Fellow champions Rose Volante and Delfine Persoon won't fight Katie Taylor despite receiving huge offers. Bryan Keane/INPHO

Taylor paying price for changing the game, but the best must start fighting the best in women's boxing

The female fight game is on the rise, but it will flatline if the fights aren’t right. Currently, two fellow champions are pricing themselves out of a scrap with Katie Taylor.

IN TWO SEPARATE RECENT interviews, Heather Hardy and Mikaela Mayer — opponents in the 2011 Olympic qualifiers whose paths then diverged — succinctly summed up women’s professional boxing and where it currently stands.

Per her own admission, Hardy is a graduate of female pro boxing’s “old school”: No real amateur pedigree, no major sponsorships — she worked her way through boxing but she got to where she wanted eventually.

Speaking to Michael Woods on the TALKBOX podcast having days prior fulfilled her dream of becoming a world champion, the 36-year-old was asked about the HBO broadcast team — who were calling their second ever women’s fight — comparing both her and her opponent Shelly Vincent to one Muhammad Ali.

“I think they said that because of seeing people come from nothing to something,” Hardy told Woods. “Not so much the boxing technique or the skills, but just that you had two fighters in there who came from nothing and made it to Madison Square Garden.

We made it to HBO. We weren’t Olympians; we weren’t girls who spent summers in fancy boxing camps; we were girls from the street who came up and made our way and earned our spots there. And that’s something he likely would have been proud of.

BOXING 2018 - Heather Hardy Defeats Shelly Vincent by Unanimous Decision for the WBO Female Featherweight Championship Heather Hardy is crowned the WBO World featherweight champion in The Theater at Madison Square Garden. Joel Plummer Joel Plummer

“Today, I got to pay my daughter’s tuition off for the next year,” Hardy continued. “And nothing feels as good as that — to know that I did it all by myself. There’s a lot of little victories this week. I’m having a happy week.

“So we’re good ’til 10th grade, Annie!”

Mayer, 28, is decidedly new-school.

She beat Hardy in the aforementioned Olympic qualifier in 2011 but missed out on the London Games, eventually qualifying for Rio where she fought for the USA under Billy Walsh’s tutelage. She was subsequently signed by Bob Arum and Top Rank Promotions, and was fighting on TV after a handful of pro bouts.

Hardy is by no means the past, but Mayer and her ilk are certainly the future.

In a chat with Ariel Helwani on ESPN, she said: “Honestly, there was a lot of female fighters but not all of them were ESPN-worthy. Not all of them were worthy of getting signed by these major promoters. The talent level wasn’t always there.

“And people want to argue that, ‘Oh, we haven’t gotten the attention.’ But not everybody deserves that spotlight.

The talent pool is a lot deeper now. These girls coming into the pros have actual skill. These girls coming into the pros have had over 150 amateur fights — I had almost 150 amateur fights. The girls that were pro back in the day didn’t have that.

“That’s why I can go up against girls who are 20-0 now, and still look way crisper and more skilled than them — because I have so much background and experience in the amateurs.”

Rio Olympic Games 2016 - Preview Day Three Mikaela Mayer has long been earmarked as a future opponent for Katie Taylor, and has expressed a willingness to face the Irishwoman 'when the time is right.' SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

You can chalk this down now and come back to me at the end of 2019 if it turns out I’m wrong: in the next year, we’re going to see an all-women’s professional boxing card. It will take place Stateside, naturally — probably in New York, Boston at a push.

It will be broadcast live on Showtime or ESPN+ or DAZN in America, and perhaps even on Sky Sports in Ireland and the UK, Katie Taylor’s involvement pending.

Boxing’s ‘First Lady’, the current undisputed welterweight world champion Cecilia Braekhus, will likely be on the bill. Two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-weight world champion Claressa Shields might well feature, too. Six-weight (or most likely seven-weight, by then) world champion Amanda Serrano could get a run-out if it’s shown on DAZN, as could Chicago’s 140-pound world champ Jessica McCaskill.

On paper, it will read as a landmark occasion for women’s boxing, and almost nobody will find it weird; what’s instead become weird extremely quickly is for a boxing card to not feature at least one female fight, and so an all-female card strikes as the natural progression.

Granted, what this writer sees as an inevitability, someone else might describe as the fanciful creation of some sort of lefty loon: What next? Ring card boys in cowboy hats strutting their stuff between rounds? Pah!

They’ll probably be there as well, actually, yeah. So giddy-up, lads.

Katie Taylor in action against Eva Wahlstrom In terms of both fighters' pedigree, Katie Taylor vs Eva Wahlstrom was the biggest women's fight of 2018. Bigger tests hopefully lie in wait for Taylor. Tom Hogan / INPHO Tom Hogan / INPHO / INPHO

Women’s pro boxing is on the cusp of a major breakthrough. Promoters, broadcasters and the media are finally beginning to play ball: Eddie Hearn has a potentially transatlantically transcendent star on his hands in Katie Taylor, and he knows it; HBO broke the seal in 2018 by showing their first three ever live women’s fights (including Hardy v Vincent) after over 40 years in the boxing business, bidding an emotional farewell to the sport with a female-headlined bill earlier this month; the Boxing Writers Association of America (BWAA) has for the last two years anointed a ‘Female Fighter of the Year’ alongside its prestigious male version of the award, and in June unveiled its inaugural female pound-for-pound top 10. This is but the tip of the iceberg.

The UFC has since soiled its pants at the dinner table, but when fresh it taught boxing two worthwhile lessons:

Number one: Female fighters can generate revenue.

Number two: The best must fight the best — at least some of the time.

To the first point: Eddie Hearn — described by his own father, Barry, as “a mercenary bastard” in Taylor’s documentary Katie — is indeed a massive fan of Katie Taylor’s as he claims to be. But he is not a feminist or an advocate for women’s rights. He is not doing the Irish icon a favour by promoting her, nor is he championing Taylor at every opportunity — or signing her potential opponents to promotional contracts in order to tie them down for future marquee fights — for the good of his health.

He intends to earn money, not lose it. He is cultivating an industry, and Taylor is the star beneath whose light he intends to nurture it.

In the States, the unapologetic, self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Woman of All Time’ Claressa Shields is blazing a trail in her own way — and to significant success — while the aforementioned Mayer is sure to flourish once she makes the step up to world-title contention and more challenging contests.

O2 Arena Boxing Under Eddie Hearn's Matchroom banner, Taylor has become the highest-earning female boxer on the planet. Nick Potts Nick Potts

Which brings us onto the second point: if women’s boxing is to continue on its recent upward trajectory, the fights need to be competitive or at least interesting on paper.

Apart from being ‘new-school’ and creating a buzz upon their arrival in the punch-for-pay ranks, Taylor, Shields and Mayer share another common trait: they have each pretty much waltzed their way through 29 combined professional opponents, and each of them will attempt to step up significantly in the new year.

It remains to be seen if top-echelon opponents will agree to dance or if the sport will trip itself up, but women’s pro boxing now finds itself at a crucial juncture.

For years, the men’s game waned in popularity as alphabet champions avoided alphabet champions, big names avoided big names and promoters took fans for a ride. Quite simply, there were not enough high-profile, good fights.

Eventually, consumers took their money and attention elsewhere, causing boxing to flatline to the point that it was literally pronounced dead by naysayers at every opportunity.

Boxing 2018: WBO World Title Jose Benavidez vs Terence Crawford OCT 13 SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

Promoters were forced into action, and the last couple of years — while scarcely perfect — has seen a recovery across the board as well as a seismic shift in the TV landscape: streaming service DAZN, intent on breaking into the American market, identified the rising sport of boxing as a means of entry and signed a billion-dollar broadcast deal with Eddie Hearn and Matchroom before tying the sport’s biggest star, Canelo Alvarez, to a $365m contract — the biggest ever for an individual athlete provided Alvarez sees through his 11 alotted fights; ESPN, which returned to the sport as recently as last August, took only 12 months to extend their partnership with Top Rank for a further seven years; in September, Fox Sports signed a four-year, multi-platform agreement with Al Haymon and his Premier Boxing Champions fight card series, while earlier this month in the UK market, ITV joined Sky Sports and BT Sport in becoming a major player in boxing for the next three years at least.

All of which should be great news for the women’s game: in the current climate, there are opportunities aplenty to fight on television where previously these opportunities either didn’t exist or were withheld from female fighters — and it was typically the latter: TV slots are precious to both promoters and TV executives, and are generally assigned to fighters who either generate plenty of dosh or strike as having the potential to do so in future. For years, in a sport run by dinosaurs, female boxers did neither.

The time for them to do so is now, but if what gets televised is to be a revolution for women’s pro boxing, then what’s required is evolution. The sport must not fall into the same trap as that which snared its male counterpart for so long. There must be fewer never-ending Mexican standoffs between promoters, champions, challengers, and ‘big names’. There must be more good fights.

Because there haven’t been many, in truth — not ‘superfights’, at least.

We nearly had one this year. One. Claressa Shields versus Christina Hammer, Germany’s unbeaten two-weight world champion who withdrew from the fight due to an illness.

Heather Hardy and Shelly Vincent did their bit for the cause in a cracking rematch live on HBO, but what should have been the biggest night of the year saw undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus defend her four world titles against the unheralded Aleksandra Magdziak Lopes, who had drawn and lost two of her last four fights. Magdziak Lopes was game and, to be fair, wasn’t the first choice of opponent, but making that fight for a headline slot on HBO was nothing short of a cardinal sin.

Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports Awards 2017 - Los Angeles Claressa Shields is leading the women's boxing resurgence in the States. SIPA USA / PA Images SIPA USA / PA Images / PA Images

In fairness, many of the potentially big fights in women’s boxing need be left breathe so that when they do happen, they break into mainstream consciousness. But not all of them.

If you were to momentarily peruse the BWAA’s inaugural women’s pound-for-pound list, you’d see that six of the top 10 fighters are of a weight that they could conceivably fight Katie Taylor — including all of the top three. However, a quick glance at their records will show you that these six women have been around for a long time and yet only two of them — Layla McCarter and Jelena Mrdjenovich — have ever fought each other. Why?

For the most part, the answer is that in a profession as dangerous and unreliable as prizefighting, big fights are generally big risks, and big risks deserve big rewards. Until this recent cultural shift, promoters haven’t cared about women’s boxing, and those rewards simply haven’t been put on the table for its protagonists, so why take the risk?

One of the predominant causes of that shift, Katie Taylor, is already by far the highest-earning female boxer on the planet even without yet having landed the fights that will define her career.

Her team would rather keep the exact sums to themselves for now, but what we can say is that she has been pocketing six figures per fight since she defended her WBA lightweight title against Jessica McCaskill last December, and that figure has increased substantially per fight in her four title defences since.

2018 has been a seven-figure year for the 32-year-old, and if you’re imagining the seven-figure bare minimum, think a bit higher.

But there’s further cause for Taylor’s team not to divulge her exact earnings in the ring: she brings to the table new-school money. This has inadvertently created a bubble whereby the financial demands of her prospective opponents are beginning to cause major difficulties, even for a promoter with pockets as deep as Eddie Hearn’s.

Katie Taylor with Eddie Hearn Katie Taylor wants big fights in 2019, but her opponents want to make hay while the sun is shining. Emily Harney / INPHO Emily Harney / INPHO / INPHO

Already, each of Taylor’s 12 opponents has earned a career-highest purse, some of them earning more to face Taylor than they had for their previous fights combined.

Now, with Taylor aiming to unify the lightweight division, her fellow champions at lightweight — two from the ‘old school’ in WBO beltholder Rose Volante and WBC queen Delfine Persoon — have Taylor where they want her: The Bray woman needs their belts to achieve her goal of becoming the undisputed lightweight champion, and they don’t appear to be particularly arsed about getting their hands on hers.

Belgium’s Persoon laid it bare in a brief chat with Irish boxing scribe Kevin Byrne last week: “If Taylor wants to unify all the world lightweight titles, she must get past me first.”

Bizarrely, Persoon’s team then offered Taylor €130,000 to face their woman, to which Taylor’s manager Brian Peters responded publicly: “Katie wouldn’t get out of bed for that.” Taylor herself might have put it more delicately (in truth, she’d probably fight for free), but the fact of the matter is she moved on from that type of purse in late 2017.

Persoon’s team have since turned down a fee larger than the €130,000 which they offered to Taylor, which begs a few questions, most of them rhetorical.

Meanwhile, Volante’s team in Brazil have rebuffed a similar offer from Peters and Hearn — one which would see her earn almost 15 times more than she has in any previous fight.

Putting rewards on the table is only half the battle.

Taylor Wahlstrom Boxing Taylor may have to park her unification dream in 2019. Frank Franklin II Frank Franklin II

There are two ways of looking at this: On the one hand, how can you call yourself a ‘world champion’ while seemingly showing such little interest in pitting yourself against the best in your business?

On the other hand, this is quite literally business, and these are real human beings with real families for whom this prospective payday will likely never come around again. They’re being offered a lot of money, sure, but it’s hard to blame them for holding out for as high a sum as possible while they hold at least some of the chips.

Still, one can only hope they don’t overplay their hand and miss the boat.

Peters and Hearn are adamant that they will bend to a point but will not break; they have already shown a willingness to pay thousands over the odds but share the belief that to give in to ransom would ‘upset the balance of nature’ in and around the lightweight division, i.e. cause the future demands of bigger-name opponents — Amanda Serrano and Cecilia Braekhus to name but two — to skyrocket toward farcical numbers.

As such, Taylor’s manager and promoter are prepared to move Taylor off the unification path, or at least park that dream for now.

Alternative options are already being explored for her fight in Philadelphia on the Friday of Patrick’s weekend. One of them is Heather Hardy, perpetually linked to Taylor given her significant profile, warrior mentality and Irish heritage.

Katie Taylor Press Conference - Dublin Brian Peters said last week that Katie Taylor 'wouldn't get out of bed' for Team Persoon's €130,000 offer. Niall Carson Niall Carson

Taylor-Hardy could transpire to be a fan-friendly fight, sure, but it’s hard to see who really wins in that situation. Not Hardy, with the greatest respect to the Brooklynite who is a phenomenal ambassador not only for her sport, but for women everywhere. The money would make a substantial difference to her family, at least.

Not Volante or Persoon, who will miss out on a once-in-a-career payday, lose credibility and probably find themselves banished to the ‘who needs them’ club.

Not Taylor, who just wants to fight, and whose eventual legacy doesn’t depend on becoming an undisputed champ but would certainly be bolstered by her doing so.

And not women’s boxing, which will see two big fights go cold — Taylor versus the long-reigning WBC champ and pound-for-pound contender Persoon in particular — in a year where it should really be striking while the iron is hot.

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