The gloved era of boxing didn’t begin in 1892.
When the story of the sport is told, it can sometimes feel like it.
In July 1892, James Corbett bested the immovable object of his time, John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight championship. It was the dawn of a new era even if it wasn’t even Sullivan’s first time in gloves.
What boxing would become over the course of the 20th century, what it largely remains today, was born in spirit when Sullivan hit the deck in round 21 at the Olympic Club in New Orleans.
Analogies are an imperfect art, often a lie wrapped in nostalgia, imprecise and easily picked apart. It’s hard not to see it though in the evolution of women’s boxing. Women had been part of the sport for a lot longer than the moment Christy Martin turned heads on the March 1996 undercard of Mike Tyson-Frank Bruno II.
Still, as had been the case in the last decade of the 19th century, there is a clear line between what was before and what evolved from the moment Martin graced the cover of Sports Illustrated following the exposure the Tyson show brought her.
This Friday (Showtime, 9 PM EST), 24-year old two-time Olympic Gold medalist Claressa Shields (9-0, 2 KO), of Flint, Michigan, moves down to her third weight class in pursuit of a title in as many stops on the scale. Already a unified super middleweight and undisputed middleweight queen, Shields is chasing greatness in reverse of what is most common in boxing.
Right now, it appears the talent available to challenge Shields increases in volume lower on the scale. Shields is chasing challenges where they are. If Shields can best 30-year old Croatian Ivana Habazin (20-3, 7 KO) for the vacant WBO and WBC 154 lb. belts, Shields will be within one weight class of undisputed welterweight champion Cecilia Braekhus (36-0, 9 KO).
Shields may not have it in her to get all the way to 147 lbs. but with only a division separating them the possibility is hard to ignore. Shields has come down three; can Braekhus move up one? It’s the sort of fight that could elevate both in the ring and bring new eyeballs with it.
It’s also the sort of fight that would also speak to what we might be witnessing as we hit the 21st century edition of the roaring twenties. Shields two Olympic medals alone speak to evolution in the sport. When Martin graced the cover of SI, there was no Olympic aspiration for women. There was also no place for women fighters on the walls of the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
This year, Martin and unconsummated rival Lucia Rijker will enter Canastota as the inaugural women’s class. Progress might be slow but it’s progress nonetheless.
There have been ebbs and flows in US domestic interest in women’s boxing in the last two decades or so with more money often to be made overseas. Names like Laila Ali and Regina Halmich carried the sport on their sides of the Atlantic while the generation unfolding now was being developed.
Think about how the women’s game will continue to develop and grow as the 2000’s play out. What if what we’ve seen since Martin’s explosion into popular consciousness has been roughly equivalent in the ring to the years between Sullivan and Jack Dempsey? There’s no denying the explosion of the sport in the 1920s. Dempsey, Mickey Walker, Harry Greb, and Benny Leonard are names that still resonate today. A century from now, will fight fans who enjoy digging into the history of boxing debate the merits of Ali the way some might a Bob Fitzsimmons or Sam Langford today along the way to our roaring twenties?
Showtime is maintaining their investment in Shields and has featured multi-division badass Amanada Serrano. DAZN has been a streaming home to undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor. The mass audience may not have quite caught up yet but cream rises and quality can only bring butts to seats. It means a chance for a Shields, Katie Taylor, Amanda Serrano and others to be a Dempsey or Leonard of their time, seminal figures that advance boxing as a whole. In that light, they’re not just world class prizefighters in 2020. They are pioneers of a landscape still yet to be fully defined. Serrano (37-1-1, 27 KO) has fought as high as Jr. welterweight, where Taylor (15-06 KO) won a title last year. If in the next year or two fans are treated to Serrano-Taylor and Shields-Braekhus, the landscape can only be enhanced.
For now, we find out if Shields can add two more belts in only her tenth pro fight. It’s fun watching it all unfold as we enter a new decade of the sweet science.
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]