Amanda Serrano was overcome with pure joy. Her face lit up as the scorecards were read and several featherweight championship belts were placed on her right shoulder and waist. She had dominated Danila Ramos en route to a unanimous decision win in October, bolstering her argument for being considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport, and a trailblazer.
Serrano’s performance came in the first unified women’s championship fight contested over 12 three-minute rounds in boxing history. Female boxers, until that point, were only able to compete in bouts with 10 (or fewer) rounds at two minutes each.
“I really enjoyed the three minutes,” Serrano said after the fight in Florida. “I was able to set up a little more of my punches, and I think I’m going to continue with the three minutes. I know the women out there, they saw that it’s possible, that we can do it. And me and Danila, we showed that we’re capable. There’s going to be a lot of women out there that are going to say, ‘Yes, they did it. Now I can do it.’”
The sport was changed that night. At least for matchups with WBA, IBF, WBO, IBO and Ring Magazine championships on the line. Serrano’s WBC belt was not that night, and now the world knows why.
Last week Serrano announced she was vacating her WBC belt because the sanctioning body would not endorse women fighting under the same rules as their male counterparts.
Serrano, in a ruthless individual sport in which women have had far fewer opportunities than men to fight and earn a living, used Instagram to publicly express her displeasure with the WBC.
“Moving forward, if a sanctioning body doesn’t want to give me and my fellow fighters the choice to fight the same as the men, then I will not be fighting for that sanctioning body,” she said. “The WBC has refused to evolve the sport for equality. So I am relinquishing their title. Thank you to the sanctioning bodies who have evolved for equality! If you want to face me in the ring, you have a choice. I’ve made mine.”
WBC president Mauricio Sulaiman said his organization made this decision to protect female fighters from suffering potential long-term damage in the ring and issued the following statement to The Athletic:
“Boxing by its nature demands safety guidelines, rules, and protection. Rules are not discriminatory, arbitrary, or sexist. Rules are based on science, expertise, fairness, and above all, for safety. Our mission has always and will always be to lower the risk of anyone going into the ring, man or woman, in this combat sport, which is not a game. The WBC has chosen to honor these rules, principles, and values and will continue to research Women’s Boxing, support women’s boxing, and protect any woman participating in this incredible sport.
“We believe in any woman to have a choice, whether to compete under the WBC rules or compete under untested waters with much uncertainty and higher risks for their own lives, their opponents’ lives, and the quality of their lives after ring activity.”
Studies over the years have differed about the risks for women in boxing.
The WBC worked with the Pink Concussions Professional Advisory Board, a group of doctors who “focus on pre-injury education and post-injury medical care for women and girls with brain injury, including concussion incurred from sport, violence, accidents or military service.” Their work concluded that women have been shown to have increased susceptibility, symptom scores and prolonged symptoms of concussions compared to men.
“Whatever the cause, there is still the noted difference between the sexes regarding concussions,” the advisory board said in a statement. “Boxing carries the obvious inherent risk of head injury. One of the ways to help mitigate the cranial trauma is modification of the rules, which includes the number of rounds and the length of the rounds.”
In a July 2020 review published in the Orthopedic Journal of Sports Medicine, 25 studies on the topic were examined. It concluded that “female athletes appear to sustain more severe concussions than male athletes, due in part to a lower biomechanical threshold tolerance for head impacts. Additionally, concussions may alter the hypothalamic-pituitary-ovarian axis, resulting in worse symptoms and amenorrhea.”
One year later, however, another study was released in the same publication. A group of 23 amateur fighters took part in 53 training sessions and six competitions in boxing and mixed martial arts. They registered 896 head impacts: 827 in practice and 69 during competition. The final results showed “men experienced a greater number of impacts than women per practice session. However, there was no significant difference between men and women in terms of impact magnitude.”
In many mixed martial arts promotions, like the UFC, men’s fights and women’s fights have no differences in duration and round length.
Nakisa Bidarian, founder of Most Valuable Promotions and Serrano’s adviser, said the lack of concrete conclusions is why his fighter is pushing for equal rounds and time.
“If there was a definitive kind of categorically long-term study that said women are more prone to concussions than men and this is very dangerous, of course Amanda wouldn’t be championing it,” he told The Athletic. “But that just does not exist.”
He added: “I can’t argue that less time is less injury. So men should be fighting less rounds and less minutes? The NFL should reduce the time on the field? Basketball should have three quarters instead of four?”
More top fighters in women’s boxing have called for the sport to move to three-minute rounds.
Weeks before the Serrano-Ramos fight, a group of more than a dozen female fighters — including Natasha Jonas, Mikaela Mayer, Holly Holm, Heather Hardy, Christy Martin, Ann Wolfe, Laila Ali and Ramla Ali — issued a joint statement through Most Valuable Promotions supporting the cause.
“As women, we have had to fight inch by inch to earn the same equity and respect freely awarded to men,” the fighters said. “We stand together with the desire and dedication to have the CHOICE to perform on the same stage, with the same rules, as men in professional boxing. We have earned the CHOICE of 3-minute rounds, with 12 rounds for championship fights to demonstrate our skill and greatness.”
Claressa Shields, the undisputed light-middleweight champion, has long been an advocate for more and longer rounds. She told ESPN in 2021 that she believed the differences were partly in place to pay female boxers less money.
“I think the biggest thing in women’s boxing is people say … women should not get paid the same because we do not fight the same amount of time,” Shields said. “But I wish more people will realize that we did not put those rules in place; the men did. So the men need to change those rules to where every world champion boxer for women can fight three-minute, 12 rounds.”
But like anyone else I’d like to showcase my full abilities & not feel rushed.! Not just to get KOS!
— Claressa Gwoat Shields (@Claressashields) June 22, 2022
Bidarian told The Athletic that his team had discussions with the WBC a couple of weeks ago about alternative actions. One idea was to allow female fighters the option to add two rounds to championship fights. Bidarian also said his team proposed keeping women’s title fights at 10 rounds but contested at three minutes each until more data is available. The WBC rejected both suggestions, he said.
Serrano, as a result, rejected the WBC.
Her next fight has yet to be announced, though Bidarian said she will not revert to less time in the ring. For Serrano, the importance of standing up for the future of women’s boxing is crucial.
“She was already one of the greatest boxers in history,” he said. “This just further cements that she’s a trailblazer and, as her nickname says, the real deal. She just doesn’t speak it; she does it. And I’m beyond honored and proud to stand by her side to continue to achieve those things. Her next fight will be 12-3. And that’s the path she’s going to continue.”
(Photo: Alex Menendez / Getty Images)