Norwegian boxer Braekhus to be first woman to feature on HBO

LOS ANGELES (AP) Cecilia Braekhus was barely a teenager when she began sneaking out the window of her family home in Bergen, Norway, to train secretly as a kickboxer. Although she had an instinctive love for the excitement and discipline of combat sports, she wasn’t quite sure how to tell her parents.

Two decades later, Braekhus’ unusual outlet for her adolescent energy is still her passion as she enters the biggest fight of her career.

When Braekhus steps into the famed outdoor ring in Carson, California, on Saturday night to defend her four welterweight title belts against Kali Reis, they will become the first women to fight on HBO in the premium U.S. cable network’s 45-year history of boxing coverage.

”America is always the dream for every fighter to come and make it big,” Braekhus said Wednesday. ”Every fighter on the planet wishes and dreams to be on the biggest boxing stage in the world. I know there’s a lot of fighters, a lot of male fighters, who would do anything to be where I am on Saturday, so this is a big deal.”

Born in Colombia and adopted by Norwegian parents as a toddler, the 36-year-old Braekhus (32-0, 9 KOs) forged a fighting career in a homeland where such pursuits were quite unusual in the 1990s.

”Norway is a very safe country,” Braekhus said. ”We are very spoiled. It’s a rich country. It’s a good, peaceful country, and the main sports are skiing and football, stuff like that. But that doesn’t mean it fits everyone. So I was looking for something that was fitting me, and when I walked into that gym, right away I knew this was it. It was like meeting your husband, you know? The love of your life. It was like love at first sight. You just know.”

Braekhus turned pro 11 years ago, and nobody in her generation has done it better. Fighting mostly in Germany and Denmark, she became a champion in 2009 and made 21 consecutive title defenses, eventually graduating to arenas in Oslo and in her hometown on Norway’s west coast after the nation repealed its ban on pro boxing in late 2014.

Her latest assignment is in a whole new world. Braekhus and Reis are in the penultimate bout on a show headlined by middleweight king Gennady Golovkin’s title defense against Vanes Martirosyan.

”Considering all the different elements, the historical moments, I think everybody is feeling that something very special is going to happen,” Braekhus said. ”There is something in the air. You just feel there’s really history.”

Braekhus’ breakout fight originally was scheduled for the pay-per-view card of Golovkin’s rematch with Canelo Alvarez in Las Vegas. When Alvarez was suspended for failing a doping test and Roman ”Chocolatito” Gonzalez couldn’t put together a short-notice fight to appear on the HBO telecast, the network selected Braekhus for the coveted slot.

But with regular trainer Johnathon Banks tied up with another fight, Braekhus turned to Lucia Rijker, the vaunted former kickboxing champion and unbeaten Dutch professional boxer. Rijker was careful not to change the intimidating style that put Braekhus on top.

”It’s a major opportunity for Cecilia to do what she does best,” Rijker said. ”She’s a fierce fighter. It’s great that the world finally gets to see.”

Braekhus’ North American debut and HBO’s decision to get into the game are two more milestones for women’s professional boxing.

After many years of inconsistent promotion and sexist criticism in the U.S., the sport has gained a measure of traction in recent years, spurred partly by the success of women’s mixed martial arts and partly by the increased visibility of women’s boxing after its addition to the Olympic program in 2012.

The most accomplished boxer in those Olympic tournaments, two-time U.S. gold medalist Claressa Shields, has become a rising attraction in her native Michigan and on Showtime. The 23-year-old Shields or fellow U.S. Olympian Mikaela Mayer could be intriguing near-future matchups for Braekhus, while UFC champion Cris ”Cyborg” Justino also would love to fight Braekhus in a boxing match.

But first, the outdoor ring in Carson beckons – and her formerly confused parents will be in the crowd.

Braekhus is determined to put on a performance that will make American fight fans wonder what took them so long to discover her.

”You just have to remember why you’re doing it,” Braekhus said. ”It’s not for the money. It’s not for the celebrity. It’s not for all the hula hoop. Basically you started out when you were 13 years old, walking to the gym to find something you truly enjoyed and loved to do, and I’ve been so lucky to make a living out of it.”

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