Matchroom and women's boxing: there's a lot to be optimistic about

by cormac70 via Flickr - CC-BY 2.0

After a historic night for women's boxing that gave us an all-female World title triple-header, we take a look at the role Matchroom has played in bringing the women into the mainstream

Two weeks ago, unified lightweight champion of the World, Katie Taylor, defended her titles in her seventeenth professional fight, headlining a card that saw two other women's Word title match-ups in chief support. It was a first-ever, and while it may not have set any records for revenue in comparison to what the men bring in, with Taylor reportedly earning upwards of £1.5 Million, it was a long way from where the women's game was just a couple of years back.

Women's boxing, until very recently, was afforded little interest by fans, by the media, and by promoters. It was uncommon to see a woman fighting on a big card, let alone headlining one, and it had been that way for many years. So what's changed?

To answer that question, we must first understand the challenges faced by women in the sport. The full history of women in boxing is far beyond the scope of this article. However, to give you some idea of past attitudes towards the notion, I'd ask you to consider that Jane Couch, the first woman officially licenced to box in Britain, had to win that right via a legal battle. That was in 1998. To put it another way, up to 1998,  women in Britain couldn't decide for themselves how they felt about being punched in the face for a living - the decision had already been made - boxing wasn't for them.

Whether you're a fan of women's boxing or not, you'd have to agree that the choice to do it is theirs and theirs alone, and today you'd be hard-pressed to find any true boxing fan who believes that women shouldn't be allowed to box. However, if Twitter and Youtube comments sections are anything to go by, there are still many, many fans who think that women can't box.

Some of those are the opinions of people who will refuse to accept women in boxing regardless. The vast majority, however, will have formed those beliefs based on a lack of understanding about the differences that exist between men's and women's boxing. Let's be clear about something: women's professional boxing is decades behind men's professional boxing. One of the most notable contributors to the negativity surrounding women's boxing in the past has been the relatively small number of elite-level fighters. Before the likes of Katy Taylor and Clarissa Shields arrived, ask most boxing fans to name an active female boxer besides Cecilia Brækhus, and they'd likely have come up blank. While there has always been a handful of great champions such as Cecilia, the talent pool, in general, was lacking in depth, meaning that as a whole, the sport struggled to garner credibility.

That isn't to say that there aren't an abundance of talented women out there. But talent needs to be nurtured. Fighters become elite by dedicating their lives to the sport, and by surrounding themselves with teams of people who have done the same. Men have been able to do this with more ease for two reasons: firstly, the money is there in men's boxing to enable a complete dedication to the craft (at least for those who are good enough). And secondly, the rewards are sufficient to warrant that dedication.

Women, however, have historically had far less incentive to become elite, and even for those who did find the motivation (and the means) for a life dedicated to boxing despite the lack of reward, the opportunities for competitive match-ups were hard to come by. For decades, women's boxing would often be most competitive when fought at a low level, with competitive 'elite' level match-ups much harder to make. Is it any surprise then that fans struggled to give the women's game the same merit as the men's?

For a long time, the sport was at a stalemate, and in many ways it still is. On the one hand, women's boxing needs more money, not only to incentivise women to box professionally and to enable the opportunities that help fighters to reach the very top of their game but also to encourage trainers, managers, and promoters to nurture female talent with the same dedication that they do so for men. On the other hand, that money can only come from increased interest and demand for women in boxing.

Enter the 2012 Olympics. Things have been steadily improving since 2012 when women's boxing first appeared as an 'official' Olympic sport. The Olympics provided a platform for the world's best female boxers to showcase their skills on a global stage. Exposure to the likes of Claressa Shields, Katie Taylor, Natasha Jonas, and Nicola Adams inspired a new generation of girls and women to box, and in turn, we've seen the talent pool deepen considerably.  But further to that, it lit a fire under some promoters who began to realise that by properly nurturing talent such as Taylors, women's boxing could produce global stars.

Nicola Adams vs Cancan Ren
by Kent Capture via Flickr - CC-BY 2.0
Nicola Adams takes on Cancan Ren for Gold at London 2012

Eight years later, under the guidance of Matchroom's Eddie Hearn, Katie Taylor is one of boxing's biggest names, male or female. Some might argue that Hearn merely anticipated the change in attitudes and jumped on board early, which to some extent may be correct. But by signing Taylor, and recently many others, and giving them proper promotion and spots on high profile cards, Hearn has effectively provided women more incentive than ever to make a career out of professional boxing.

In the UK and Ireland alone, female boxing now boasts several established stars including Katie Taylor, Natasha Jonas, Terri Harper, Chantelle Cameron, and Rachel Ball, with the likes of Savannah Marshall and Ellie Scotney making waves in the early stages of their careers. In the US, you have Clarissa Shields, Jessica McCaskill, Mikaela Mayer and Franchón Crews-Dezurn all holding world titles. And of course, there are great former and current champions representing several other countries, including Amanda Serrano, Cecilia Brækhus, Maiva Hamadouche, and Jelena Mrdjenovich. Among those names, you may notice that many have something in common; a contract with Matchroom.

Matchroom (as it often does) has recently come under some criticism, with accusations that they are trying to lock down all the talent in women's boxing. But if not Matchroom then who? Are there any other promotional companies in a rush to sign these women and get them involved in high profile, groundbreaking events?

Now, this isn't to suggest that women need Matchroom to become successful - Shields and Mayer can attest to that. But I'd certainly argue that Matchroom deserves a large slice of the credit for breathing life into an area of boxing that had been largely ignored and discredited for so long.

So where would Women's boxing be without Matchroom? Most likely, it would have arrived at the same place, but it would have taken a lot longer to get there. Eddie Hearn didn't single-handedly change global attitudes towards female boxers, he just picked up on a cultural shift that was already taking place and was smart enough to lean into the change rather than fight it.

There is still a long way to go before women's boxing catches up with men's boxing. Fight purses are still in dispute and the 'two or three minute round' debate still wages on. Again, this is at somewhat of a stalemate; some argue that women shouldn't have to fight 12 x 3-minute rounds if the pay isn't equal to the men's - a fair point. On the other hand, whether male or female, boxers only earn what revenue they can generate, and how can women ever generate the same level of interest as men when the rounds are fewer and shorter? The issue is complex and not one that can be fixed overnight. For now, though, it's encouraging to see interest in women's boxing rise, and as it does, fight purses will naturally increase. Over the past few years, an abundance of female talent has emerged, and with it, a genuine buzz of excitement has enveloped the sport. Watch this space!

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All 4 majaor belts. All weight classes


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