IN 2017, on a raucous night at York Hall in Bethnal Green, Jessica McCaskill challenged Katie Taylor for the lightweight world title. The Irishwoman was the star of the London Olympics, unbeaten as a professional and making her first defence of the WBA crown. Little was expected of her American challenger. McCaskill had had a far more modest amateur career. She’d lost her second pro fight to a debutante. On paper it looked like a routine outing for Taylor, even if in the ring McCaskill proved a shade more stubborn, a touch tougher than anticipated. But she did not appear to be a boxer who would over the course of the following three years win a world title in the division above and unify in that weight class before moving up again to become the world’s undisputed welterweight champion.
“I learned that I do belong at that level; the reassurance of confidence, being really confident in my team,” McCaskill said of her London experience. “[It] lets you know that your team is valuable and can handle that kind of pressure and can work under those circumstances.”
“I think a lot of people were just expecting me to enjoy that moment [against Taylor] and then never hear from me again. But in my mindset I’m always aiming for the top, one way or another and that’s what we did. We just kind of kept working and different things were brought to us,” she continued. “We rolled with it and that’s what you have to do in this business. Because everything can change overnight so you just have to be flexible with it. Every time I fought since Katie Taylor and up, it’s just been at world class level. So you learn things and you gain wisdom, kind of subconsciously, and grow without even trying. But then also, you know what you’re facing in the ring. So when you come back to the gym and you come back to the drawing board after a win, after a loss, after just that level of fight, you put more effort into it every time.”
But winning super-lightweight world titles against Erica Anabella Farias and Anahi Ester Sanchez is one thing. Challenging the great Cecilia Braekhus, previously unbeaten in 36 professional fights, for all four of the major welterweight titles was another step up to a whole new level. This time however McCaskill was successful, winning a majority decision in Downtown Tulsa on August 15.
This may have been an unlikely triumph, except to McCaskill and her team. They had anticipated it. Jessica met Braekhus in Las Vegas shortly after the Taylor fight. They posed for a picture and McCaskill couldn’t help sizing up the Norwegian. Later Braekhus would invite her into training camp but McCaskill turned down the offer. Already she was considering the welterweight as a future opponent.
“We declined because again we didn’t want to give out any free looks because one day we might fight her. We always had it in the back of our minds,” Jessica said. “It wasn’t a surprise. When you start thinking ahead and thinking outside the box, those things that seem really big and outrageous get smaller and smaller and smaller. I was just ready to get in the ring.”
“There’s a lot of difference between size and filling out versus being powerful and strong,” McCaskill adds. “She was taller and me dipping down and her being taller really caused for the clash, the elbows behind the neck, things like that. That was something I had to withstand and work around.
“I was really trying to go for the knockout. I’m going to have to stop saying I’m going to knock people out, because when I do I never execute.”
But she did secure the championship belts. “I was just so happy to be able to say we did it. Me, my team, everything that we’ve been pushing through. The fight being originally scheduled for April, getting moved to August, being in training since January, the whole Covid [and] not knowing if the fight was going to be rescheduled. Just really trying to push any and everything that came against us to the back of my mind and just focus. Getting through those challenges,” McCaskill said.
She had also proved herself at the top of the sport. Behind the scenes, after the fight she came face to face with Braekhus a last time. Not to size her up on this occasion but to hand back Cecilia’s titles. “I don’t take what she’s done in the boxing game lightly so I wanted to be able to share a moment with her,” Jessica said. “We’ve never had any issues, me and her directly.”
“There was never any bad blood, it was just really about the sport and really trying to do big things. On her side she was trying to create history,” McCaskill added. “On my side, I was trying to stop that, stop her and trying to become undisputed.
“It’s all for the sport.”
McCaskill’s odyssey through the sport is an unlikely one too. Undisputed champions are few and far between and none, except for her, have held a parallel career in an investment bank. “I guess it’s just the passion for the sport. I mean I love challenges and I love being competitive,” she reflected. “I think the combination of the two really keeps me focused and helps me to juggle my schedule very well. It helps for me to just keep everything back to back and that way I don’t even think about what’s next or what’s going on.”
It is a punishing scheduling. She speaks to Boxing News from a desk set up inside her gym in Chicago. From here, after arriving for her first training session at 4.45am, she’ll work for the bank, breaking for her other workouts during the day. Clearly it’s a routine that has got her results. “For me one thing is just layered after another. I do it, stick to the same regime and that works for me,” McCaskill said. “It’s very rewarding.
“It’s funny because the rough entanglement of boxing really meshes well with white collar business. They love it, they want to hear all the gory stories. They’re very supportive.
“It’s healthy to be able to balance both worlds, in certain ways they’re very similar.”
Early on her co-workers from banking didn’t quit appreciate the seriousness of boxing. But, from offering her shots before the first fight they came to, that attitude changed, especially once McCaskill started coming in with title belts. The investment bank where she currently works is one of her sponsors. “Boxing in white collar business it is a complete perfect match up. They loved it,” she said. “Everybody is very supportive of my other job.
“They’ve heard a lot about my story, they’ve had me speak at different functions and kind of just share how I got here.”
It’s an unusual background for an elite boxer. But her approach has brought her success. “Every time I was trying to hit another level I was so focused on that. You get to a point where I’m focused on trying to win a world title and once you do that, what’s the next step, focus on that. And so honestly the part where I’m at now just really came fast and I didn’t think, walking into a gym, ‘Hey I’m going to be an undisputed champion.’ I just thought I’m going to be great at this and I’m going to give it my all today. And the next day I did the same thing and just was really focused on the things that were right in front of me and the things that I could, for sure, definitely do right here and now. And that’s what brought me to where I am now,” she explains. “It was something I claimed as my own and so it didn’t really matter what people said. I had a team that backed me so that’s all I really needed.
“If you’re just confident in yourself and you put the work in when you’re training, you don’t really have any issues. You just ignore everything and just put on your blinders and go for it.
“I didn’t think about being intimidated.”
Braekhus has activated their rematch clause (they will box again on Saturday March 13). But beyond that, there are more big fights for McCaskill. Another bout with Katie Taylor is a natural fight to make. “We want to stay with the big names and stay with the big fights,” McCaskill said. “Of course McCaskill-Taylor II [is the target] and Amanda Serrano, we talked to her and her team.”
Fighting Taylor again would be another significant bout in women’s boxing. “We’ve both done our part with staying at the highest level of boxing,” McCaskill said. “We’re both at the top of our game and we both want to stay in those higher ranks. “When you fight somebody on that level, you just gain so much and your training is different and you hit those levels and with me having such a smaller amateur background and such a small amount of fights in total, I have a lot more room for growth.
“I think it would be drastically different [a second time]. I think she knows the fighter that she fought three years ago is a different fighter now.”
McCaskill doesn’t intend to stop there. In the long run she’s considering using her experience in finance in management or even promotion. “Those are discussions that I’ve definitely had with Rick [Ramos, her long term trainer]. He doesn’t just take you down one path, he takes you down a path that has multiple options at the end of it,” she said. “I’m pretty dedicated to the sport and I can’t see me functioning without it. Whether I’m fighting or not, I’m going to be in boxing.”
But there are more fights to come. “Boxing, it just changes over night sometimes,” she adds. “I have to see who’s ready and willing to fight.
“The people who are working hardest right now, that’s who’s going to come up and who’s going to shine through everybody else.”