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Claressa Shields

The rise of women’s boxing

Two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields is scheduled to make her pro boxing debut Saturday

Women’s boxing has long lived in the shadows of the sport.

It’s a cycle that begins and ends with television networks, a cycle that stems from a perception that the quality of female talent is thin. Yet, without the ability to sell women’s fights on televised cards, the signing and developing of female fighters is rendered an unprofitable business for promoters. The opportunity for women to make a living fighting thus becomes virtually impossible … and the cycle continues.

“I’m a little embarrassed we haven’t gotten to it sooner,” said Stephen Espinoza, executive vice president and general manager of Showtime Sports, about the network’s plans to put women’s fights back on its air. “We aim to rectify that very quickly — and not on a one-off basis but on a meaningful regular basis as well.”

While Showtime still hasn’t promoted a fight since 2001, it plans to do so, and women’s boxing will be televised Saturday, when Claressa Shields makes her professional debut on Saturday in a four-round super middleweight bout against Franchon Crews. It will air on ESPN3 on the “freeview” undercard of Sergey Kovalev and Andre Ward’s pay-per-view fight on HBO.

Coupled with the previous strides made in 2016, it appears that a new era of women’s boxing is dawning.

Claressa Shields has dubbed this era as the “reintroduction to women’s boxing.” The era took a giant step forward on Aug. 21 when Shields became the first American fighter, male or female, to defend an Olympic gold medal. That same day, Heather Hardy and Shelly Vincent became the first women to be featured on a Premier Boxing Champions nationally televised undercard.

Now, that era is primed to move ahead even further.

Well aware of her role in what could be the surge needed to finally carry women’s boxing from out of the shadows, Shields is preparing to make her professional debut on Saturday.

Shields chose to begin her professional career rather than stay an amateur (and have the guarantee of eligibility to return to the Olympics in 2020) in part because of the potential the timing presented. At 21 years old, amid what already feels like a revolution in women’s boxing, Shields is primed to take up the baton and carry the sport over the line it has come so close to crossing so many times.

“I don’t want to let this flame burn out that we have right now,” Shields said. “You have to seize the moment and take advantage of it.

“I’m not doing it for the money. I’m doing it for women’s boxing.”

Heather Hardy sits in a car and cries when she finds out the news that Claressa Shields had won her second gold medal.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for ESPN

Shields has marinated on this concept of being the change for some time. It was a primary reason behind her decision and a seed that was planted before she won her second gold medal in Rio de Janeiro, when she had a conversation with Hardy about the two fighters’ mutual hope for the future of their sport and the respect it deserves.

The way Hardy understood it, Shields’ turning pro would send a message: This is what women do. Women fight. Women box.

“We weren’t just thinking about each other making millions of dollars; we were thinking about the other women coming up behind us,” Shields said.

“This is a new era, and that’s no disrespect to Christy Martin or Lucia Rijker or Laila [Ali]. But the women of this generation are just different. And me? I’m one-of-a-kind. You only get one of me every century.”

New York-born and bred, Hardy used to dream about becoming a Yankee. As a child she would even envision herself running out of the bullpen at Yankee Stadium. She watched every game. She knew every stat. But little girls didn’t play baseball.

“I remember feeling like I was sorry I liked it,” she said. “I was sorry I was a girl.”

Later in life, Hardy adopted a new dream: becoming a professional boxer. But as she transitioned out of the amateurs, she was confronted with a harsh reality: Women don’t make much money fighting.

“A bunch of the girls who are pro [told me], ‘Just know this isn’t a life for you; this is a hobby because you’ll never make any money off of it,'” Hardy said.

“And 20 years later, I have that same feeling. I’m sorry I’m a girl.”

Hardy was the first woman to be signed to a long-term promotional contract with Lou DiBella’s company, DiBella Entertainment. DiBella, one of New York’s premier boxing promoters, has been one of the main actors at the forefront of the current revolution. In addition to Hardy, DiBella has signed deals with other prominent women fighters, including WBO featherweight champion Amanda Serrano and Hardy’s last opponent, Vincent.

Lou DiBella congratulates boxer Amanda Serrano after her win during a fight at Barclays Center in July.

Nick Laham for ESPN

While DiBella said he doesn’t make money off their fights, the fact that he puts on shows in New York and throughout New England means Hardy and the other female fighters in his stable who are from the area sell enough tickets to cover a “good portion” of the costs of their bouts. DiBella, who admits he was once hardened to the idea of women in the ring when he was an HBO executive, has said that promoting his female fighters has become a cause for him.

“I admire their dedication. I admire their spirit to want to bring about change,” DiBella said. “I’d say a number of these women right now are not only out there as fighters; they’re out there as trailblazers, as advocates. They’re trying to change the status quo, to be agents of change, so that other women coming forward in the sport in the future have an easier road and an opportunity to make a living the same way men do.”

The difference between the money that male and female fighters can make fighting doesn’t necessarily stem from a gap in fight purses — in fact, according to DiBella, male and female fighters on the same card will generally make similar money for the same level of fight. The difference, then, is the fact that televised fights come with much bigger purses, and without opportunities to fight on televised cards, women simply don’t have the option for bigger paydays. As DiBella put it, it’s a wage “ceiling.”

“While male fighters are going after that $100,000 payday — the $50,000, $150,000 or $1 million payday — those paydays don’t exist for women because television has been closed to them,” DiBella said.

Female fighters with untelevised bouts thus become more reliant on whatever percentage of ticket sales they get, which can often mean more aggressive promotion of their own fights, spreading the word and hanging up posters to try to sell tickets.

Hardy, a single mother, has considered taking MMA fights to help pay the bills, a proposition that recently became even more real when DiBella had to cancel the cards he had scheduled in New York through the end of the year because of a new provision that requires promoters in the state to secure $1 million of insurance per fighter in the event one suffers a traumatic brain injury. Unfortunately for Hardy, one of those events DiBella had to cancel was a show at Barclays Center on Dec. 16 that Hardy was supposed to fight on.

“As much as I’d like to discourage her as a promoter from [moving to MMA], I’m not going to because she has to do what she has to do to maximize her revenue streams, to take advantage of her popularity and to try to make a living for her and her daughter,” DiBella said. “I can’t fault her for needing a supplemental income.”

Heather Hardy and Shelly Vincent fought on national television in August.

Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for ESPN

It’s worth noting that while DiBella has signed some of the best female talent in the United States, his stable is missing the biggest star in Shields, who told ESPN in September before announcing her pro debut that the only company she wanted to sign with was Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. However, Shields’ agent said she has yet to make any decisions regarding a promoter as of this week.

DiBella’s investment could turn out to be a gamble that pays off if the status quo changes.

The current pool of female talent is ripe for a chance at the big time, with fighters on the rise from coast to coast. Even across the pond, where women’s boxing is already more prominently televised, 13-year Irish amateur and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Katie Taylor has too decided to turn professional.

“The skill level and talent base is all there,” Espinoza said. “It’s just a matter of providing the opportunity.”

Espinoza wants Showtime to provide that opportunity. The five-year executive said that putting female fights back on the network’s airwaves has been on its to-do list for some time, and that he hopes to get one on a card in the first quarter of 2017.

Espinoza and DiBella have elevated conversations even further, with “pretty extensive” discussions about the prospect of an all-female card sometime next year. DiBella said that that type of card would ideally feature a Hardy-Vincent rematch, possibly even for a world title, if Hardy ends up fighting for one in March, as DiBella suggested she might.

An all-women’s card is certainly an ambitious goal, considering it likely would require the cooperation of various promoters, but Espinoza doesn’t consider it insurmountable.

“If we can be the unifying force to bring this aboard, we’d be happy to,” he said.

Claressa Shields hasn’t officially signed with any promoter ahead of her pro debut on Saturday.

Cooper Neill for ESPN

The concept of elevating women’s presence in combat sports by making opportunities possible isn’t new for Showtime. Ronda Rousey fought her final three Strikeforce fights before signing with Dana White and the UFC in 2012, and those bouts aired on Showtime. Other female mixed martial arts stars such as Gina Carano, Cris “Cyborg” Justino and Miesha Tate also came up through Strikeforce before making the same jump.

“When you look at the business opportunity, which has been demonstrated in MMA, you can’t really argue that the market isn’t ready or the audience isn’t ready,” Espinoza said.

The momentum that peaked in August, with Shields’ Olympic win and Hardy and Vincent’s televised bout, is palpable and has continued to pick up steam. For women in the sport, it’s a fight for their livelihood and for equality in the ring, present and future.

“If my daughter wanted to box, I would never be like, ‘Yeah, you should work for that,'” Vincent said. “Before I would’ve said, ‘No, you’re never going to get anywhere. They’re never going to accept you. You’re never going to make any money.’

“But now I would say there is hope, there is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light is primed to grow brighter again on Saturday, when Shields steps into the ring at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.

“Just tell everybody this is the reintroduction to women’s boxing,” Shields said. “Thank me later.”

This story is featured on ESPN.com