On Saturday night at the Commerce Casino in Commerce, California, one of the greats of women’s boxing, former undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus, will return to the ring for the first time since March of 2021 to face Marisa Joana Portillo.

It’s an eight-round undercard fight, far from the bright lights or the big stage, but it’s the kind of under-the-radar return that shows the respect Braekhus has for the sport. At this point, she knows what this sport can do to any of its participants, so as she begins the next chapter, she wants to do things right and do things her way. 

This is the start.

“Boxing has given me everything,” said Braekhus. “It's given me discipline, the chance to travel the world. It's been basically the love of my life since I was 15, 16 years old, and I need to have respect for it because I did absolutely everything in boxing. I'm not scared when I go into the ring, but I do have a lot of respect for the sport. I know what can happen, I know what it is. But also, I'm very lucky to have (coach) Johnathan Banks next to me and he told me, 'You are the first undisputed champion; you can do this, but the way you need to do it is the smart way. You can do this on your own terms.' And I thought about it and I agreed with him. We need to do the right thing here.”

Braekhus, nicknamed “The First Lady” for a reason, was always everything that was right about the sweeter science, and for years, she was the sport’s leading ambassador. And even though she’s now 41 years old and suffered the only two losses of her 38-fight pro career to Jessica McCaskill in her last two bouts, this is not a cautionary tale, a fighter way past her prime showing up for a paycheck. Simply put, Braekhus needed a break after her two scraps with McCaskill, and she took it, always knowing that she would one day return.

“The love of boxing has always been there, but I knew I had to get physically back, recuperate, get my mental health right, and to be a healthy young woman,” she said. “But it was never an option not to return.”

Getting to eat like the rest of us and have a little down time was nice, though, wasn’t it?

“I did, and I was so bored,” she laughs. “I'm so used to this machine from boxing, and it also gives you a kind of extra excitement in life. I'm not ready to go out to party and dinner. I tried to do a little bit of other stuff, but I just think of boxing all the time. I went to Norway, and I did all the stuff that athletes do - TV shows, celebrity parties - and I'm not there. It's not for me. I was so bored. I just wanted to get back in the ring.”

August was the original target date for Braekhus’ return, with a fight in her native Colombia scheduled for Patricia Berghult’s WBC super welterweight title. Expected to be on the show was a Jennifer Lopez concert, but J-Lo was on her honeymoon with Ben Affleck and the promoter canceled the event. Yes, this is boxing. 

So December 17 and the 19-15-3 Portillo, a multiple-time world title challenger (albeit at 108 and 115 pounds six years and beyond ago) it is. The Argentina native is not expected to beat Braekhus, which moves the focus onto what happens in 2023 with “The First Lady,” and she doesn’t hesitate to say that her days in the welterweight division are over.

“I'd have to saw off a leg to make 147,” she laughs. “That's never gonna happen again.”

I wondered why she was so chipper at 7:30am on a fight week. 

“I'm not starved, I'm not crying, I'm not in a bathtub sweating and hurting and doing everything that's wrong,” Braekhus said. I follow up and tell her that there are some good fights for her at 154 pounds with the likes of Natasha Jonas and Terri Harper. She immediately jumps in, answering the question before it’s even asked.

“Don't take it wrong,” she said. “I'm doing this the right way, but I'm coming back for a world championship next year. I just need to make that clear. I'm not taking a back seat here. I'm going for the world title. I just have to get back in the saddle and hopefully I can get a good, impressive win on Saturday.”

That’s expected. Anything after that is up to the Boxing Gods, who can be fickle. But regardless of what happens in the next 12 months, the world of women’s boxing is a better place with Braekhus in it. As for the last 12 months, perhaps the biggest and best in the sport’s history, she’s proud of what her peers have been up to. 

“I'm getting into the last years of my career, and I see all these girls blossoming, and I see big fights and they're making money, and I'm so incredibly happy that this is happening,” said Braekhus. “I see they have an audience, they're getting the attention they deserve, and the conversation around the fights is about how they deserve to be here, and I'm so happy. I don't need to come in screaming and demand the limelight because I've been there, and it was rough. It was a different time and I've been there, and I done it, and now I have a chance to just be here for the love of boxing and do what I love to do without all the politics, all the misogyny and everything else. I just enjoy this to the fullest, and every day that I see these videos of young girls boxing popping up and they're continuing the way it was when I started, it's amazing. I'm so happy.”