Cecilia Braekhus: Boxing’s First Lady ‘felt like a criminal’

Story highlights

First undisputed women's boxing champion

Born in Colombia, adopted by Norwegians

Relocated to Germany due to ban

Returning after long injury layoff

Berlin, Germany CNN  — 

She wanted to be a fighter so badly, she used to jump out the window of her parents’ fourth-floor home to attend training.

That was just the start of Cecilia Braekhus’ battle to be accepted in the macho world of professional boxing – next she had to leave the country that had given her the chance of a better life.

Despite being made to feel like “a criminal” in her adopted home of Norway, the orphan from Colombia has grown up to be a record-breaking champion – and an inspiration.

03:04 - Source: CNN
Meet the first lady of boxing

In 1981 – the year Braekhus was born in Cartagena – Norway banned professional boxing. Fighters caught breaking the so-called “Knockout Law” faced a three-month prison sentence.

“When I started with professional boxing, I could not do my fights in Norway – I couldn’t even train there,” Braekhus tells CNN’s Human to Hero series from her pre-fight camp in Berlin.

“I had to move abroad, and if I was to go back and do my fights in Norway I would actually be jailed. It was a very crazy situation.”

She relocated to Germany, and became one of Norway’s most popular athletes despite not being able to compete on home soil.

“I had thousands of Norwegians coming to my fights, they just went across the border,” Braekhus says. “My fights were shown on television in Norway and I had half of Norway watching – and also I won sports person of the year.

“I thought it was a little bit of a double standard, supporting me like this – also from the politicians and from the royal family – but boxing in Norway I would be jailed. So it was a very strange situation.”

The ban was lifted in 2014, but Braekhus has yet to fight as a pro in Norway.

“At one point I honestly didn’t think that would happen. But I think at the end the public’s opinion was that this ban was ridiculous and it’s up to every free person to decide if they want to box or not,” the 34-year-old says.

“Every person has the right to choose what they want to do with their life and I’m very happy that happened while I am still boxing, so now I actually will be able to experience that before I stop.”

Comeback fight

Her next fight – defending a 27-0 pro record – is on February 27 against Uruguay’s Chris Namus in Germany.

It’s her first since November 2014, when she broke her foot in the third round of a bout against Jennifer Retzke – and lasted the remaining seven rounds to win a unanimous decision and retain her five welterweight titles.

“It made it pretty much worse than if I’d stepped out of the ring when it happened, but it was a choice I made and I don’t regret it,” she says. “I had to have an operation and I was out for a year, but now I’m back – so I was lucky.”

The tenacity and focus that has made Braekhus the first woman boxer to unify a weight division was present at an early age.

She says she had “a very good childhood” with her adopted parents, but gave them some nervous moments when she started kickboxing in her early teens.

“At that time it was not so normal for a girl to want to join sports like that,” Braekhus recalls. “For me there was no other choice – I had to do this, this is what I wanted to do, I had made my choice.

“I actually had to jump out of the window and go to training so my parents wouldn’t catch me. We were on the fourth floor, so now when I’m thinking about it – it was pretty reckless!”

Going pro

Braekhus won world and European amateur kickboxing titles, and had similar success after switching to boxing at the age of 21, winning 75 of 80 non-paid fights.

Signing with a German promoter, she faced a daunting start to her pro career in a new country as the new – and only – girl in the gym.

“We had a world champion there, we had a European champion – all were male and they thought I was there to entertain them,” she laughs.

“I just had to, from day one, set the record straight of what I was doing there, what my goals were. It took some time, but I was slowly getting from this girl who wanted to box to being a fighter and one of the group.

“It’s been a challenge to be a woman in this sport. Also it was hard for all the years when I was not allowed to box in Norway. That was pretty sad because I was excluded from a lot of things – I actually felt my sport was criminalized, and it’s not a good feeling.”

From earning less than one-third of what her male colleagues at the gym were making, Braekhus has established herself as a bona fide box office star, recently signing a new three-year TV contract.

Nicknamed “First Lady” after becoming the first female fighter to sign with leading European boxing agency Sauerland, she is now with Los Angeles-based K2 Promotions – which works with men’s heavyweight stars Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko.

“I would like to see more promoters giving girls the same opportunities as the guys, because it’s already been proven again and again that girls can sell tickets, we can get TV views, we can get the public interested,” she says.

“But we need to have the same means as the guys. You don’t build boxers without promotion – without commercials, you have no chance to build a fighter. On the male side it’s taken for granted, and the girls have to fight a little bit more for that.”

Family ties

While Braekhus is seeking to take women’s boxing to the mainstream, she’s happy to have continued support from those closest to her.

“They are very proud now,” she says of her parents. “My mother is actually here, she is the chef in this training camp.

“She says the same things to me as she did when I was 10 years old, and I try to tell her that I’m older now, I’m world champion, I have my own company – and I’m still the little girl that jumped out of the window.”

CNN’s Human to Hero series celebrates inspiration and achievement in sport. Go here for times, videos and features.

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