Cecilia Brækhus – boxing’s First Lady
Cecilia Brækhus (The First Lady)
Born: 28 September, 1981, in Cartagena, Colombia. Grew up in Bergen, Norway
Height: 171 cm
Weight class: Welterweight (63.5–66.7 kg)
Trainer: Johnathon Banks
Career: Started as a kickboxer, winning both World and European amateur titles, as well as several Norwegian championships. Moved over to boxing, where she was the first woman in the world to hold all five belts, including all of the “big four” – WBA, WBO, WBC and IBF. Turned professional in 2007, and is unbeaten in 30 bouts, with eight victories coming by way of knockout. Central to Norway becoming the 205th country in the world to allow professional boxing. Fought the first professional fight in Norway in 35 years in October 2016. On 9 June, she will fight Argentinian Erica Farias (24-1) for the first time.
Cecilia Brækhus has won almost all there is to win in the boxing ring, and this summer she faces her biggest fight yet, just a stone’s throw from where she grew up in Bergen. Her toughest battle has been outside the ring, where, to fulfill her dream of fighting on home soil, she had to get the law changed first.
“It’s a pretty absurd thought. We’ve changed a law in the Norwegian statute book. It was difficult at times, with many setbacks along the way, and most people didn’t think we’d be able to do it. My team and I often thought of giving up, but we pushed on, day and night, burning the candle at both ends. We were overjoyed when we finally made a breakthrough. It’s hard to get people to understand how much energy such a process takes out of you,” says Brækhus, in the dressing room at the Oslo Boxing Club.
“We came up against formidable resistance. The pack mentality brings a lot of confusion. Politics, poor knowledge about the sport, fear of allowing something new in, sports policy. The question is how much influence the individual himself/herself can have over their own life. Providing information about the sport has been our most important tool. You can’t pigeonhole athletes. My goal is not that everyone should like boxing, rather to get across the idea that it’s up to you what you do with your life.”
Braekhus’ homecoming fight was something that Norwegian boxing fans had waited 35 years to see. On the evening of 1 October, 2016, it took her just three minutes and five seconds to knock out Anne Sophie Mathis. The event, dubbed The Homecoming, represented a great victory for everyone who fought to repeal the ban on professional boxing in Norway, that had been in place since 1981 – the same year Brækhus was born. With her own entrance music, 10,000 spectators and one million TV viewers, it was an unforgettable occasion. A smile breaks across her face as she talks about that momentous evening in Oslo, but she quickly turns her mind to the future.
“There’s an expression in our sport – ‘after a boxing match is before a boxing match.’ What’s great about my team and I is that we don’t hark back to the past, we only look ahead. It’s what I’ve been doing my whole life. Right now we’re in the process of staging our biggest event to date, one that’s going to take place outdoors. All our time and resources are being plowed into making it happen.”
On 9 June, the two highest profile combatants in women’s boxing will engage in the Battle of Bergen, on the same stage from which artists such as Rihanna, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen have entertained tens of thousands of concertgoers. It’s also where the first Norwegian Viking kings were crowned in the Middle Ages, and just a stone’s throw from where the boxing queen herself grew up.
“It’s going to be a crazy night,” smiles Brækhus.
The sense of anticipation seems to have set a fire under Brækhus, who has always been popular in Bergen. In 2010, she was voted “Sports Personality of the Year” by the readers of Bergenavisen, attracting more than 50% of the vote.
“Bergen is my home away from home. I grew up there. It was where my career started, where it all began. I have family there and went to school there, it was there that I was shaped. The support I’ve received from the people there has been fundamental to enabling me to take the leap and grab the opportunities presented to me. I knew that there was always something to come home to. It gives you tremendous peace of mind when you travel around the world on an adventure.”
The bout in June may mark the highlight of her career but it will be far from the end of it.
“I haven’t for one second thought about quitting. We’re putting in place exciting plans for the next few years. I’m a boxer who’s managed to avoid taking huge amounts of punishment in my career, so I can probably continue as long as I want to. Our goal is always to improve, to perfect. My new trainer, Johnathon Banks, and I, know that he can raise my boxing to a whole new level. We will create bigger and better events, extend First Lady Promotion, and then set our sights on competing in the US. A bout against Cyborg is something that may yet happen.”
The enormous energy and commitment has not come without some regrets along the way, though.
“I don’t feel I’ve had to sacrifice so much, but of course there are things I would have liked to dedicate more time to, such as friends and family. They realize that all this needs a lot of time and effort on my part and they’ve been incredibly patient and accommodating, so I will definitely be spending much more time with them once I’ve hung up my gloves.”
Meanwhile, anyone who has experienced her kind of success knows that it’s hard to be the best in the world and be friends with everyone at the same time. We asked Brækhus’ most recent opponent, Klara Svensson, for a comment and got a reply via her agent, Patrik Andersson.
“A fantastic sportswoman, her results and performances speak volumes. After being in Norway, I can say that we still have the greatest amount of respect for Brækhus the athlete. However, we have nothing positive to say about Brækhus the person.”
“Most people got the impression that we weren’t exactly the best of friends during the fight,” says Brækhus, who smiles briefly before taking on a more serious air.
“Of all my previous opponents, it’s really only Klara I haven’t got along with. It might also have something to do with our history. I was a Sauerland boxer, she is now a Sauerland boxer, and they never got over the fact that I left. Mathis and I have been the fiercest of rivals for as long as I can remember, but after our bout we now have enormous respect for each other. She even invited me to go out on the town with her.”
Those who have seen Brækhus develop into the star she is today could see her huge potential from an early age.
“The first time I saw her, it was obvious that she had incredibly good footwork and good form. That sort of form is something you’re born with, and Cecilia was difficult to hit even back then. She had the ability to train hard and the drive to win bouts. It’s the biggest learning curve I’ve been on,” says Max Mankowitz, Head of Oslo Boxing Club and Brækhus’ trainer for nearly four years.
The talent of the kickboxer who switched codes to boxing was also noticed early on by Odd Haktor Slåke, President of the Norwegian Boxing Federation.
“Ever since her amateur days, she has demonstrated prodigious athletic prowess. She is a unifying figure in the boxing environment, an excellent athlete who is a good ambassador for the sport. She’s shown what women’s boxing can be and is a dominant force in what is a demanding weight class. More often than not, boxers can feel worn out after being on top for so long, but there’s nothing to indicate that she’s reached that point yet,” says Slåke.
We ask the woman herself what characteristics she believes are essential to be successful in one of the biggest sports in the world.
“Lots of different things. Discipline. Understanding of the sport, both from a tactical and a technical point of view. Outside the ring, you have to be able to read the game. A good physique. Excellent mental strength. If you’re going to get all the way to the top – and this is perhaps something not everyone will want to hear – it’s something you’re born with. It’s the same for all sports. Just being willing to train and put in hours of hard work isn’t enough. You have to have a degree of innate talent, but I feel very lucky. There are many people who have natural talent but who don’t have the will or desire to work hard.”
Her success and attitude to the sport and life in general have made her a good role model for those who will benefit from her groundbreaking achievements.
“Cecilia Brækhus has been a pioneer for women’s boxing and is, by anyone’s estimation, outstanding in terms of performance and success. She has an incredibly impressive record, that is second to none, and I’m talking about both men and women. Undefeated as a professional, and holder of titles in all five federations. This makes her the ultimate role model for young girls looking to get on in life. She shows that it’s possible to defy circumstances and take your deserved place in the arena,” says Madeleine Angelsen (18), who took bronze in the European Junior Championships in 2016, and became Norwegian Senior Champion in 2017.
Brækhus herself paints a picture of a person who is quite private and never wholly comfortable with the attention that comes with her choice of career.
“Sometimes, it’s good to spend a little time outside Norway. Overseas, I’m only known for being a good boxer, but here I have so many different hats and am inextricably associated with a change in the law. At the same time, it’s great that I can be a strong role model for young girls, and I do all I can to live up to that responsibility. I think it’s important that they have role models other than those who stumble out of [reality TV show] Paradise Hotel,” she says.
“Women’s boxing has taken enormous strides since I began. At that time, there were no other female professional fighters in Scandinavia. Now there are many. Everyday life for those who box after me is going to be completely different. When I started, I was told that I would never be a big star, would never be given a shot at the title, would never be a main eventer, never make money, never get sponsorship. Finally, I was told ‘OK, stand in the corner and just be glad that you’re getting the chance to box on an undercard at a big men’s event.’” Promoters are now able to see that women can fill venues, make money and be sold to TV companies. This will encourage them to find the next Cecilia and several others.
Text: Øystein Tronstad
Published: May 22, 2017