Claressa Shields has been calling for it for years, well before she made a partial move to mixed martial arts. Shields rewrote boxing’s history books with every boxing fight she took and has always pushed for the same thing, the same hope: equality in women’s boxing.
Equality in pay. Equality in promotion.
She was also after equality on another front that directly tied into her two biggest causes: how long she and her fellow female boxers are allowed to fight in the ring.
Currently, top-level fights featuring female fighters can be contested for a maximum of 10 two-minute rounds — a full minute shorter and two rounds fewer than their male counterparts’ fights.
“I wish more people would realize that we did not put those rules in place — the men did,” Shields said in February. “So the men need to change those rules to where every world champion boxer for women can fight three-minute, 12 rounds.”
There’s a belief among female fighters that one more minute per round could be a boon for the sport, as it would offer more chances for knockouts and potentially bigger fan bases, leading to added revenue.
And at least one top promoter is interested in pushing for the switch.
Top Rank CEO Bob Arum told ESPN last month he has interest in putting on women’s boxing fights with three-minute rounds, something he believes will offer more excitement and opportunities for the sport.
“If I could get three-minute rounds,” Arum said. “I would sign a number of women.”
The opportunity for growth in women’s boxing is considerable. Currently, Top Rank has one female fighter on its promotional roster — WBO junior lightweight titleholder Mikaela Mayer.
Based on fighter rosters listed online, among major promotions, Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom Boxing has been the most proactive in signing the biggest names in women’s boxing today, including Katie Taylor, Jessica McCaskill, Terri Harper and Cecilia Braekhus. Matchroom has 13 women signed to the roster, trailing only DiBella Entertainment which has 14. Golden Boy Promotions has six and Salita Promotions — which promotes Shields — has four. Like Top Rank, Mayweather Promotions has one. PBC has none.
Arum told ESPN last month he wanted to begin working to get everyone — promotions, organizations and commissions — on board with the move to three-minute rounds as long as both fighters in a bout agreed to it. But as with everything in boxing, nothing is as easy as it seems.
Three-minute rounds have happened before in women’s boxing, just not very often.
Golden Boy Promotions put on a three-minute round female fight in Las Vegas in 2019: Seniesa Estrada against Marlen Esparza, in a fight for a WBA interim flyweight title that Estrada won by technical decision in the ninth round.
“Both fighters agreed to it. Both fighters accepted it and we supported it,” said Golden Boy Promotions matchmaker Robert Diaz. “In my personal [opinion], I love it. Not every fight should be three minutes, but definitely the world title fights should be three minutes.”
He said he believes eventually more women’s fights will end up at three-minute rounds — something his promotion tried to have this month. Diaz informally approached California State Athletic Commission executive director Andy Foster earlier this year to inquire whether that commission would be open to a three-minute round fight for Friday’s WBO junior flyweight title bout between Estrada and Tenkai Tsunami.
Diaz told ESPN he was told if both fighters agreed, the WBO would approve. Foster told him if that happened to officially submit a request. Diaz said Tsunami wasn’t interested — something Diaz said should be a decision for each fighter — so the idea never got enough traction to officially bring to Foster.
“If we got that request, I would take it to the commission,” Foster said. “And I could tell you my recommendation would be that we allow the three-minute rounds for females unless there’s compelling medical evidence against it.”
Bob Bennett, the executive director of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, said his state has no issues approving fights with three-minute rounds for female fighters, as they have equal time for male and female MMA fights.
MMA, and the UFC in particular, has produced breakout women’s fighters who draw considerable attention and interest, starting with one of the sport’s most notable athletes who crossed into the mainstream, Ronda Rousey, and carrying through to current champions including Amanda Nunes, Valentina Shevchenko and Rose Namajunas.
Women’s boxers are after the same kind of opportunities, with many believing that the higher possibility of a knockout with three-minute rounds could draw more interest and attention to their sport.
“That would be one way to increase the popularity with the sport,” said Mayweather Promotions CEO Leonard Ellerbe. “To create more excitement. Two-minute rounds go by [snaps fingers], you’re just getting warmed up.
“You’re talking about hitting people with body shots, breaking them down slowly so you get to the later rounds, seventh, eighth round, and then you’ll see a lot more action and a lot more devastating endings.”
Mauricio Sulaiman, the president of the WBC, told ESPN his organization has no interest at this time in allowing three-minute round fights for women’s boxing.
It’s a position his organization has steadfastly held for years, with Sulaiman saying it is purely a safety issue. When asked why it was OK for male fighters to fight three-minute rounds, in that case, Sulaiman said he didn’t make the initial rules. He said the research his organization has done stated women are at greater risk of concussion than men.
In October 2019, the California State Athletic Commission held a meeting looking at gender equity in combat sports that covered a number of topics, including shorter rounds. A document released in conjunction with that meeting pointed out several key arguments against the WBC’s position. There have not been stand-alone boxing or general combat sports-specific studies that point to a correlation between shorter rounds and fewer concussions.
“We have thoroughly discussed these matters and we have been confronted by fighters themselves and we have given our position,” Sulaiman said. “And unless there is clear medical research clearance to do any changes, the WBC will not change from the two-minute rounds.”
Sulaiman isn’t done investigating, though. He told ESPN the WBC reached out to UCLA prior to the COVID-19 pandemic to put together a pilot proposal to do specific research into women’s boxing.
“This is something that we are very conscious of,” Sulaiman said. “Some fighters are really outspoken that they want to fight three minutes and we are not ignoring it. We’re looking into it.”
When considering the four major sanctioning bodies, the WBC is seemingly alone in its approach to this topic. Daryl Peoples, the president of the IBF, told ESPN he has not looked into the issue extensively with his medical team, but plans to. He said unless there is clear medical evidence against it, he would be supportive of female fighters fighting three-minute rounds. WBO president Francisco “Paco” Valcarcel said that if the commissions approve and the fighters want it, the WBO will move forward in sanctioning those fights “in the U.S.”
The WBA has already sanctioned events of this type, and its president, Gilberto Mendoza Jr., also said that it is up to the fighters and commissions.
“If the boxing commission approves the fight and neither of the two opponents refuse, obviously we are going to approve the fight,” said Mendoza. “We ask for written consent from the two opponents stating that they agree to fight three-minute rounds.
“Yes, we are flexible, and that’s reflected in our new regulations.”
A change to this fight format would help both fighters and broadcast partners alike.
Showtime president Stephen Espinoza said his network, which broadcasts events put on by Premier Boxing Champions (PBC), is fine putting on women’s fights at two-or-three minute rounds — they’ve had Shields as a headliner in the past — and adding a minute to each round could end up bringing in more fans.
There are, of course, other issues with the sport — depth of fighters in some divisions, and pay disparity for female fighters versus their male counterparts among them. But if boxing can find a way to make this change happen, it could be a catalyst for growth and a big step in the right direction.
“Generally fans like knockouts, like TKOs, like the action, and I think that’s one of the things,” Espinoza said. “It’s really difficult to stop an opponent, male or female, with two-minute rounds.
“Once someone is getting in trouble, you get the minute break and it’s tough. I think, aside from differences in strength and things like that, one of the reasons I think you see fewer stoppages and less popularity is because of the two-minute rounds.”
ESPN’s Andres Ferrari contributed to this report.