Jessica McCaskill, a 35-year-old investment banker from Chicago who overcame homelessness as a child and moonlights as a professional boxer, sprang a seismic upset on Saturday night in dethroning Cecilia Brækhus, the undisputed welterweight champion widely regarded as the sport’s pound-for-pound world No 1.
The younger and busier American challenger won a narrow 10-round majority decision by scores of 97-94, 97-93 and 95-95 to capture the WBA, WBC, IBF and WBO titles at 147lbs in a purpose-built ring on the streets of downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. (The Guardian had it 95-95.)
“This is for the fourth-grade homeless Jessica,” said McCaskill, a titleholder at 140lbs who moved up in weight for a shot at Brækhus, who was undefeated in 36 professional bouts. “This is for the little girl that just didn’t care what people thought about her, and learned to love herself even though she was really weird. And for the me now that sacrifices everything to put this sport first and make a difference.”
Brækhus (36-1, 9 KOs), the 38-year-old Norwegian who became a world champion in 2009 and the first woman to unify all four major title belts in any weight class in 2014, landed the cleaner and more accurate blows throughout the fight, which took place at a catch-weight of 145lbs.
But McCaskill (9-2, 3 KOs), who went off as a 6-1 underdog, was by far the more active fighter, landing 84 of 499 punches (17%) compared to 85 of 269 for her opponent (32%).
“I just didn’t stop,” said McCaskill, who balances her boxing career with a full-time job as an analyst for Chicago brokerage giant RJ O’Brien & Associates. “I didn’t expect her to be as rough as she was, but I was ready to be as rough as I had to be and that’s what came out.”
She added: “Two hundred thirty more punches than she did. That shows you that I wanted it.”
Brækhus, who was attempting to surpass Joe Louis’s all-time record of 25 consecutive successful title defenses, instead settles for a tie with the legendary American heavyweight. Afterward she was gracious in defeat, refusing to make excuses and wishing her successor well.
“Jessica just threw more punches than me tonight. She really, really wanted it,” said Brækhus, who had never in a 13-year career heard a single scorecard read against her until Saturday’s verdict. “I’m proud and happy to pass the torch to her. I have to say, I don’t know what’s going to happen right now, but I’m incredibly proud to be a part of women’s boxing right now.
“If this is my last fight, I can leave women’s boxing and say I was a part of this. I was a part of taking women’s boxing to this level and that will be my biggest achievement of all.”
When pressed on her future plans, Brækhus strongly hinted at retirement.
“I’ve done so much and I miss my friends, my family,” she said. “Women’s boxing is just in an amazing place right now, so they’ll do fine without me.”
The fight was pitched as the first semi-final of a four-woman tournament with the winner facing either undisputed lightweight champion Katie Taylor or Belgium’s Delfine Persoon, who are slated to meet next Saturday in a rematch of their epic first encounter in June 2019.
McCaskill and Taylor previously met in December 2017 with the Bray fighter winning by unanimous decision in her first world title defense – and the American is eager for a second crack.
“I think Katie really underestimated [Persoon] the last time,” McCaskill said. “I hope she’s on her discipline and her skills this time and comes out with the win because I want to be the one who beats her.”