Cecilia Braekhus' road to boxing stardom started on the fourth floor of her childhood home as she scampered down a very dicey fire escape to a gym where she received a very questionable welcome. It was a violation of every social convention and the explicit orders of her parents.
"I had my bedroom on the top floor with a window out to the roof," Braekhus told Bleacher Report with a laugh. "I just climbed down and went to training. I was 13—I didn't know better. If I had fallen, I would have died."
But some people don't hear "no" easily, and when they do, they tend to ignore it. Braekhus insisted, her parents caved and, in time, she found acceptance in the gym as well. Since winning the WBA and WBC women's welterweight titles from Vinni Skovgaard in 2009, Braekhus has rarely lost more than a round or two, let alone a bout, and is widely considered the best women's boxer in her class.
Despite finding her life's mission, the path never got any straighter for Braekhus. Professional boxing has been banned in her native Norway since 1981, the year of her birth. That's forced both a relocation to Germany and her growing base of hardcore Norwegian fans, in turn, to don their red and indigo blue and make the long drive to gyms all over Western Europe to see the First Lady of Boxing fight.
Saturday, at the Oslo Spektrum in Norway, that all changes. After a long, bitter battle to legalize the sport, Braekhus will reach her logical destination. After 10 years as a pro fighter, after an ascension to the very top of her profession, Cecilia Braekhus is finally coming home.
"She is a national hero in Norway, and now being able to fight after boxing was banned for so long is a big achievement in her career, completely selling out the arena, something that most male boxers can't do," Braekhus' business partner, Tom Loeffler from K2 Promotions, told Bleacher Report. "Norway has one of the most dominant athletes in the world. Being able to see Cecilia compete at home after not being able to fight in Norway her entire career is a big deal for her and for the entire country."
The event, her first fight in her homeland, sold out immediately. Almost 9,000 fans scooped up tickets in the first day to see their very own superstar in the flesh for the first time.
"We could have sold out 20,000 tickets if we wanted to," Braekhus said. "The prime minister is coming to the fight. It's absolutely insane. Everyone is going to watch it on television, and it's going to be a really big thing.
"It will be on TV3. It's a free channel. I said my first fight in Norway has to be on a free channel. It cannot be pay-per-view because everybody has to be a part of this."
And why not? It's not just a fight, after all. For longtime fans, it's the fight. Braekhus (28-0, 7 KOs) faces archrival Anne Sophie Mathis (27-3-1, 23 KOs) in a rematch of the closest fight of her career. Mathis, an aggressive slugger who once knocked out former UFC champion Holly Holm, remains one of the toughest customers in the sport.
"She's so dangerous. She's the hardest puncher by far in women's boxing. She's so tough. She has this tough background. She just comes to smash," Braekhus said. "Our first fight changed me. I'm definitely another fighter. With a new trainer, I have also changed a little bit my style, which will definitely be my advantage.
"She doesn't change her style. She just has one way to box. She hasn't done anything new coming into this fight but I have. I think that will surprise her. With my new coach (Johnathon Banks, who also trains heavyweight legend Wladimir Klitschko), I will have some new stuff."
While the fight won't be televised domestically in the United States, you can bet both networks and other promoters will be watching carefully. With a few exceptions like Christy Martin and the boomer nostalgia that fueled the rise of Laila Ali, women's boxing has never thrived in America. But a shifting culture of inclusion could change all of that—and the boxing industry is finally starting to take note of a revenue stream right under its noses.
"The economics for female boxing are not the same, and I think when faced with this challenge and lack of opponents, it is not that attractive for them," Loeffler said. "I find that female fights, when matched properly, are many times more entertaining than male boxing because the female boxers often know they have to put on a good show for their sport every time they enter the ring.
"As with any other sport, when there are popular stars, the sport itself becomes more popular. Now with Cecilia being as dominant as she is and getting more international publicity and attention and Claressa Shields' success at the Olympics, you see a resurgence for female boxing. Seniesa Estrada has fought on our last two shows at the Forum in L.A. and sells a tremendous amount of tickets because of her popularity."
While Braekhus certainly would have loved to see this resurgence come a little earlier in her career, she's pleased to be a part of it. That doesn't, however, make years of frustration disappear, and you can hear it in her voice as she discusses promoters' hesitance to give women a fair shot in the squared circle.
"It's really so simple, and so many people make it so hard," Braekhus said. "The only thing the promoters understand are numbers, TV numbers, and when you get girls getting TV numbers, then of course, we will get the attention. We are doing this with so much less capacity than the guys, so we are really working hard.
"American TV has always been in everybody's mind. The number one priority was to get the boxing back to Norway. Then after that, we can start thinking about other new goals. We are in dialogue with Cris Cyborg from MMA. She wants to do a boxing match. There are a lot of interesting things coming up now."
While many in boxing are loathe to admit it, the success of women's mixed martial arts has helped fuel the rise of female fighters in boxing as well. The UFC routinely promotes women up and down its cards, and Invicta FC has created a thriving niche promotion that only offers women fighters.
And then, of course, there's the Ronda Rousey phenomenon.
"The UFC created one of its biggest stars ever in Ronda Rousey," Loeffler conceded. "I think this shows that with the right exposure and promotion, female combat sports can be very popular because of the combination of being very attractive and yet perceived at the same time as being very dangerous inside the ring or Octagon."
In this environment, the 35-year-old's final years in the sport could be her best yet. It depends, she says, on resourcing more than anything else. If given the opportunity, she believes, women in boxing can have the same impact as their MMA peers.
"Women's boxing also has proved many times that we can sell," Braekhus said. "Regina Halmich, she was boxing in front of 8 million people in her home country. The main problem I think is the promoters because they are pushing the guys and they're not pushing the girls. So we are always left with small resources when it comes to promotion. Promotion is everything."
Concerns about promotion, budgets and television dollars, however, will have to wait. On Saturday, Braekhus will walk out the front door, not down the fire escape, for one of the biggest challenges of her career. The future, no matter how bright, will have to wait.
"This fight in front of me is so tough, so hard," she said. "I cannot focus on anything else right now."
Jonathan Snowden covers combat sports for Bleacher Report.