By Thomas Gerbasi
This should be the time when Cecilia Braekhus starts taking her foot off the gas.
At 36, she is the undisputed welterweight champion of the world, a status that comes with five belts these days. She’s also firmly entrenched in the number one spot on the pound-for-pound list, and has already made history twice this year by becoming the first winner of the Boxing Writers Association of America’s Female Fighter of the Year award and one-half of the first women’s bout to be televised on HBO.
All this, coming nearly four years after she played an instrumental role in overturning a 33-year ban on professional boxing in her home country of Norway.
Yet despite it all, Braekhus will be in Moscow this Saturday to face unbeaten Russian Inna Sagaydakovskaya, refusing to let any of those five titles sit idle.
“I’m always looking for fun opportunities inside the ring and outside the ring,” said Braekhus. “I think everything I’m doing now is just a bonus. I have nothing left to prove, so everything I do right now is what excites me and what I want to do. I only do what I want to do now.”
Reaching that point of liberation is the goal of every fighter, but once most reach it, the opponents become less threatening and the risks less risky, making each fight a payday leading to a walk into the sunset. But like a first responder, Braekhus is choosing to run towards danger, not away from it.
“For me to go to camp and train and be away from my family and my country, it has to be because of something, something that excites me and tickles me,” she said. “So when I get an opportunity, first it was HBO and America and now it’s Russia and a Russian girl, it tickles me and I want to do this. It’s a challenge and I love a challenge. That’s what makes me happy. I get really easily bored (Laughs), so when I’m home, I’m like, ‘Okay, what can I do? What can I do that’s bigger than the last thing that I did?’ Everybody said, ‘Now you can’t do anything bigger than this,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, I can. Watch me.’”
It’s impossible to doubt Braekhus, because she continues to raise the bar with each trip to the ring. She won her first championship in 2009, and in the ensuing nine years, no one has come close to dethroning her. But like a video game, when it got too easy for the “First Lady,” she decided to amp up the level of difficulty as 2018 dawned.
Originally scheduled to be on the undercard of the May 5 rematch between Gennady Golovkin and “Canelo” Alvarez, Braekhus was tossed into limbo when that bout got scrapped. And even before that, it was a bit of a dicey situation when her trainer for the last several years, former heavyweight contender and Emanuel Steward protégé Johnathon Banks, wasn’t going to be able to be in the U.S. due to previous training commitments.
Ultimately, Golovkin decided to fight on the original May date against Vanes Martirosyan, and when a proposed bout between Roman “Chocolatito” Gonzalez and Pedro Guevara hit the skids, an HBO slot opened up for Braekhus to face former middleweight champion Kali Reis. It was an offer Braekhus couldn’t refuse, but there was still a short camp in America without her coach to deal with.
Enter female boxing great Lucia Rijker, who came in to train Braekhus in California. It seemingly made for a great pairing, but the night before the fight, Braekhus decided that she didn’t want to step between the ropes for such an important bout without her usual coach, and Banks was flown in from Germany to Los Angeles.
“Let’s just say it like this: It will never happen again,” Braekhus laughs. “I have promised Johnathon that I will not go away on my own anymore. And I told him that he has to be there when I fight. We were joking around a little bit on that, but that will never happen again, for sure.”
Banks’ between rounds advice proved to be a key part of Braekhus’ ultimate victory over Reis, a win that saw the champion rise from the first knockdown of her career in round seven to take a unanimous decision. In the midst of a chaotic few weeks, Braekhus made history, kept her belts, and remained unbeaten at 33-0.
“It was a huge challenge for me,” Braekhus said. “Of course, everybody knows everything doesn’t always work around a fight. The fight is on, the fight is off. But I knew that this was a really important thing to do and if I couldn’t do it, I didn’t know when it would be done. So this was an opportunity and I accepted it. It was a totally different environment and so I learned a lot and it was fun.”
Only Braekhus would take all those twists and turns and then describe the experience as fun. But then again, fighters aren’t like the rest of us, and the Bergen product admits as much.
“Boxing is a crazy sport,” she said. “Only a few people really understand all the craziness and there are so many different elements going into a fight. It was the kind of thing where you just had to jump on the opportunity and you had to work hard and have some luck. And when everything came together, it just worked.”
After all that, Braekhus earned a little time off, but she didn’t expect it to be this little. Then again, going to Russia to fight a Russian was an offer she couldn’t turn away from.
“They (the Russians) are putting a lot into promoting themselves and promoting the sport with the World Cup and now boxing,” she said. “So they are really going all-in here. And they said, ‘We want the world champion to come here to promote women’s boxing.’ It was a short time, but it was an opportunity I couldn’t say no to. And I have a great opponent also, so I know this will be a very tough fight.”
At 7-0, Sagaydakovskaya doesn’t appear to be the one to put a “1” in Braekhus’ loss column, but the 33-year-old from Nevon did have an impressive amateur career, and having fought a good part of her career as a super welterweight, she will have a size edge over the champion as well as the home field advantage on a fighter who is at the age when she can turn old overnight. Yet none of this bothers Braekhus, who has not showed signs of slowing down and who is more than used to playing the role of road warrior. In other words, with the exception of four fights in Norway once the sport was legalized there, Braekhus has always been the visitor on fight night. And she has no problem with that.
“I think being a world champion, you can’t just sit in your backyard,” she said. “For me, this is natural. Most of the people forget that when I started boxing, I moved to Germany and I boxed for many, many years there and never boxed in my home country because it was illegal to box there. So I’m used to traveling, packing my stuff, going out there and fighting wherever I had to. I would get a message saying, ‘We can get you a fight here; pack your bags,’ and I would just go. That’s just normal to me. And I think a lot of people don’t know that about my fighting history.”
The number of people who don’t know Cecilia Braekhus’ fighting history are getting fewer and fewer every day, and when she does retire, she will be remembered as one of the best female fighters to ever put on the gloves. But for now, there’s still work to do until she decides that work is done.
“Right now, I’m just playing it by ear,” she said of her future plans. “You don’t really know what the goal is until you’re there. When Wladimir (Klitschko) fought (Anthony) Joshua, after the fight, he was like, ‘Okay, this is it; I’m good.’ And I know when I get that feeling, it will be over.”