Claressa Shields featured in HBO's boxing swan song

By Greg Beachum
Associated Press

Carson, Calif. — Although HBO has decided to put boxing in its past, the network is leaving the sport by showcasing a possible vision of its future.

Cecilia Braekhus was in the first women's boxing match on HBO, and the dominant Norwegian champion will be in the main event of HBO's final boxing show Saturday night when she defends her welterweight titles against Aleksandra Magdziak-Lopes.

On the undercard, two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields of Flint defends her middleweight belts against Femke Hermans.

Any discussion of the world's top female fighters must include Braekhus (34-0, 9 KOs) and Shields (7-0, 2 KOs). With women's boxing on a distinct rise over the past two years, HBO is closing out its 45-year history as a driving force in boxing with a showcase for two fighters atop the sport's next wave.

"It's an honor to be in this position right now," Braekhus said. "It's truly a validation for the great year it's been for women's boxing all over the world, and how strong the future is. We have come a long way in the sport, and I believe there are even more opportunities to come our way."

Super flyweight Juan Francisco Estrada also fights Victor Mendez in a matchup of childhood acquaintances from Sonora, Mexico, but this show is being carried by women — including Australian atomweight champ Louisa Hawton, who fights Lorraine Villalobos on the undercard at the famed outdoor arena at StubHub Center south of downtown Los Angeles.

Several champions of women's combat sports also will be watching at ringside, including former superstar Laila Ali, UFC featherweight champ Cris "Cyborg" Justino and current boxing champs Christina Hammer and Jenna Mrdjenovich.

The mere idea of an HBO boxing show dominated by women's champions would have been improbable just two years ago. Of course, so would the idea of a boxing world without HBO, a dominant financial force behind many of the world's biggest bouts for nearly a half-century.

After Shields' dominant run to a second straight gold medal at the Rio Olympics, U.S. boxing purveyors finally began to grasp the fact that women's boxing was a fertile area for growth if they were willing to invest time and money. So Shields turned pro and became a rising personality in the sport, while the 37-year-old Braekhus teamed up with promoter Tom Loeffler to raise her international profile after fighting in relative obscurity in northern Europe for a decade.

While Shields would love to fight Braekhus someday, she also respects the veteran ex-kickboxer.

"I'm happy to appear on this card with her and proud that she is in the main event," Shields said. "It truly gives me something to strive for, to someday headline a big show like this. Cecilia has worked very hard for many years and has deserved everything she's gotten."

Braekhus and Shields are favored in their bouts, but both are hoping to put on a show worthy of this milestone in the sport's evolution.

The event should be bittersweet for many boxing fans accustomed to HBO's presence in the sport. Longtime HBO commentator Jim Lampley will sign off from the network for which he has worked since 1988 along with Max Kellerman and Roy Jones Jr.

HBO elected to get out of the sport after being unable or unwilling to compete with a wave of interest in televised boxing. While Showtime has retained its prominence in the sport, ESPN has dramatically increased its boxing content in recent months, and new streaming service DAZN is aggressively pursuing promoters and fighters, including former HBO star Canelo Alvarez.

But for one last night, HBO will showcase rising talent on its distinct platform.

"This has been a great year for women's boxing," said Hermans, Shields' Belgian challenger. "The future is very bright."