WOMEN’S boxing took a giant step forward when Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano met in the ring at Madison Square Garden in a sensational fight on Saturday with Taylor winning a split decision. It was the first time ever that two women headlined a card in the fabled arena; a fight to determine who would be recognised as the best pound-for-pound female fighter in the world; and the most anticipated fight in the history of women’s boxing. Not only was it the biggest women’s fight ever, it might have been the best.

Let’s put Taylor-Serrano in context.

The New York City Golden Gloves created a women’s amateur boxing tournament in 1995. Seventeen years later, women’s boxing became an Olympic sport. But women’s boxing had never penetrated the mainstream sports market in the United States. There were a few blips on the radar screen – Laila Ali vs. Jacqui Frazier because of their famous fathers; Christy Martin because of her presence on Mike Tyson undercards. But the truth is, not even boxing insiders followed women’s boxing in a serious way. Want proof? In the 1970s and 1980s, Jackie Tonawanda loudly styled herself as “the female Ali.” At most, she had one professional fight (and if it occurred, which is doubtful, she lost). But last December, Tonawanda was elected to the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

Last year, John Sheppard (who oversees BoxRec.com) reported that, internationally, one out of every seven women’s fights was for a sanctioning body “championship” belt. Sheppard further noted that the world sanctioning organisations have created more women’s “championship” belts than there are active women boxers.

It’s hard to take a sport like that seriously.

That brings us to Taylor-Serrano.

Taylor, who entered the ring on Saturday with a 20-0 (6) record, has taken women’s boxing to a new level. A native of Ireland who lives in the United States, she won a gold medal at the 2012 London Oympics and has held the four major sanctioning body 135-pound belts for three years.

Taylor is willing to go in tough. After winning a questionable decision over Delfine Persoon at Madison Square Garden in 2019, she gave Persoon a rematch and outpointed her convincingly. Not many fighters – male or female – would have taken that rematch.

Katie is articulate and self-effacing with a vulnerable quality about her. She projects a comforting image for women’s boxing. But boxing is different from other sports. And many people still aren’t used to seeing women impose themselves so violently on each other.

I asked Taylor once, “When you reached an age when the punches hurt and boxing became serious for you, was the motivation you were most aware of when you got in the ring to defend yourself or attack?”

“That’s an interesting question,” she said.

But she declined to answer it.

Serrano (previously 42-1-1, 30 KOs) has been fighting professionally since 2009 and is billed as a “seven-weight world champion,” having won belts in divisions ranging from 115 to 140 pounds. That emphasises the manner in which women’s belts are handed out today like candy from a gumball machine. But Amanda can fight and, in the ring, evokes images of another Nuyorican star – Hector Camacho, a slick southpaw with sharp claws.

“I shine under pressure,” Amanda says.

Serrano has been trained from her first days in the gym by Jordan Maldonado. On the downside, Maldonado was charged with the criminal sale of controlled substances in 2007, pled guilty, and spent a year in prison. The indictment, Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated reported, stemmed from a federal investigation of two gyms that were alleged to be “drug supermarkets that peddled steroids, cocaine, ecstacy, and OxyContin.” Amanda and her sister, Cindy, figured in the investigation with Mannix reporting, “Cindy faced nine years but avoided prison. Amanda’s case never went to court.”

Taylor-Serrano was packaged as “the biggest fight in women’s boxing history.” It was certainly the most heavily promoted.

At the February 2 kick-off press conference in New York, Madison Square Garden executive vice president Joel Fisher hailed the event as a watershed moment in women’s boxing and declared, “This is history.”

Katie Taylor vs Amanda Serrano
Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

Jake Paul (who replaced Lou DiBella as Serrano’s promoter) brought a massive social media platform to the promotion which was aimed in large measure at New York’s Irish-American and Nuyorican communities and marketed as a statement of women’s empowerment.

Each woman, the media was told, would receive a seven-figure purse.

Serrano seemed excited by the magnitude of the event. She had more to win and Taylor had more to lose in the impending confrontation. “I respect Katie Taylor,” Amanda said. “There’s going to be no bad words between us. But in the ring, it’s something different.”

Taylor was less enamoured of the spotlight. If Katie had her way, she wouldn’t be going to press conferences and answering the same questions in interview after interview. But that’s the way professional boxing works.

“This fight is more important than we realise,” Katie declared. “Not only are we breaking the ceiling for female purses, but we have actually changed perceptions of the sport. If our careers have only achieved that, then all the hard days in the gym have been absolutely worth it.”

There were the usual fight-week activities. Open media workouts, a visit by Taylor and Serrano to the Empire State Building. Some of the events dragged slowly. The final pre-fight press conference on April 28 was announced as starting at 1.00pm. But when the appointed hour came, the media had to sit through an extended back-and-forth between promoter Eddie Hearn and various undercard fighters before Taylor and Serrano took the stage. History repeated itself at the Friday weigh-in which began at 1.00pm but led off with a parade of undercard fighters. In reality, the “real” weigh-in for the main event had been conducted behind closed doors at 9.00 that morning with Taylor coming in at 134.6 pounds and Serrano a pound lighter.

The promotion had an agreement with WWE for the latter to push the event on its social media platforms (which claim a combined audience of 167 million followers). WWE Raw women’s champion Bianca Belair and former WWE Raw women’s champion Becky Lynch served respectively as honourary captains for Team Serrano and Team Taylor.

Taylor had opened as an 11/10 betting favorite. By fight week, the odds had flipped to favour Serrano by a similar margin. The two women had one opponent in common. Katie pitched a shutout over Miriam Gutierrez in 2020. One year later, Amanda fell one round shy of doing the same. As a footnote, Taylor defeated Cindy Serrano in 2018, winning all 10 rounds on each judge’s scorecard.

At a February 7 press conference in London, Taylor had acknowledged, “I’m expecting the toughest fight of my career.” But then she’d proclaimed, “I know that I won’t be found short on grit and heart. I know my mind can take me to places I have no right to go because I’ve been there before. That question has been answered. I’m not sure that Amanda has answered that question yet.”

Serrano matched Taylor verbally from the start. That’s the easy part of boxing. “I have everything,” Amanda said in London. “There’s no questioning my heart, my skills, my power, and my chin. I have all the tools to beat Katie Taylor. I just have to go out there and be smart.”

Amanda was more subdued during fight week than earlier in the promotion, But a majority of boxing insiders were picking her to win.

Taylor is technically sound and was the naturally bigger woman. But Katie is fairly predictable as a fighter and doesn’t use her size to wear down opponents. Nor is she a puncher. Her last seven bouts had gone the distance. And at age 35 (27 months older than Amanda), she appeared to have slowed a bit in recent fights.

“I’m preparing to be the best version of myself,” Taylor said. “I don’t think I’ll have to do anything to re-invent myself. I’ll go in there being myself and box the way I know I can box. I don’t train to lose.”

But to many, Serrano seemed a bit fresher than Taylor, a bit hungrier, and a southpaw to boot. Early in the promotion, Amanda had floated the idea of changing the bout from the traditional women’s 10 two-minute rounds championship format to 12 three-minute stanzas. But that idea never gained traction.

Mike Griffin was the referee. For those looking for omens, Griffin had been the third man in the ring when Anthony Joshua defended his heavyweight belts against Andy Ruiz three years earlier at Madison Square Garden. That night, an undefeated icon fell. Would the same fate befall Taylor?

During the final pre-fight press conference, Jake Paul (who was backing Serrano) goaded Eddie Hearn into a million-dollar bet on the outcome of the fight, which Hearn then disavowed by saying that it still had to be papered.

One thing that people agreed on was that everyone liked Taylor-Serrano as a fight. And its importance was obvious. Katie put the matter in perspective, saying, “This fight will be talked about for years and years. This isn’t just for myself and Amanda. This is for the next generation of fighters. We are bringing the whole sport up with us. This is exactly the legacy that I want to leave. People laughed at me when I said I wanted to be an Olympic champion. They never would have believed this.”

During the build-up to Taylor-Serrano, Hearn had proclaimed, “The world will stop to watch this fight.” That was hyperbole. But on fight night, 19,187 fans (including four thousand who flew to New York from Ireland) packed Madison Square Garden.

Give Hearn credit. He built the event, put the pieces together, and sold the show to the public.

The atmosphere before the opening bell was akin to that of a World Cup football match with Taylor and Serrano carrying two of the most spirited fan bases in the world into the ring with them. Serrano’s partisans were loud and Taylor’s were louder.

When the bell for round one sounded, it was clear that this was the biggest moment in the history of woman’s boxing.

Too often, mega-fights fall short of expectations. This one delivered. Sports fans know when they’re being entertained. Taylor-Serrano was enthralling. Each fighter rose to the occasion. At times, the roar of the crowd was deafening.

Round one began with Serrano as the aggressor. Taylor tried to use the whole ring while Amanda tried to cut it off. Round two was more of the same with Katie showing lateral movement and Serrano dictating the pace. By round three, Amanda was fighting as though Taylor couldn’t hurt her, but Katie seemed the stronger of the two in clinches. The crowd was so loud that, at the end of the stanza, Mike Griffin couldn’t hear the bell. Things would get louder.

Katie Taylor
Ed Mulholland/Matchroom

In round four, Taylor countered effectively at times and occasionally got off first. But she suffered a cut on her right eyelid. And in round five, the proverbial roof caved in on her. Serrano pinned Katie in a corner and unloaded. Taylor responded in kind. There was a deafening roar as the two women punched non-stop for virtually the entire two minutes. But now Taylor looked old. Amanda was dominating and relentless, battering Katie around the ring, staggering her on several occasions. The blood pouring from Taylor’s nose was the least of her problems. She was taking a beating. As she walked slowly to her corner at the end of the stanza, she looked like a beaten fighter.

In round six, Serrano went for the kill. Taylor was fighting on heart. At that point, the hope from some Taylor partisans was simply that, win or lose, Katie would be able to finish the fight on her feet. “I knew I was going to have to dig deep and go to the trenches,” she said when the bout was over.

In round seven, Taylor began to regroup. Serrano was still stalking. In round eight, Katie got her legs back and was able to move laterally effectively again. By round nine, Serrano’s punches had lost some of their sting. Now Taylor was getting off first.

Round 10 saw frenzied punching till the final bell with Taylor getting the better of it. When the battle was done, the warriors embraced, two women bloodied but unbowed, their faces bruised and swollen.

I thought Serrano won the fight. So did Benoit Russell whose score was announced first – 96-94 for Serrano.

The Queen is dead. Long live the new Queen.

Not so fast.

Glen Feldman’s scorecard was read next – 97-93 for Taylor.

And finally, Guido Cavalleri – 96-93 for Taylor

Clearly, Cavalleri didn’t go into the fight with a pro-Taylor bias because he scored round five 10-8 in favour of Serrano despite the fact that there was no knockdown. Still, two of the judges gave only three rounds to Serrano. I think that was off the mark.

Serrano was gracious in defeat, saying, “Katie Taylor is a tough fighter. She’s a strong champion, a warrior. She’s Irish and she was able to withstand the power and come back.”

Taylor responded in kind, stating, “We definitely got the best out of each other tonight; that’s for sure.”

Telling fans that a fight is for a belt doesn’t mean that it will be a good fight. And just because a fighter has won a belt – or two or three – doesn’t mean that he or she is a championship-calibre fighter. As Andre Ward observed, “A lot of people want to be great in this sport but they don’t want to earn it.”

Taylor and Serrano earned it. It’s hard to think of two fighters who are more dedicated to their craft. And they were willing to go in tough by fighting each other; the best fighting the best.

It wasn’t Ali-Frazier. But it was Taylor-Serrano.

As for what comes next; there’s already talk of Taylor-Serrano II to be contested in Ireland.

“Absolutely, we have to do this again,” Taylor said in a post-fight interview. “It was an absolute war for ten rounds. Look what we’ve just done. I said before that, when you think Madison Square Garden, you think Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier. But now everyone will be thinking of Katie Taylor vs. Amanda Serrano. She’s a phenomenal fighter. A great, great person. It would be a privilege to fight her again.”

But let’s carry the Ali-Frazier analogy a bit further. Taylor-Serrano was a war. How much did it take out of each warrior?

Some of boxing’s greatest fighters and best ambassadors for the sport become cautionary tales. The more that women’s boxing advances, the more it will be plagued by the same problems that beset the men – including health and safety issues. In the not-too-distant future, will we have a generation of women fighters suffering from pugilistica dementia?

Earlier this year, Taylor acknowledged, “I definitely understand I can’t do this forever, unfortunately, as much as I would love to. So many people have spoken about my retirement over the last few months. When I’m asked about it, I just answer politely. But on the inside, my stomach’s churning.”

Taylor’s legacy has now been written. More fights will bring her a huge amount of money but won’t enhance her place in history. There’s only one thing left for Katie to learn the hard way in boxing. And that’s losing.

It will be tempting for Taylor to fight again, particularly in Ireland (where she has never fought as a professional). Her life as a boxer and her religious beliefs are the two things that she defines herself by most. The idea of stepping into the ring in front of tens of thousands of passionate fans at Croke Park in Dublin is alluring.

That said; Katie Taylor has opened doors that other women boxers will pass through in the years to come. Not only has she led her people to the promised land, unlike Moses she has been allowed to enter it. I’d like to see her retire now. But she won’t.