By Cliff Rold
After she won her second gold medal last summer, big questions hovered over American Claressa Shields. Would she turn pro? If she did, would it be the boost for her sport her talent merits?
To say that women’s boxing in the US has struggled for attention would be a gross understatement. Since the retirement of Laila Ali, it’s barely registered outside of a tight niche circle inside of a niche sport. The women’s game has done better in other countries with popular fighters in Germany and more regular air in places like Mexico.
In the US, its lack of market presence sent Holly Holm to MMA.
Holm ended up okay.
What of those who want to ply their trade in their initial trade?
Shields represented a figure that could perhaps galvanize the market. Her debut, on the HBO pay-per-view undercard of Sergey Kovalev-Andre Ward, was a positive sign. Still, Shields is yet a professional novice. What about someone already at the top of their professional game?
Showtime is answering that call this Saturday. Headlining the Showtime Extreme broadcast (7 PM EST) of the James DeGale-Badou Jack undercard, Brooklyn’s Amanda Serrano (30-1-1, 23 KO) is getting a chance to shine. She’s been on US television before but this is her best platform to date. A win could garner consideration for a spot on a regular Showtime broadcast down the road.
If she does, it will be a positive for her and for the sport.
How good is Serrano?
She’s a four-division titlist who currently holds belts at both featherweight and Jr. featherweight. Her road to four titles has seen her take an unusual road, jumping all over the scale. Typically, we see fighters conquer a weight class and then move up to the next until they find their ceiling. The 28-year old Serrano’s path saw her win an IBF 130 lb. title in 2011 before losing at attempt at the WBC crown in the weight in 2012, her only professional loss.
In 2014, she won a WBO title at 135 lbs. and then gradually move all the way back to 126 for another WBO strap. She defended it once and then moved down another four pounds for the WBO belt at 122 in her last fight, part of a 4-0 campaign in 2016.
Her accomplishments are only one element. She also has a TV friendly style. An aggressive southpaw with power and a ferocious body attack, the Puerto Rican born Serrano has real star quality. Now all she has to do is win.
Across the ring, she has a capable opponent. Mexico’s 28-year old Yazmin Rivas (35-9-1, 10 KO) is no stranger to accolades or tough competition. Rivas has been the WBA champion at Jr. bantamweight and held IBF and WBC titlist at bantamweight with nine successful defenses between the two reigns. Her record is misleading. Since July 2014, she is 14-2-1 with her losses coming via split and technical decision.
This isn’t just a chance for Serrano to shine. It’s a chance for a real fight to break out and elevate two names unfamiliar to large parts of the regular US boxing audience.
It’s a fitting place for this fight to air. Showtime was a big part of popularizing women’s boxing a generation ago. Christy Martin became a star fighting on the undercards of Mike Tyson. That stardom never burned as bright as male counterparts but it got her the cover of Sports Illustrated and ultimately made plenty of the women around her more money than they would have otherwise.
This is an interesting time in boxing. The sport’s popularity in the US is down overall but it has more shows available to fans than at any time in its history. Between English and Spanish language networks and promoter driven streams domestically and overseas, there is a ton of boxing available. That makes for a crowded marketplace and puts a premium on something that uniquely delivers. Showtime is making a smart gamble on a fighter who might fit that mold.
If there is a parallel in the current boxing market, it is HBO’s foray lower on the scale than is their norm. After years of hardcore clamoring, HBO found a place for thrilling Nicaraguan flyweight Roman Gonzalez in 2015. Gonzalez is now preparing for his fifth HBO or HBO PPV appearance in a row and headlined his own show in 2016.
They could have maintained the status quo and few would have noticed. They took a chance on something different and have delivered quality to their viewers. The same can happen here. Gonzalez hasn’t meant a wave of flyweight shows on HBO and Serrano probably won’t lead to the men being pushed off the air on Showtime. Shields won’t either. That doesn’t mean there can’t be a stronger place for women with the right stars to build around and there might not be a better time to make this move.
Combat audiences, male and female alike, have proven they’ll tune in.
We’ve all seen the rise of women’s MMA. Professional wrestling fans have seen performers in that genre rise to be able to headline shows over men in the last year. Those fan bases were happy to see it and have come back for more.
Boxing, wrestling, and MMA are all distinct from each other (two as legitimate sports, one as athletic theatre) but they share common roots and act as kissing cousins of a sort. What can be done in one can often be mimicked in another.
The most recent issue of Ring Magazine featured our Tom Gerbasi’s list of the top ten women boxers in the world, pound for pound. He lists Serrano only tenth. After Saturday night, wouldn’t it be nice if fans were so impressed that they were left asking, “Wow, so who are the nine fighters better than her?”
It’s a start.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]