Jessica McCaskill and Cecilia Braekhus have different memories of their first fight and different outlooks on the rematch, writes Thomas Gerbasi
UNDISPUTED welterweight champion Jessica McCaskill has a singular goal heading into her March 13 rematch with Cecilia Braekhus. “My main goal is to retire her, so I need to do that in a grand fashion.”
Those are fighting words, ones we didn’t expect to hear from either combatant after their first bout in August 2020, when WBC and WBA super-lightweight champ McCaskill went up a division and took all the belts from Norway’s Braekhus via 10-round majority decision, handing the “First Lady” the only defeat of her 37-fight career. In the lead-up to the bout, it was all respect between the two, and even after the razor-close battle, it remained that way, with a post-fight video in the locker room in Tulsa going viral as Braekhus seemingly passed the torch to Chicago’s McCaskill. But as soon as Braekhus left the United States for Norway, she says things went downhill fast.
“I wished her well and I thought that maybe she could be the next undisputed champion,” Braekhus said of the aftermath of the first bout. “And I think it took 24 hours before she started trash talking me and my team and I didn’t understand what was going on because I hadn’t even said I wanted a rematch or anything. How miserable do you have to be after they handed you five belts and the first thing you do is go and trash talk my whole team? That’s not where I want to see my belts going. That was very negative and very bad and that definitely helped make my decision very clear very early.”
That decision was that Braekhus wasn’t going to retire and she was certainly going to invoke the rematch clause in her contract. The rematch, on the Juan Francisco Estrada-Roman Gonzalez undercard in Dallas, Texas, is rapidly approaching, and the 39-year-old is eager to right what she believes was a wrong done to her by the judges last year.
“I’m the champion, because that fight was so close and, for me, I felt I won the fight,” said Braekhus. “A lot of people thought I won, and a lot of people also thought it should have been a draw. But I don’t consider myself a loser because of that fight. It was that close, and I never thought that I should have lost those belts in the way that I did. I think it’s not good for judges to do that because it’s unfair to me, of course, but it’s also unfair to Jessica McCaskill. Boxing fans didn’t see a fighter who came in the ring and grabbed the belts. This is the undisputed championship we’re talking about. It wasn’t sitting right with most people, so it is very good that it will be a rematch and it will clear everything up.”
It may be the first time we’ve ever seen Braekhus in a situation like this, where there are verbal battles leading up to the actual one in the ring. But she’s not backing down. And neither is the 36-year-old McCaskill, who fought long and hard – not just in the ring, but in life – to get to that ring in Tulsa, where she put in a performance that surprised many in order to lift the belts from Braekhus. It was a crowning achievement for a woman who was once homeless as a child before becoming Regulatory Reporting Analyst for brokerage firm R.J. O’Brien & Associates and, oh yeah, a world boxing champion. She still has both jobs, meaning life after the biggest win of her career didn’t slow down at all.
“I’ve been extremely busy,” said McCaskill. “After the fight, for months we just had numerous interviews and there were schools that we did Zoom class interviews for and the kids got to talk to me and ask questions. We’re very big in outreach in any way that we can, and with our training, we’ve been trying to get our fighters – pro and amateur – into anything that’s going on around the country. So it’s been non-stop for us. I still have my day job, so I’m working that and just trying to fit everything in to make sure that we’re staying on point. It’s been busy.”
That doesn’t mean there’s any looking past Braekhus, though. The first priority is making it two for two over her rival, and if it means early days and late nights in the gym with trainer/manager Rick Ramos, so be it.
“We’re always in the gym, fight or no fight, so our procedures are a little different,” she said. “We’re just trying to elevate ourselves, so it’s never the same thing twice. It’s never a copy and paste training regimen for us; it’s always how can we improve, what can we do better, smarter, and what will be more effective? It’s not always like how fast can you run on the treadmill, but if we do this, will this save us time and effort and come out with a better result?”
As for fighting the same opponent twice, McCaskill has been through that process before, scoring a pair of wins over Erica Farias in 2018 and 2019, and she learned that what you see the first time isn’t necessarily what you get the second time around. “It’s easier to just look at it as a brand-new fight because the Erica I got the second time was nothing like the Erica I got the first time,” she explains. “The first time she came out, she was willing, she wanted to fight, and she put on a really good show. And the second time, it was like a ‘punch and hold’ wrestling match.”
So what does she expect Braekhus to bring to the ring in her first fight since losing for the first time? Will it be all guns blazing from a challenger eager to take her belts back, or was the loss a harbinger of things to come for a fighter approaching the dreaded 4-0?
“Whenever I take a fight into consideration, there’s usually two or three different fights that I think I’ll be facing,” said McCaskill. “The first time, we thought she was going to come at me or she was going to punch and move, trying to be elusive and more of a boxer. We got the ‘come at me,’ so we know what the ‘come at me’ looks like. She’s usually more of a punch and move type of fighter, so we know what that looks like, and the third option is more of the Erica Farias rematch, maybe just here for a payday, ‘punch and hold’ kind of a situation. I’m expecting one of the three or a mix of all of them.”
Team McCaskill will be prepared. The same can be said for the Colombia-born Braekhus, who has been putting in a Rocky IV-esque camp in the snowy mountains of Big Bear, California with Abel Sanchez. “You feel like Rocky,” she laughs. “You’re up at six in the morning and going out and running in snow in the mountains.”
But how does this one go? Was this Rocky III with a devastating loss followed by a great comeback? Is it Rocky IV with Braekhus walking through fire to defeat a younger foe? Or do we just go with the original Rocky, the former champ giving another stellar effort only to lose on the scorecards? We know the only version Braekhus wants to see is one with her hand raised and her belts back at the end of 10 rounds, and if that is the result, she might even thank McCaskill for giving her the fire to run in the snow in the morning after thinking that she had possibly fought her final fight. “In this part of my career, you always think maybe the next fight could be the last, but this was definitely not the way for me to stop my career,” she said. “I always said when I lose to a better fighter, I’ll hang my gloves up. I don’t have any problems with that, and I wish them good luck. But that was not what happened this time. it didn’t take long before I was back in the gym training.”
And now it’s all about evening the score with McCaskill. Just don’t think we’ll see a third one if Braekhus does accomplish her mission. “I had a lot of motivation to get back in the gym very fast after the fight, but I don’t think this is my Ali-Frazier moment,” she said. “I think there will be bigger fights coming after McCaskill. But this is definitely a fight that really dragged me back into the boxing game, for sure. There will be a huge difference between the fighter you saw last year and the fighter in the ring March 13, without a doubt.”
Talk like that just made a good fight even better in terms of high stakes and drama. But they still have to get in there and perform. Braekhus is ready to do that, and so is McCaskill. “I need to make sure this isn’t a sloppy fight like my rematch I’ve done before,” the champion said. “I have to be very definitive in my actions. I would like to have a higher punch count. My punch count was ridiculously high last time, but I would love for my percentage to be higher, too. So I want to be patient, I want to wait for the right punches and that will get her completely off the board. There’s a lot of other things that I need to crush as well. She’s still ahead of me on some people’s pound-for-pound list. I don’t know how that makes sense. So that’s what I have to deal with.
“And I’m not talking about a huge right hand… I’m saying I’m going to be smart, I want to be accurate, I want to be clean.”