Next month’s blockbuster night of boxing at the Manchester Arena promises to be a big occasion for a number of reasons, most notably for Anthony Joshua’s chance to secure a potentially career-defining fight with Wladimir Klitschko by successfully defending his title against American Eric Molina.
Yet it is a less heralded bout at the bottom of the card which could prove equally significant in shaping the future of British boxing.
Irish Olympic gold medallist Katie Taylor will feature in her second professional fight since graduating from the amateur ranks and becoming the first female boxer on the roster of British promotion powerhouse Matchroom.
While the mixed martial arts (MMA) competition UFC has made superstars out of the likes of Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate, boxing has been slow to embrace and promote female fighters to a similar extent.
Leading promoter Frank Warren has said he doesn’t “feel comfortable working with women” while it took Nicola Adams’ historic gold medal win at London 2012 for the Boxing Writers’ Club to allow women at its gala dinner.
Yet since MMA fighters such as Rousey have pulled in more than 1m pay-per-view buys for a single event and set records for crowd size, the boxing business has begun to pay attention.
“MMA proved that women can be accepted very broadly by fans for their talent in the ring,” said former HBO Sports executive Mark Taffet, regarded as the pioneer of boxing’s pay-per-view model.
Taffet is now co-managing two-time US Olympic gold medallist Claressa Shields and has secured her a professional debut on the undercard of the light heavyweight world title clash between former Andre Ward, former foe of Britain’s Carl Froch, and Sergey Kovalev in Las Vegas later this month.
“Women’s amateur boxing talent is at an all time high and with Claressa turning pro I believe it will encourage many other great female amateurs to turn pro, creating a broad base of talent that can appeal to a new generation of fans,” he told City A.M.
Indeed, the amateur ranks have swollen with girls and women boxers taking up the sport. Figures from Sport England show participation has more than doubled in the last five years to 42,000 this year — meaning 45 per cent of pugilists in Britain are now women.
Yet barriers to professionalism from sceptical promoters, resistant governing bodies and lack of interest from sponsors have proved hard to break for even the toughest fighters.
Marianne Marston has been a pupil of legendary heavyweight Joe Frazier’s yet has been denied a licence by the British Boxing Board of Control who she accuses of opposing increased female participation in the sport.
“If you go into boxing gyms and talk to other [male] boxers, they don’t have an issue with it,” Marston told City A.M. “Audiences are supportive.”
“It should help open the sport,” she says of Taylor’s Matchroom signing. “But the sponsorship is the issue for a lot of fights. Sponsorship is traditionally male; beer, scaffolding, that kind of thing.
“But when we fight on male shows the amount of women in the audience increases to up to 25 or 50 per cent.”
Lisa Parfitt, managing director of sports marketing agency Synergy, argues that smart management of the best female fighters could open up significant new revenue streams into the sport.
“The likes of Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor, who have previously struggled to get by without commercial funding, provide brands with empowering and inspiring role models,” she says.
“They are accessible and their stories connect, women want to see themselves in marketing.
“One in five women are now the main breadwinner and women’s buying power and influence now drives 70 to 80 per cent of all consumer purchasing in the household. Pair that with the stats that 7m women in the UK are active and 75 per cent of women want to get more into sport and there is a very powerful argument for brands to rethink how they target women in marketing using sport as the platform.”
Like Taffet, Matchroom chief Eddie Hearn has recognised the commercial potential of Taylor who enjoys huge support in Ireland.
Principally, he insists she is a fighter of calibre fitting for a stable that currently boasts eight champions.
“Katie Taylor can fight,” he said in an interview earlier this week. “Forget the sexes, she’s entertaining as a fighter. Although it’s women’s boxing, I’m integrating it into a [men’s] card. Forget that she’s female, she may be more entertaining than the men to watch.”
Three to watch
Nicola Adams, 34
The first woman to ever win an Olympic gold medal in boxing and the current No1 ranked amateur in the world, Adams is reportedly considering a number of offers to turn pro.
Katie Taylor, 30
Taylor, a five-time amateur world champion, makes her pro debut on November 26 at Wembley's SSE Arena.
Claressa Shields, 21
Shields won an Olympic gold medal aged just 17 at the London Olympics. She defended her middleweight title in Rio following golds at the 2014 and 2016 World Championships.