SAN DIEGO, March 10, 2017 – Might women’s professional boxing finally have more than a moment in the U.S.?
Although women’s boxing enjoys popularity along with their male counterparts in Mexico, Germany, and even in Great Britain where women fight in the main event on a regular basis, seeing professional women’s bouts on television is still a rare occasion in the United States.
It’s so rare, Friday night’s main event featuring two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields of Flint, Michigan (1-0) facing Szilvia Szabados (15-8, 6 KOs) of Hungary is the first women’s boxing match to headline on premium television. The fight airs on Showtime’s series “ShoBox: The Next Generation” from the new MGM Grand Detroit at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT.
The 21-year-old didn’t think she would get to fight in a main event until perhaps the end of the year after a few more bouts, and certainly not in front of hometown fans to a sold-out arena. But Shields is taking all the attention right in stride. “I’m embracing all of this. I grew up and heard when I was young that women can’t fight. I’m ready to show everyone just how wrong that is on Friday night,” said Shields.
Many American fans can name Laila Ali; a smaller number can name Christy Martin. Ironically, more know boxer Holly Holm thanks to her MMA victory over Ronda Rousey.
But thanks to interest in Shields based on her Olympic experience, her talent, and her inspiring personal story, fans have the chance to learn about other successful women’s boxers with athletic talent plus fan appeal such as Cecelia Braekhus of Norway, Erica Farias of Argentina, Katie Taylor of Great Britain, Amanda and Cindy Serrano of Puerto Rico, American Heather Hardy, and Christina Hammer of Germany, another undefeated middleweight originally from Kazakhstan and a likely eventual opponent for Shields.
Jill Diamond, co-chair of the women’s division and international secretary of the World Boxing Council (WBC), says Americans are coming a little late to the party but she’s glad to finally see it happening. “Boxing is a global sport … In Mexico, in Germany, you see women boxing in the main event. They don’t distinguish between men and women … Once the fight starts, you become blind to the gender.”
“As the older generation is moving out, the younger generation is less likely to label by gender. The networks in the U.S. are finally putting women boxers on TV. It shows people the women are more skilled now. They are getting more time in the gym with better trainers,” said Diamond.
Diamond makes it clear skills have improved with greater access to training at the highest levels of the sport which was previously unavailable. “It’s not that they (previous women’s professional boxers) were less talented. Now, there are more trainers willing to work with them and take them seriously. Now that they are on TV, they can get some marketing and acknowledgment.”
Shields respects the pioneers in her sport, but she does not emulate them. “I know about Laila Ali, and Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker, and I don’t box like any of them,” said Shields. “I have my own unique style. I’ve never seen a female fighter like myself. I want to carry the sport.
“The boxers I like and study are Sugar Ray Robinson, Joe Louis and Floyd Mayweather. Those are my favorites. And you can even throw Sugar Ray Leonard in there, too,” added Shields.
To have any professional boxer in a main event after just one professional fight is unprecedented, whether male or female. It is an enormous victory. But Diamond says there is still a long way to go, and no matter how supportive sanctioning organizations are, it’s up to the promoters and television networks to give fans a chance to watch the women on American television.
“We’ve been dedicated to this at the WBC. We can put on the fights. But it’s up to the promoters and the TV networks. The more people who see them, they will not distinguish between men’s and women’s boxing. There will just be good and bad boxing,” said Diamond.
Diamond points to promoter Lou DiBella and Showtime executive vice president and general manager Stephen Espinoza as the “two most assertive” supporters for airing women’s boxing on American television. Not only is the exposure critical, televised events make more money – and without it, women boxers won’t earn enough to make boxing a full-time job like their male counterparts.
“The money must be there to sustain the sport,” explained Diamond. “They won’t make it without American television. Most don’t make enough money to do it full-time. So they have to be smart enough to work at two jobs.”
Women have made breakthroughs in tennis, where athletes like Serena Williams draw crowds and have used their leverage to fight for pay equity with male players. The U.S. women’s national soccer team filed a wage discrimination lawsuit with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging team members are illegally underpaid compared to their male counterparts by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
“Women approach it (boxing) with the spirit of an amateur athlete. They are more passionate because it’s about so much more than the purse,” said Diamond. “The next step is being able to dedicate themselves to the gym full time and make a living. We at the WBC can hold our conventions, and even help a little with money. But we can’t put them on TV.”
Although she’s boxed just four professional rounds compared to her opponent’s 23 professional fights and 134 rounds, Shields is still favored in the six round bout. She is supremely confident, saying Szabados is in over her head. “I’m going to be aggressive. I’m not going to be nervous and I’m not going to freeze up. I’m going to go right out there and hit her in the face with a right hand,” declared Shields.
But Szabados should not be underestimated. She is a former world title challenger, and she is not coming all the way to Detroit from Hungary to lose. Shields showed a few nerves in her professional debut against her former amateur rival Franchon Crews, who lost the decision but impressed many observers with her aggression and skills.
Tuning in to be part of a little bit of boxing history is nice and all, but you should tune in Friday to see one of the new generation’s best boxers and America’s greatest ever Olympic boxing champion. “They’re not going to see female athletes. They’re going to see good athletes,” said Diamond. “I want to see good matches, even matches. The ones on TV are going to be better … There are many talented women out there.”
Shobox: The New Generation, Shields vs. Szabados airs Friday, March 10, at 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT on Showtime.
Gayle Lynn Falkenthal, APR, is President/Owner of the Falcon Valley Group in San Diego, California. She is also a serious boxing fan covering the Sweet Science for Communities. Read more Ringside Seat in Communities Digital News. Follow Gayle on Facebook and on Twitter @PRProSanDiego.
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