As Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano headline a boxing card at MSG, a nod to their MMA predecessors

The rising tide of women’s sports in the mainstream overtook boxing on Saturday, with Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano becoming the first female fighters to headline Madison Square Garden.

Perhaps the sport owes a nod to its hip, younger cousin.

Mixed martial arts promotions have widely embraced the women of their world over the past decade, performing at a faster pace than their pugilist counterparts. This showed the general public a simple truth long denied: women can scrape just as well as men.

“Certainly, I think people are getting more and more used to women fighting,” Matchroom Boxing President Eddie Hearn said. “I think the UFC has made people more comfortable seeing women in combat sports.”

Cris Cyborg and Gina Carano were the first headliners at a Strikeforce event in 2009, and MMA promoters have been increasing female attendance ever since. Ronda Rousey consistently winning inside a round for about five years has certainly accelerated the cause. But even after her retirement, the willingness of the UFC and others to promote new female stars made women’s combat sports less weird and part of the norm.

Outdated attitudes have taken a little longer to emerge from boxing’s old guard.

“I mean, I saw it with my dad [Matchroom founder Barry Hearn]I think a lot of people think women shouldn’t box, women shouldn’t participate in mixed martial arts, and that changes all the time,” Eddie Hearn said.

MMA’s visibility and money attracted some of boxing’s best women to this new sport. The biggest was champion Holly Holm, who dethroned Rousey in front of a record 56,214 fans in Melbourne in 2015. Holm then headlined a UFC pay-per-view at Barclays Center. Her decorated boxing career rarely took her outside the casinos of her home state of New Mexico.

Brooklyn’s Heather Hardy has taken a detour in the middle of a title race to strike a deal with Bellator MMA, citing small crowds and poor boxing treatment. Two-time Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, now a unified two-weight champion, is interested in the Professional Fighters League.

Serrano herself also made the jump. In October 2018, she tweeted, then deleted, a message saying her boxing career was over and she was focusing on MMA.

“Being my second MMA fight, I got more respect, more money than ever in boxing,” Serrano told Newsday then, when she fought a televised main event for Combate Americas.

More than three years later, she is making seven figures to headline the mecca of boxing. The hope for Saturday is to pave the way for the next generation of women, who shouldn’t have to give up their chosen discipline to get attention and pay for a living.

Among them, Skye Nicolson, 26. A Hearn-approved prospect with less than two months as a professional, the Aussie was one of several women in Saturday’s undercard to get a taste of the spotlight, beating Shanecqua Paisley Davis in a unanimous decision.

Skye Nicolson of Australia takes part in a public workout ahead of her featherweight bout against Shanecqua Paisley Davis at Madison Square Garden on April 27, 2022.
Credit: Getty Images/Sarah Stier

Nicolson was 20 when Rousey-Holm arrived in her country.

“It was a great chance for the world to see women in combat sports and it certainly helped open doors and encourage more girls to get into combat sports, not just MMA but boxing. , taekwondo, judo, all of it,” Nicolson said.

Now a professional, Nicolson expressed her gratitude for the platform created by Serrano-Taylor, whose growth she idolized, but acknowledged that the work was not done for women in sport.

“I had my first fight in 2008, women’s boxing wasn’t in the Olympics, professional women’s boxing was so rare, I think there were maybe two pros in Australia,” Nicolson said. “Trailblazers like Katie and Amanda paved this way, so many women are coming up in my generation now and paving the way for the next generation, and we just have to keep building this platform.”

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