Thursday, April 18, 2019

Thoughts On Hammer-Shields

In Boxing there are a few certainties that a fan can expect. For better or worse those certainties can involve elements of politics with rival promoters, television networks, fighters themselves, athletic commissions, and sanctioning organizations all playing a role in when significant fights in the sport take place. For the casual fan with only a sporadic interest in Boxing, it can indeed be confusing to keep track of all the elements that are involved in the sport. One such element that involves Boxing's respective  sanctioning organizations is when a unification bout takes place. With so many elements in play and a landscape/structure that can appear confusing and frustrating for those who are not involved in the sport, it is truly rare when all the pieces of a puzzle fall into place. When everything does fall into place however, it can lead to history being made and at times, that history can have a more significant meaning than merely what happens inside the ring.

The encounter for the Undisputed Women’s Middleweight world championship between undefeated world champions Christina Hammer and Claressa Shields was one such historic occasion. Much like other unification bouts throughout Boxing history, this fight brought together two of the best fighters in the sport with the aim of determining who is the best of the best. For the sport of Women’s Boxing however, this was a fight that meant much more than unifying a world championship to determine one Undisputed world champion.

In one corner stood Claressa Shields, the only two-time Olympic Gold medalist in the history of the United States Boxing and an undefeated two-division world champion as a professional. Standing across the ring from Shields was Christina Hammer, a two-division world champion in her own right, who had more experience than Shields, but was also not well-known particularly among casual Boxing fans here in the United States.

When you have an encounter between two undefeated world champions that in itself is often enough to generate interest, but when you have two of the best fighters in the sport facing off against each other it has the ingredients of something special. What appeared to be a genuine dislike between the two also fed into the anticipation for what was the most significant fight in the history of Women’s Boxing. It all culminated on April 13th when the two met at the legendary Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ.

What was a competitive fight in the early rounds gradually turned into a showcase for Shields. One of the main things that was noticeable about this fight in particular was Shields’ defense in being able to slip and use lateral movement to avoid much of Hammer’s offense. Although Hammer had success periodically throughout the fight, Shields’ sharper punches, accuracy, and defense were the story of the fight as she won a convincing ten round unanimous decision to become only the second Undisputed world champion in Women’s Boxing history following undefeated Welterweight world champion Cecilia Braekhus, who like Shields, ultimately unified her division.

While there is not much analysis to discuss about this fight as one fighter was simply better than the other, the encounter between Claressa Shields and Christina Hammer will go down in history as a landmark moment in the history of Boxing. For many years the sport of Women’s Boxing has struggled for not only mainstream recognition, but also consistent television exposure particularly here in the United States. The fight between Shields and Hammer marked a significant shift as it was the first time that a major unification bout was not only televised, but promoted in a way similar to how Men’s bouts are. It is something that frankly has been long overdue and the sport of Women’s Boxing should benefit from it going forward.

In the days that followed this fight this observer has taken some time to reflect on not only the fight itself, but how far Women’s Boxing has come. One subject that has surfaced that does not necessarily have anything to do with this fight itself, but more specifically the long-term future of the sport has been the topic of whether or not Women’s Boxing should move to three minute rounds and a twelve round distance for world championship fights as is the standard for Men’s bouts. Although I do not want to dive too much into this subject at this time, it is understandable how those who govern the sport from the respective sanctioning bodies as well as the athletic commissions around the world that regulate boxing might hesitate to make that move. Boxing is after all a combat sport and as such there are dangers attached to it.

What should also be discussed however, is how the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has the same rules, round limits, and structure for both Men’s and Women’s bouts. Non-title fights in MMA are scheduled for three five-minute rounds, which if fights go the distance last fifteen minutes. World championship fights are extended to five five-minute rounds, which means that if a world championship fight goes the distance in the last twenty-five minutes.

While this is not intended as a direct comparison between Boxing and MMA, the rules are the same in MMA for everyone regardless of gender. One of the consistent issues in Women’s Boxing has been that because rounds are scheduled for two minutes in duration that it results in a lot of close fights and draws that often lead to rematches. Although it is understandable that those who govern and regulate Boxing might hesitate to adapt a similar approach to Women’s Boxing as has been done in MMA, this observer believes that fighters could benefit from at minimum the change to three minute rounds if not outright also adapting a twelve round distance for world championship fights.

It is clear however, that Women’s Boxing has come a long way from the days of no television exposure at all, to the days of minimal exposure on the undercards of pay-per-view events, to outright being told that some networks do not televise Women’s bouts. It should not be overlooked that the final broadcast of Boxing on HBO after a forty-five year run in 2018 was headlined by Cecilia Braekhus defending her Undisputed Welterweight world championship against Aleksandra Lopes. While the various criticisms of the network by yours truly over the years in various publications/outlets is well known to longtime readers, it is also worth noting that for time HBO did televise Women’s bouts as part of their pay-per-view broadcasts, but it was only in 2018 that a women’s bout was broadcast on their main network.

We are now in a time in the sport where not only are the methods that events are broadcast are changing in a gradual shift towards digital streaming, but for Women’s Boxing, more bouts are now being televised on a regular basis across both digital streaming platforms as well as traditional television than at any time in Boxing history. Even though some have called Claressa Shields’ victory over Christina Hammer lopsided in the days since the fight, the fight itself signaled a major victory for Women’s Boxing that is much bigger than simply who won the fight.

With stars like Shields, Hammer, Katie Taylor, Heather Hardy, Cecilia Braekhus, and Amanda Serrano serving as the focal points for the current landscape of Women’s Boxing in addition to long overdue television exposure being offered to the sport, the potential growth and exposure for the sport into the long-term future is significant. This observer looks forward to seeing what happens next for Women’s Boxing.

“And That’s The Boxing Truth.”

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