Olympic matches could be platform to pros
LOS ANGELES >> Many of the 40 men leaving Rio de Janeiro with Olympic boxing medals around their necks in three weeks will have their pick of professional promoters eager to reward them with riches and fame.
For the 12 women who claim medals in the second Olympic women's boxing tournament, the pro options still aren't glittery.
Several years after the International Boxing Association (AIBA) won its fight to get women's boxing into the Olympics, the games still represent the apex of the sport. While women's boxing has grown in prestige and popularity since the inaugural London tournament, female pros still languish behind their male counterparts in money, exposure and opportunities.
Claressa Shields and Katie Taylor could be in position to change that if the two biggest Western names in the amateur game can claim a second gold.
"Whichever promoter takes on women's boxing is going to be a very wealthy man, especially if he takes up me," said Shields, the 21-year-old American middleweight. "If he wants some money, he knows what to do."
Shields dominated in London as a teenager, and she is favored to win again in Rio. But when she hears about the opportunities available to hot-prospect bantamweight Shakur Stevenson and her other American teammates, she wonders whether she'll ever be able to cash in.
"It's like that because nobody actually goes pro from the women's (sport) yet," Shields said. "We have to see what opportunities await after my Olympic gold medal run. I'm just weighing my options right now. I don't know."
Taylor, the 2012 lightweight gold medalist and a five-time world champion, is arguably the most accomplished female athlete in her native Ireland's history. Taylor also has spoken about her interest in going pro, and it's not tough to imagine her fame translating into professional riches.
But Shields and Taylor are still waiting for a promoter or a television network to step up with enough of a commitment to make them bankable stars. Many promoters have tried with fighters from Laila Ali to Christy Martin, but the titular payday of Hilary Swank's character in Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning 2004 film, "Million Dollar Baby," remains fiction.
"I've never been able to make women's boxing pay," said Top Rank boss Bob Arum, who promoted former WBC champion Mia St. John. "I tried to take it on. I might still do it again, but I wasn't successful. It's always been that you start them, you pay them small amounts, and then they read their press clippings and they want a lot of money, but they don't bring it in. I don't know how to make it work yet."
But women's combat sports have evolved dramatically in the past four years. Shields and Arum both point to mixed martial arts as a reason for optimism: The UFC has turned women's MMA into a vibrant, money-making sport, and Ronda Rousey — who signed with the UFC in November 2012 — became the sport's most prominent fighter of any gender.
"Yeah, and Ronda is a bronze medalist, not a gold medalist, know what I mean?" Shields said of Rousey, who won bronze in judo in Beijing.
Women's UFC title fights headlined two consecutive fight cards in Las Vegas earlier this month. Last weekend, longtime pro boxer Holly Holm's headlining non-title bout against Valentina Shevchenko was one of the highest-rated UFC shows in Fox's history.
"You have to notice what UFC did," Arum said. "They've built their female fighters into stars. They made Rousey into the big superstar of that sport. I don't know whether that could happen in boxing. I don't see why not, but it's never happened."
Holm won multiple world titles while boxing mostly in casinos in her native New Mexico. She clearly makes more money from the UFC than she ever did on the pro boxing circuit, but money wasn't Holm's motivation for the change.
"I definitely think it can happen for women's boxing," Holm said. "Right now is hard, because it's not really mainstream. But look how quickly women's MMA blew up. It could be the same. Women who are passionate about boxing should follow it. Stay passionate about it. People aren't going to give you the opportunities before you show something."
The right promoter for women's boxing could be the organization that put women into the Olympics in the first place.
AIBA has two professional boxing ventures for men as it seeks a larger role in the pro game, and President Wu Ching-Kuo has been a vocal advocate for women's boxing throughout his tenure. AIBA's World Series of Boxing doesn't include women yet, but executive director Karim Bouzidi has said he expects female fighters to be included by next year.
U.S. lightweight Olympian Mikaela Mayer has already fought on a WSB card as a special attraction, and while she hasn't decided to turn pro, she is intrigued by a prizefighting future after her first Olympics in Rio.
"The pros haven't been big for women because there hasn't been a platform for us," Mayer said. "Now that we're allowed into the Olympics, it also gives us credibility. We can go to the pros and say, 'Look, I'm an Olympian. I'm a gold medalist.' They're going to want to sign us. It's just evolution and time."
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