THERE are two contrasting opinions regarding Shannon Courtenay’s victory over Ebanie Bridges. The first, that the bout drew new fans to the sport and Courtenay winning a world title is an inspirational achievement, is far more palatable than the second, that Courtenay and Bridges had no business fighting for such a lofty belt.
For me, there’s merit to both arguments. I am acutely aware of the strides women’s boxing has made in recent years, the vast potential it has and the obstacles it still must overcome. Bouts as hotly-contested as Courtenay-Bridges, if you take away this wholly avoidable controversy regarding the belt, are essential in building the interest. But I have to say, though my view was softened by the awe-inspiring effort put forth by the fighters, I found the matchup for the vacant WBA bantamweight title slightly troublesome beforehand.
Neither had done anything to justify a shot at a world title. Let’s be frank about that, because we would be if two comparative male fighters were elevated to such a position. It has to work both ways in that regard.
Aussie Bridges, despite having only one victory over an opponent with a winning record (beating 2-1 Mahiecka Pareno in her 2019 debut) came from nowhere to suddenly be ranked in the WBA bantamweight top 10 last summer (she was ninth before Saturday’s contest) while Courtenay entered at eighth shortly after this bout with Bridges was confirmed. This is the kind of special treatment we’ve seen many times before but that shouldn’t mean we don’t talk about it out of fear of offending purely because it’s women and not men at the centre of it.
The interest in the bout was huge, thanks largely to Courtenay and Bridges – alongside Matchroom and Sky Sports – playing an absolute blinder in the promotion. Yet I did wonder, as I read the countless lewd remarks on social media about Bridges’ appearance, if this really was the step forward many are now claiming it to be. I’m told any publicity is good publicity but, even so, it did bring to mind conversations I’ve had with Mia St John about how she was rolled out on Top Rank undercards as the token eye candy twenty-odd years ago. Now I know Bridges was not exploited like St John and others from that era, quite the contrary in fact, but it should beg the question: Would she have received a world ranking without her social media following? Perhaps that question, which can be applied in a similar way to opportunities granted to certain male fighters, is too deep to be answered here but the wider implications of it should at least be considered.
Those who feel Bridges only achieved such astronomic attention purely because of her looks might be right. Yet if we’re to highlight that, it’s only fair to mention that fighters like Anthony Joshua, all muscles, machismo and sponsorship deals, have been capitalising on their appearance for years, albeit in a less forthright way. Also worth noting that Bridges standing on the scales in her skimpy underwear is less degrading than fighters brawling at press conferences to generate interest, which is conduct men get away with all the time.
What cannot be denied, or better still, what should be championed, is that Courtenay-Bridges was a cracker. It was evenly-matched, it was exciting to watch and both fighters displayed the kind of bravery and courage that the likes of myself never will. But just because it was well-matched doesn’t mean it needed a world belt thrown at it. In truth, it would have received exactly the same interest without the title. Therefore, one can reasonably question why there was one at stake, when not even the WBA, the most generous of all sanctioning bodies, could claim either was a Top 5 contender? It’s difficult to identify another sport where the rules of entry to the supposed top tier are so skewed.
The contest was indeed an inspiration. But how that inspiration manifests itself is yet to be seen. Was the message to knuckle down and perfect the trade – like so many are doing yet are not getting the opportunities they deserve – or was it to spend time on social media to boost your profile to such an extent that the need to truly prove your worth in a prize ring is a secondary consideration? As this contest proved, in 2021, the answer is likely a bit of both.