WOMEN
10/28/2016 10:52 am ET Updated Oct 31, 2016
PRESENTED BY GEORG JENSEN

Meet The Fearless Athletes Who Are Taking Women’s Combat Sports Mainstream

Women are rewriting the rules of the ring.
Eivor EriksenFotofolkno

Combat sports are not for the faint of heart — and the women athletes who compete in them understand this all too well. The challenges they face are bigger than any one opponent, and anything that their male counterparts have endured. Boxing and other sparring sports have long been entrenched in a boy’s club mentality. At best, there are taboos keeping women from competing in professional arenas. At worst, the sport itself has been officially off-limits, regardless of its athletes’ merits.

Indications of this exclusion are seen across sports. A recent study in Sage Journal surveyed the past 25 years of sports media coverage by major TV networks and found that coverage of women athletes has barely budged in the last quarter century. On ESPN’s “SportsCenter,” women’s sports garner less than 1 percent of airtime.

But a rising generation of professional athletes is not shying away from the fight simply because society, or the spotlight, has been slow to accept them. They are achieving success on their own terms — despite the resources, funding and media attention routinely going to other athletes — by remaining absolute and unwavering in their dedication to their craft. We partnered with Georg Jensen to celebrate the fearless women whose drive and determination are redefining the rules of the fight and shattering glass ceilings for the next generation of female athletes.

The First Lady Of Boxing

Eivor Eriksen/Fotofolk.no

Cecilia Brækhus may be Norway’s most celebrated athlete today, but for most of her life — and her boxing career — you could have called her an outlaw in her own country.

Born in Colombia, Brækhus was raised by her adoptive parents in Norway. She started kickboxing at 14 years old and from there she segued into amatuer boxing. Turning pro in 2007 effectively meant being turned away by her home; in Norway, a longstanding ban on professional boxing forbid the sport and carried a jail sentence for fighters.

But Braekhus has always defied and even thrived on obstacles. After moving to Germany to further her career, Brækhus battled opponents both in the ring and in the gym, where her male counterpoints didn’t take her ambition seriously. “I was always pushed to the end of the line, while the male boxers were pushed ahead and promoted,” Brækhus told The Huffington Post.

Refusing to let boxing’s inherent sexism define her career success, Brækhus spent the next several years knocking out opponents all across Europe, building an undefeated record (which today stands at 29-0) and earning the nickname the “First Lady” of boxing. Norwegians applauded her journey and named her a Sportsperson of the Year in 2012 — yet Brækhus still couldn’t compete on her home turf.

Over the course of her career, Brækhus has become the face of the long battle to legalize boxing in Norway. In December 2014, Norway’s Parliament voted to repeal the ban, which had been in place since 1981. No one had as central a role in legalizing the sport — working with government officials, proving boxing’s popularity and establishing a framework for anti-doping laws — as Brækhus.

For boxing’s First Lady, the road to fighting on her home turf has been a long one, but well worth the wait. On October 1st, Brækhus entered the ring for the first fight held in Norway since 1981. Some 9,000 fans filled the stadium, with an estimated one-third of all Norwegians tuning in to the historic fight, which Brækhus won in the second round. Norway’s Prime Minister was cheering in the front row.

The MMA Hopeful

Chad Matthew Carlson Via Brawlsey Media

Fans are hopeful that women’s boxing will gain similarly broader acceptance in the U.S. in the coming years, but for now, mixed martial arts (MMA) is at the forefront of combat sports. And women are leading the charge in taking the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) mainstream.

Twenty-seven-year-old undefeated pro bantamweight Katlyn Chookagian signed with the UFC earlier this year and earned herself a spot on the league’s historic ticket happening on November 12: UFC 205 — the first fight to be held in New York since the state banned the sport in 1997.

Chookagian may be new to the UFC, but she’s been training in various martial arts since age 4. She goes by the nickname “Blonde Fighter,” and with an 8-0-0 pro record, Chookagian hopes to become the next big name in MMA.

The original big name, of course, is Ronda Rousey. Five years ago, UFC President Dana White declared that women would never compete in the league. But that prediction was upended two years later, when Rousey opened the gates for a new wave of competitors to enter the octagon. And she soon proved her popularity with fans.

“{Rousey] made people more aware of women’s MMA and showed that the interest was there,” Chookagian told The Huffington Post. And as Chookagian hopes to defeat bantamweight title challenger Liz Carmouche at UFC 205 this November, the historic fight will carry as much weight as Cecilia Brækhus’ homecoming match in Oslo.  

Building A Legacy

Now that female trailblazers like Cecilia Brækhus and Ronda Rousey have set the stage for the next generation to succeed in sports that were previously off-limits to women, rising athletes like Katlyn Chookagian want to level the playing field even more. “I hope that MMA gets more mainstream so that we get the same payouts as other professional athletes,” Chookagian said. And meanwhile, Brækhus hopes to become more of a household name in the U.S. through an upcoming boxing match against MMA star “Cris Cyborg.”


The fight for gender equality in combat sports still has a ways to go in terms of equal pay and media coverage, but gender is no longer the deciding factor in what makes a great athlete. “Now I’m recognized more as a fighter than as a woman,” Brækhus said, “and that’s always been my main goal. My job, my hobby, my passion, and my identity is as a boxer.”

 

By reshaping fight sports as a women’s game, Cecilia Brækhus and Ronda Rousey are part of a larger global trend of women who are breaking important barriers in their fields. Danish design house Georg Jensen features visionary pathbreakers like world champion boxer Cecilia Brækhus along with women everywhere who believe that “you can never be too much you.” Watch Braekhus in the inspiring short film below:

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