I’ve always been in my own world when it comes to boxing.
I think that’s the only thing that got me through my last match in 2014 — a match that almost ended my career. When I’m in the ring, everything else goes away — pain, emotion — well, everything except my stubbornness. That seems to follow me wherever I go.
At some point in the third round, I took a step, twisted my foot and landed on it with my full weight. For a second a sharp pain shot through my right foot. Then I immediately felt it go numb and I thought, Okay … maybe it’s not that bad. It was probably just adrenaline, but either way I shook it off. I had gone into the fight feeling good, I had total control over my opponent — and I was determined to keep going. I needed to keep going.
Bang. Bang. Bang. Ten seconds left in the round and I was moving, I was landing punches.
The bell rang out, the round ended and I returned to my corner to my team for the one-minute break. My foot was still numb — until it was time to go back in the ring. I stood up, tried to put my weight on it. It was a pain like I had never felt before, and I knew something really was wrong.
I only had seconds to make my decision: tell the referee and have him end the fight, or stick it out. Five belts on the line. My perfect record. For me, there was no other choice. If there was any way to continue, I would.
Ding! Ding! Ding!
You just have to go with your gut feeling, and my gut feeling was that I could make it. I went back in the ring, doing whatever it took to throw punches. Honestly, looking at tape, you might not have noticed there was anything wrong in that round. But by the end, there was no hiding it, I was limping around.
But I wasn’t going down.
Was there ever a moment in the fourth round, the fifth round, the sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth or tenth rounds that I regretted my decision? Never. I don’t think I even had the space in my mind to let regret or doubt climb in. Like I said, I’m in my own world when I’m fighting. And everything in a boxing match is so fast and it’s so high-paced. You have the ring. You have your opponent. You have the lights. You have the TV cameras. Everything. You just make a decision in a split second and you can’t really think more about it. All you can do is go with it. And for six more rounds, 18 more minutes, with everything I worked for in my career on the line, I went with it.
And I won.
If you know me, it won’t surprise you the lengths to which I’ll go to get into and stay in the ring. It’s been a fight ever since I was 13-year-old girl growing up in Norway. It just wasn’t normal for a girl to take up boxing period, let alone in a country which in 1981, the same year I was born, actually banned professional boxing.
Like I said, I’m stubborn.
But sports always meant something more to me. I was adopted from Colombia when I was two years old. I never knew my birth parents or why I was given up, and I haven’t seen them since. And you might think for me, with my darker skin and hair, that I stood out or felt different in Bergen, the Norwegian city I grew up in. In actuality I couldn’t have had a better childhood. My parents were loving people who also adopted my younger brother from Colombia. At the time both countries’ governments were in cooperation, so there’s many, many adopted Colombians my age in Norway. But more than anything, it was sports that brought our town, our community and our friends together.
We were just a bunch of children. For us, skin color didn’t matter, especially when we were just playing together. We grew up in Bergen, which is surrounded by beautiful mountains, so we’d spend our days outside, running around the woods, skiing and playing football and field hockey. You name the sport and my parents had probably enrolled me in it. I was kind of a hyper kid.
Except, of course, for boxing. They weren’t into that as much.
I first came across boxing when a friend of mine and I saw a promotional poster in a gym for an exhibition fight and we decided to go. There’s no logic, no explanation to it, the only way I can describe the feeling I had is that it was like falling in love. I just thought, Oh. Right away, I knew I wanted to box and I wanted to do this for a living. When I told people they just laughed, of course. Probably because I was a girl and, well, it was banned.
My parents, on the other hand, didn’t laugh. They just said, “No way.” And so began my stealth process where I would climb four floors down our fire escape and sneaking to training, three times a week — first for martial arts and kickboxing — for nearly a year.
Why the fire escape? Well, I couldn’t lie to my parents. Not that I didn’t want to, I just couldn’t. They could just look at me and know something was up. And my parents were always asking where we were going when we left the house. Coming back home? Not as much. So I didn’t have to worry about how to get back in, which was lucky for me because climbing back up the fire escape would’ve been next to impossible. I’d just hide my bag at the gym or in our basement and my parents were none the wiser.
Until one afternoon when my neighbor saw me climbing out the window and down the fire escape and thought it best my parents knew what their daughter was up to. I think maybe they knew all along, but there are worse things you can do than sneaking out to go to the gym, you know? I guess my parents thought it was better if I went out the front door, so they relented. It’s cliché to say, but they really are my biggest fans. My mom actually cooks throughout our training camps.
And so I worked my way up the amateurs. But to become a professional, I had to go to Germany to compete. I had plenty of supporters in Norway, but I couldn’t fight in front of them. If I had, or even if I trained in Norway, I’d risk being jailed. So like the fire escape, I had to find another way into the ring, and Germany is where I went to build my career. In fact, it was only a few weeks after I injured my foot in that 2014 match that Norway finally lifted the ban.
I don’t think I can put into words how much it’ll mean to one day have a match in Norway. But when I’m in the ring, I feel at home right away. It’s my own world. Unfortunately, for a long time, people haven’t wanted women in the ring or in that world. I think about the women who were finally able to compete in the Olympics in 2012 and who will return to Rio this summer. It’s a chance I never got, and there is so much talent there. You’ll see many of those women going pro soon enough and see our sport grow even more. And not just our sport, but all women’s sports. Female athletes continue to break into what for too long has been a man’s world.
I think about where we are today because it was only seven or eight years ago that I was told that girls can’t box, that I should stay in the kitchen, that I’d never be able to make a living, that I couldn’t deliver TV audiences, that I couldn’t fill seats. Five belts later, and we’re still proving women belong in the ring. Even in this past year, we’re making progress. Holly Holm, who started as a boxer, is now changing the landscape for women in MMA. With her UFC success, she’s helping to make both sports more available to girls and women. So when another 13-year-old girl says she wants to step into the ring, she isn’t laughed at, or told to stay in the kitchen.
Yet there’s plenty progress left to make. And that’s why I’m returning to the ring for the first time since the fight that nearly ended my career.
Usually there’s no better feeling than after you’ve won a unanimous decision in a title match. There’s no better feeling than having those belts draped on you. But that night in Copenhagen, all I wished was for those things to be lighter. I could barely stand and leaned on my team as the belts — each of my five belts — were hung on my shoulders.
One of my trainers wanted to carry me into the locker room, but being stubborn as ever, I walked back on my own. I did all my interviews and then we left right away for the hospital. When we got there, and we finally took off my boot, I didn’t even recognize my foot. It looked like a snowman — it was twice its normal size, and because my opponent had stepped on it throughout the fight, it was pretty deformed and broken in three different places. But for the last 14 months, with the addition of two screws in my foot, I’ve been training to get back. Coming back already feels like a huge victory. But there’s still another victory waiting for me on Saturday. I’m ready to step back into the ring and back into my world.
I’m ready to be home again.
Undisputed female welterweight world champion Cecilia Braekhus will defend her WBC, WBA, WBO, IBO and IBF titles against Uruguay’s Chris Namus on Saturday February 27 in Halle, Germany.