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It's a fair question, one that's asked often across sports and non-sports industries: shouldn't equal work mean equal pay?
Claressa Shields, who fights on Friday against Marie-Eve Dicaire to unify all four super welterweight championship belts, believes that a big part of the reason why paydays for women in boxing lag so far behind the men is a simple one: time spent in the ring.
Women's bouts are usually a maximum of 10 rounds, and just two minutes per round; men's bouts are 12 rounds and three minutes each.
"I care about the sport and I know for a fact that [round and fight length] is why we don't get paid like the men and also why women's boxing is not considered on the same level as men's boxing," Shields told Yahoo Sports after a recent training session. "We don't even go three minutes. Like, forget the 12 rounds, but we don't even box three-minute rounds. A lot of fans have said to me that they feel like they're being cheated out of our fights because they're two minutes. ... They want to see their favorite fighter get knockouts, they want to see their favorite fighter look smart and have enough time to execute, and two minutes is not enough time."
Several elite women within the sport, including Shields and bantamweight Marlen Esparza, have been fighting for years to convince boxing's governing bodies that they need to go to three minutes a round, not just to show that they can fight as long as the men and therefore deserve the same pay, but also for strategic and results reasons: two minutes just isn't long enough to get a knockout.
The WBC, which is influential in safety rules, has pointed to studies showing women get concussions at higher rates, and that's why it insists on the shorter rounds. But Shields believes it's antiquated science and Esparza told The Ringer in 2018 that when she's asked to see the documented evidence she hasn't gotten a response.
"It's facts, women have smaller bones than men, and women have smaller necks than men. We know that that's facts, but what does that have to do with boxing?" Shields said. "Like, we're not in the ring fighting against a man for them to say 'oh your necks are smaller.' It's a woman against a woman. You know, some men fight against other men some necks are smaller, what does that have to do with anything? If they're saying our bodies are not capable to do three-minute rounds that's absolutely incorrect. It's false."
When training, Shields spars three-minute rounds against men.
The reality is, a concussion can come at any time. If the first punch you take in the first round is hard enough and hits in just the right place, you can suffer a brain injury.
Dr. Margaret Goodman, a longtime ringside doctor who was announced as a member of the International Boxing Hall of Fame Class of 2021 last December, told Yahoo Sports that years ago, when pretty much the only skilled female boxers were Laila Ali and Christy Martin, it made sense to have two-minute rounds because the mismatches scared medical experts.
But "when you look at women's boxing now, the level of [competition] is such that there are level fights, especially because there are amateur programs. I think it's appropriate to revisit [increasing round length for women,]" Goodman said.
It is true that women are more susceptible to concussions, she affirmed, and that women tend to take longer to recover from a concussion, but there is no study that shows it is necessary for women to fight two-minute rounds.
Goodman understands the WBC's reluctance because as a sanctioning body it doesn't want to approve something that could lead to greater risk of injury. However, the real culprit for men and women, she stressed, is training. A fighter could spar 120 rounds to prepare for a 10-round fight, and that's where they can incur brain injuries, particularly since evidence shows that the headgear boxers wear in training doesn't offer adequate protection from concussion.
Goodman suggested that it might be time to make one change: try three-minute rounds for women but keep the 10-round limit.
Shields, a two-time Olympic gold medalist (she won her first, in London, at just 17 years old) who is 10-0 with two knockouts as a professional, used to not be in favor of a three-minute round, saying it would make the sport boring.
But now she's become one of its most vocal advocates.
"Women and fighters, we know what we signed up for and we signed up to be boxers and go out there and go after our goals and put our life at risk," Shields said. "And if you're not going to protect the men, then don't protect the women. It's not protecting us because actually I've been in a fight where I'll whup a girl's ass 10 rounds, two minutes, and she gets the rest for that minute [between rounds], people think that she's recovered, but she's not. She comes back in and takes another beating and she's got so much heart that she doesn't want to quit. And that's being put through torture.
"If it was three minutes I would have enough time to break them down and maybe she would quit, maybe she wouldn't get off her stool, or maybe I would have enough time to knock her out. It's actually giving them a chance to face less punishment."
Shields said she's "absolutely" missed out on knockouts because of the shorter rounds, citing her bouts with Hannah Rankin, Femke Hermans and Christina Hammer as ones where the longer round would have given her the extra time to finish off her opponent and get the knockout.
She also notes that in MMA, women have always fought five-minute rounds, the same as the men, and there's always at least one women's match featured in PPV events. Goodman countered that because of the array of moves an MMA fighter can use to win they absorb fewer head shots.
Goodman believes using the shorter rounds as justification for paying women smaller purses is "an excuse without any merit" and that it's worth taking another look at round length.
"From a standpoint of a regulator you can see how it would be difficult. But when you get to the level of someone like Claressa it might benefit her because she's a true boxer, she's totally skilled, and so are so many of the other women in the sport," Goodman said. "And I think it would benefit the sport from an observer's standpoint. Whether that would lead to more financial remuneration is another discussion."
On Friday, Shields will be in her hometown of Flint, Michigan, headlining her first pay-per-view event as she faces the Canadian Dicaire to unify the WBC, IBF, WBO and WBA women's super welterweight titles. Shields currently holds the WBC and WBO belts, and Dicaire (17-0, no knockouts) the IBF and WBA belts.
Five of the seven fights on the card will be between women; it's been 20 years since a pay-per-view event was headlined by female boxers.
Shields said it means a lot to have top-billing on a card featuring female boxers and added, "this is where women's boxing needs to be." She would love to see one network become the home of women's boxing, a place where fans know they can see the top fighters.
It remains to be seen what happens and if she'll be able to get fights sanctioned, but Shields said she's done with two-minute rounds.
"After this fight with Marie-Eve Dicaire, I will be fighting three-minute rounds for 10 rounds," she said. "So any of my future opponents, they can jot that in their book and if they want to beat me they can start training for that now. But I'm not going to continue to fight two-minute rounds. I will be fighting three-minute fights for the rest of my fights."
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