By Thomas Gerbasi

After spearheading the charge to bring professional boxing back to Norway and then delivering a second round knockout in front of a packed arena in that first fight since the sport was banned over 30 years ago, one must wonder, what does Cecilia Braekhus do for an encore?

Well, first, she returns to The Spectrum in Oslo this Friday, where there will be another 10,000 fans in attendance to watch the undisputed welterweight champion defend her belts against Sweden’s Klara Svensson. And if there’s an emotional letdown after last October’s win over Anne Sophie Mathis, the “First Lady” isn’t showing it.

“It’s still a big deal,” she said. “I have a mandatory who is very hungry, of course. And we also have sold 10,000 tickets and have a lot of people who want to see this fight. It will also be live broadcasted in Sweden, where she is from. Norway and Sweden are neighbors and they have this relationship where we are always competing, so the temperature is very, very high.”

Braekhus does admit that the pressure is a little less prevalent than it was before the Mathis fight, which saw pro boxing back in a nation that had banned it in 1981. Bergen’s Braekhus, who made her name and won her titles fighting all around Europe, led the fight to get the sport legalized again, and when it was, there was no question who would headline the first event. But in doing so, she also attracted detractors who were looking for any reason to say, “This is why we don’t have this sport here.”

On fight night, though, everything went off without a hitch, and the hometown favorite capped the festivities off with a second-round finish of Mathis.

“The last time there was a huge amount of pressure,” she said. “Of course it’s still a big, big thing coming up, but that kind of pressure is not there now. I also had an opponent (Mathis) in the other corner that could knock you almost senseless (Laughs), so that’s also something I don’t have now. So it’s a little bit more relaxed, I would say.”

Malmo’s Svensson, 17-1, is no joke, with a recent win over Mikaela Lauren propelling her into this fight, but she definitely doesn’t have the stopping power of Mathis. Yet the impression is there that the 35-year-old Braekhus wouldn’t be bothered by any opponent at this point, given the growing chemistry she has with coach Johnathan Banks, who saw the champ through her wins over Mathis and Chris Namus. And Braekhus says we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

“Wait until this fight,” she said. “My boxing will be totally different. It takes time to change your style, and normally at my age, I’m not supposed to be able to do it. But we have slowly turned everything around and now it’s really clicking. Even when I see myself in sparring, I almost don’t believe it.”

What truly impresses Braekhus is that he is gender-blind when it comes to what happens in the gym and the ring. As far as the protégé of the late Emanuel Steward sees it, you can fight or you can’t.

“Johnathon is really easy to work with and he doesn’t care if it’s a woman or a man boxing; he loves boxing,” Braekhus said. “That attitude of if it’s a woman or a man is so old and outdated and, if you ask me, it’s unintelligent. I can’t be bothered with that anymore. It’s so boring. For Johnathon, and Wladimir (Klitschko) also, boxing is boxing. Either you’re a good boxer or a horrible boxer; it has nothing to do with gender. We know exactly what we want to do together – we want to make the best possible fighter and we are willing to put in the work, so we are definitely working as a good team.”

The changes are starting to become evident, with Braekhus sitting down on her punches more and becoming the kind of offensive fighter Steward would be proud to see his protégé working with. To get Mathis out of there in two rounds for her first knockout in over three years was impressive, and it was proof that what Banks told her when they first discussed working together was spot on.

“In the beginning, I was like, ‘I’m winning fights. Why should I change my style?’” said Braekhus. “And Johnathon said to me, ‘You know what, you can win your fights in a much easier way and not take so much punishment. And you can also start knocking people out.’ So I had two choices. I could just go on doing what I had always done, or I could trust him. He didn’t brag about it. He said in his calm way, ‘I can make you a better boxer.’ I said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’ There were a lot of frustrating hours in the gym of course, but when I get frustrated, he doesn’t push it. He gives me some time and space and we get back to it.”

And now Braekhus is doing the impossible for a 35-year-old champion with five world title belts in her possession. She’s getting better. At this rate, she may need a bigger venue in Norway to fight in next time.

She laughs.