middleweight world champions this spring.
Claressa Shields (L) and Christina Hammer (R) will square off in a battle of undefeated middleweight world champions this spring.

WOMEN’S PRO BOXING enjoyed a brief heyday in the early- to mid-’00s only to fall on its sword.

The cause of its collapse was straightforward: boxing’s female protagonists didn’t capitalise on their highly marketable rivalries.

Laila Ali, daughter of Muhammad Ali, retired undefeated without fighting her ready-made arch-enemy Anne Wolfe; Lucia Rijker of the Netherlands, too, bowed out without having squared off with Christy Martin, the American who was perceived by many as the godmother of female pro boxing’s brief dalliance with mainstream acclaim.

In 2003, Martin wound up facing Ali who was 10 years younger, five-and-a-half inches taller and generally campaigned four divisions north of light-welterweight where Martin had made her name. The highest-profile bout in women’s boxing history unsurprisingly wound up amounting to no more than a four-round blowout in Ali’s favour.

Imago 20001016 Laila Ali, one of the original 'stars' of women's pro boxing, never fought her rival Anne Wolfe. Both women blame each other for the fight not happening. Source: Imago/PA Images

The sport retreated to the relative abyss soon afterwards. One of the few potential stars to emerge in its’ pioneers wake, Holly Holm, won world titles as a boxer but was only afforded the opportunity to come good on that potential stardom in the sport of MMA, where she turned the heads of the sporting world by spectacularly halting Ronda Rousey’s UFC reign in November 2015.

It would be another year before women’s pro boxing received its long-awaited shot in the arm, an influx of high-performance-trained Olympic talents — Ireland’s Katie Taylor included — bolstering its ranks and, through their conspicuous pugilistic ability, lending to the sport unprecedented credibility.

The female fight game has since exploded, moving from off-Broadway to the big show. It is suddenly rare for a major professional boxing bill not to contain at least one women’s fight.

Female boxers including IBF and WBA lightweight champion Taylor, are fighting in major co-main events and headlining more minor cards; they’re fighting in prominent live TV slots and putting bums in seats.

There is serious momentum behind what is less a social movement, more a belated cognisance on behalf of boxing promoters and TV executives that women — if you can even believe it — are capable of generating interest and revenue, too; that women’s boxing — and just bear with me, here — could in time amalgamate with its male equivalent into something called ‘boxing’.

BOXING 2018 - Heather Hardy Defeats Shelly Vincent by Unanimous Decision for the WBO Female Featherweight Championship Heather Hardy and Shelly Vincent played out a thriller live on HBO last October. Source: Joel Plummer

This writer has previously mused in more detail that the sport’s female leads must avoid at all costs the fate that befell their predecessors 15-or-so years ago — the same type of bollocksology which for a decade rotted the male half of the sweet science from the inside until a massive recent TV reshuffle and resurgence.

It’s complicated in practice but simple in theory: the best must fight the best.

And that’s why 13 April is a watershed moment for the female code.

A two-time Olympic gold medalist and unified professional world champion in two divisions versus a 24-fight unbeaten fellow world champion at middleweight; all of the belts — WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO as well as The Ring middleweight championship — up for grabs; a headline TV slot on Showtime, and in advance of the bout, a first-ever Showtime All Access preview documentary for a female fight; a platform on which women’s pro boxing will, for the first time in its existence, become the focal point of the fight weekend.

A superfight at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall: Claressa Shields of America versus Christina Hammer of Germany, the winner of whom will become the undisputed World middleweight champion — and only the second-ever unquestioned queen in any division after reigning World welterweight champ Cecilia Braekhus of Norway.

Shields Hammer Boxing Claressa Shields squares off with Christina Hammer in Atlantic City. Source: Bebeto Matthews

“I just think for women’s boxing, it’s one of those superfights that we never had happen,” said Flint, Michigan native Shields during the first press conference in Manhattan on Tuesday.

This is the Laila Ali versus Ann Wolfe. This is the Lucia Rijker versus Christy Martin. We’ve never had that in women’s boxing, so for this to be the first, this is great.

“And then, we’re from two different parts of the world, which makes the fight even better.”

Added Hammer, a German émigrée from Kazakhstan who resides in Dortmund:

I think this fight is the real deal and will be the game-changer for women’s boxing. It will inspire a lot of women’s boxing, a lot of women and female athletes who want to live your dream and fight for that.

In its essence, Shields-Hammer does change the game as a standalone event. It is being sold as the biggest women’s fight of all time and while in a sport where such claims should be taken with a cholesterol-raising dose of salt, this one stands to reason.

However, the hope — and indeed the likely reality — is that this calendar year alone will see it usurped.

Shields Hammer Boxing The winner of Shields v Hammer will become the undisputed World middleweight champion, and only the second undisputed champion in women's pro boxing history. Source: Bebeto Matthews

Ireland’s own Taylor has work to do against Rose Volante in a world-title unification clash in March, but victory will pave the way for a career-defining sequence of fights.

On paper, a clash with long-term rival Delfine Persoon for all the belts at lightweight is a better scrap than Shields-Hammer, and while on the topic of paper, it’s worth more dosh to each of them. But given it would likely take place as the co-main event to Anthony Joshua versus ‘Big Baby’ Miller at Madison Square Garden on 1 June, it would be disingenuous to describe it as ‘bigger’.

Were Taylor to win that one, however, and become the undisputed World lightweight champion, her own American headline slot would beckon. Seven-weight world champion Amanda Serrano, one of the few fighters to genuinely draw Taylor’s ire, has been pencilled in for an autumn clash provided the Bray woman wins out until then.

Taylor-Serrano would take place at the 5,000-capacity Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden per The42′s understanding, and while Serrano is an adopted New Yorker, anyone who has experienced Michael Conlan grace the same stage over the last two St Patrick’s weekends can testify to the fact that the Puerto Rican’s Irish equivalents will paint the Big-Apple venue green when the time comes.

Theirs is a prospective fight which would be worth somewhere in the region of half a million dollars to Taylor, the clear A-side, while Serrano would pocket a sizeable six-figure sum somewhere south of that.

This would be Taylor’s first bona fide superfight in that it would be a main event, and one which would command significant attention on either side of the Atlantic.

Boxing 2018 - Katie Taylor Defeats Eva Wahlstrom by Unanimous Decision Katie Taylor swarms Eva Wahlstrom in New York. Source: Joel Plummer

Another would likely follow soon afterwards provided she had her hand raised against Serrano, the formidable puncher whose sister she vanquished in Boston last October.

The aforementioned Cecilia Braekhus, who holds all the chips at welterweight, has previously indicated to The42 that she is willing to face Taylor a division below her own — or a division above from Taylor’s perspective.

While nobody — particularly Taylor herself — is overlooking Volante, Persoon or indeed Serrano a little bit further down the line, all three fights have been pencilled in with the ambition of cleaning out the lightweight division and establishing Taylor as the consensus pound-for-pound number one.

In this position, a fight with fellow pound-for-pound contender Braekhus becomes not only the biggest fight in the history of women’s boxing, but a landmark occasion in boxing full-stop. Never before in the modern era have two undisputed champions — male or female — traded leather, and never before has a female fighter commanded anything close to the seven-figure purse that Taylor’s team believe they can obtain for what remains, for now, a hypothetical clash of boxing’s First Ladies.

Of course, barring catastrophe, what is no longer hypothetical is April’s showdown between Shields and Hammer, who are set to become the first ladies to engage in a fight of such a calibre that it will truly elevate female boxing’s standing. (Touch wood: they were originally scheduled to meet last November only for Hammer to withdraw for medical reasons).

It will be a tough act to follow for the victor given the lack of options at 160 pounds compared to Taylor’s possible foes between 130 and 147, but it will contribute massively to the evolution of their craft.

So much so that should Holly Holm return to the ring to face Taylor at the end of her current UFC contract as expected — this, again, on the provision that Taylor herself wins an unforgiving series of marquee fights — she’ll likely find a sport thriving to the extent that it is unrecognisable from the one she departed in search of better opportunities years ago.

Bernard Jackman joins Murray Kinsella and Gavan Casey to discuss the backlash to World Rugby’s league proposal, captaincy styles, sports psychology and more in The42 Rugby Weekly.

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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