Women’s boxing has grown from a niche sport into something a bit larger in recent years. It became an Olympic sport in 2012. Women’s fights have headlined main event cards in big venues, and slowly, the top women’s boxers have started to seep into the consciousness of those who watch fights.
Last year, Claressa Shields picked up a seven-figure fight contract from BOXXER. This year, Katie Taylor and Amanda Serrano are headlining a fight at New York’s Madison Square Garden, expecting to get paid more than any other women’s boxing match in history.
Not that long ago, those types of milestones seemed almost impossible. And with the growth of women’s boxing, the future contains significant opportunities for the next generation of fighters to try and push their way to the top of the sport.
ESPN has identified eight fighters — a sampling of some names and faces that will be worth knowing within the next two years as fighters to watch. Some, like Alycia Baumgardner, are already champions. Others, like Ema Kozin and Kim Clavel, have title shots coming up this year.
This list was cultivated with clear criteria in order to look beyond established fighters like Shields, Taylor, Serrano, Seniesa Estrada and Mikaela Mayer. Each fighter had to be young enough where a long career to come is still a possibility, and they could not be in ESPN’s pound-for-pound list.
Ema Kozin, 23, middleweight/light heavyweight
Kozin has a chance to become a world champion this week, provided she pulls off a major upset against Shields. Even if she wins, she’ll head right back to class. It’s a different type of life than many fighters who get world title shots, but for Kozin, a Slovenian who is in her final months studying for a degree in financial mathematics at the University of Ljubljana, it is life. Even as she trains to fight Shields for the WBC, WBA and IBF middleweight titles on Feb. 5, the 23-year-old has discovered the balance of boxing and college.
“Most people, I think, do know what I’m doing in my time, but they are not so obvious with it,” Kozin said. “I just say I have training and they are, ‘Oh right, when is your next fight?’ I never told them I am a pro fighter or something like that.”
Her professors are aware of her juggling professional fighting and college — a balance between boxing and schooling she’s been doing for over a decade, ever since she discovered boxing at a gym near her house at age 11. And she’s gotten adept at figuring out how to deal with intense sparring sessions against male fighters while also learning the intricacies of Probability with Measure, her most difficult class.
Kozin planned for this for a while. The southpaw turned pro in 2016 with her trainer, Rudolf Pavlin, and has continually fought from that point on, racking up a 21-0-1 record with 11 knockouts. Shields will be a major step up in competition for Kozin.
Kozin has been a planner. It’s how she ended up fighting for a major title at age 23 with a good amount of ring experience and why she didn’t abandon college. When she’s done with boxing, she’d like to own her own gym, or go work for a bank or a corporation in the world of data and analysis.
“Even with my coach and my family that education is first and then sports,” Kozin said. “And you always have to have Plan B if you get injured or if you have to stop with the boxing — you make some other plan.”
Alycia Baumgardner, 27, junior lightweight
For years, Baumgardner had always been patient with how she approached her fights. The opportunity against Terri Harper was the chance she’d been waiting for, the one she dedicated her life to, from the moment she left Owens Community College to pursue boxing full-time, spurning a potential track scholarship in the process. In the early years, she worked as an aide in a nursing home as an additional revenue stream before focusing strictly on boxing in 2019.
Baumgardner didn’t originally anticipate fighting for a title in her return. She was actually booked on a local Detroit-area card when she received the call. Did she want to fight Harper for the WBC junior lightweight title?
“I’m like, ‘I gotta take it,'” Baumgardner said. “This is it.”
After a combination of COVID pushbacks and knee surgery delayed the development of her career, Baumgardner made her return with a dramatic statement. The right hand to Harper’s head that knocked her out on her feet, gave Baumgardner the title and momentum to enter the next stage of her career.
“It just changed the dynamic of who I was,” Baumgardner said. “A lot of people haven’t been able to see who I was and how I performed on a bigger stage, so I knew that stage and that platform would give me the opportunity to show everybody.
“So I think I just shocked a lot of people and made non-believers into believers and just really shocked the boxing world because the respect was never really given.”
Baumgardner believes she can be an agent of change for women’s boxing, much like she believed one day she would become a world champion. She has plans, too. Baumgardner said she’ll fight a mandatory challenger from the WBC if needed. Then she’d like to start trying to unify, first with WBA champion Hyun Mi Choi and then, she hopes, with WBO and IBF champion Mikaela Mayer.
Kim Clavel, 31, junior flyweight
Kim Clavel was intimidated when she first entered a boxing gym 15 years ago. She wasn’t really sure what she was doing there. The first jab she threw was “not really beautiful.” But she looked around the gym and saw what she wanted to be. She knew how she wanted to practice.
Two months later, in the midst of her first sparring session, she was hooked.
“I go to my corner after the two minutes and said, ‘Why do I have every punch in the face,'” Clavel said. “[My coach] said ‘You have to move, to move your face.’ I said, ‘Oh.’ It was not beautiful, but I started to move my head and I avoided my first punches and said, ‘Wow, I want to do it again and again and again.'”
She won her first Canadian national title in 2010 and fought as an amateur for seven more years. When she couldn’t compete in the 2016 Olympics — her weight class wasn’t one of the three divisions offered — she turned pro in 2017. Her style and energy fit becoming a professional.
Clavel balanced fighting with working as a nurse because “I love to help people.” She was a nurse for six years before stopping because her boxing career was taking off. Then COVID hit, and Clavel briefly stopped training to go back into nursing. She worked in long-term care facilities for the elderly in Montreal for months.
She resumed her boxing career when she got the opportunity to take a major step forward against WBC champion Yesenia Gomez in Las Vegas on March 11, but the fight was later postponed to May.
The risk of continuing to do both was too high. But nursing and elder care were never far from her thoughts.
“Sometimes I feel bad because in this moment, I see all the struggles nurses have, but I know only me will not change everything,” Clavel said. “I would love to be there in my free time, but with the COVID, I can’t take the risk to go back to the gym, go back with people with COVID and then go back to the gym.
“It’s too stressful and doesn’t make sense and I’m going for the world championship, so I want to put myself in a better position. But I have nursing in my heart.”
It’s still in her future. Once she’s done fighting, Clavel says she plans on returning to her second career — helping to save people’s lives.
Ginny Fuchs, 33, flyweight
Ginny Fuchs initially wanted to run. That was the plan, from the moment when she walked on to LSU’s track team, until she was dismissed from the program for a prank gone awry that involved an XBox and breaking down a door her freshman year.
Years later, no longer having a sport to compete in, Fuchs found boxing. She became friends with a professional boxer, and after watching him train, she decided she wanted to box as well. Immediately, the coaches at the Baton Rouge Recreational Center saw Fuchs’ potential.
It was a different kind of training than her track days as a distance runner, but knowing that level of dedication helped make the transition easier.
“Ask any of the girls on the Olympic team, ask Mikaela [Mayer], any time they could do running, if they could be behind me or a little bit behind me or they could stay with me, they were like, ‘Oh, we’re doing good,'” Fuchs said. “They aren’t going to worry about me, I was going to beat all of them.”
She fought as an amateur for years. She missed the 2016 Olympics after failing to qualify via international qualifiers and debated turning pro then, like Mayer and Shields. Instead, she decided she wanted one more run at the Olympics, and ultimately made the team as a captain in Tokyo last year.
She’s waiting for her first pro fight later this year, and in the meantime she’s helping to train fighters at the Baby Bull Boxing Gym in Houston.
Fuchs is also active in continuing her advocacy work with mental health and OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder), which she’s been open about for most of her amateur career.
“Everybody struggles with something and they are vulnerable about it and don’t want people to know,” Fuchs said. “But it’s OK. Like I used to think ‘if I tell people about my OCD they would think less of me’ but as I became more open about it they actually thought more of me.
“So I think people should embrace their internal struggle and find something, boxing is what I found to power through every day and fight it.”
Oshae Jones, 24, welterweight/junior middleweight
Jones stepped into the gym for the first time at 12 years old and didn’t expect to fight. She had never thrown a punch in her life, and when she was initially asked, there was no way she wanted to box. She had gone with her dad to the gym, figuring she’d get a workout in.
Then he said “Wrap up.” Jones didn’t know what it meant, so she learned. Jones’ first day in a boxing gym, she sparred with another girl.
“When I fought her and beat her up, I didn’t even know what I was doing,” Jones said. “But I was doing it and I was dominating, and I felt good afterwards.”
Her career since that point has rocketed upwards. She won a national Police Athletic League tournament in 2014 and national titles in 2016, 2017 and 2018. Along the way, Jones realized she could one day go to the Olympics. Jones took gold at the 2019 Pan American Games, and in 2021, she represented the United States in the Tokyo Olympics and won a bronze medal at welterweight.
The last year, though, has been particularly tough on Jones. As she trained for the Olympics, her home in Toledo caught fire. As she reached the pinnacle of her amateur achievement before turning pro, she lost nearly everything.
“I’m probably about, realistically, 65 percent [back] I would say,” Jones said recently. “Winning the Olympics just made that shoot up 15 percent, you know. Material things can be replaced.”
The good in 2021 wasn’t just about winning a medal in Tokyo. It was what happened after. She returned to Toledo, and they had a parade. It was shown on the local news and written about in the local paper. It was then — not when she won her fight, or climbed the podium and claimed her medal — that Jones cried because of the work she put in and the outpouring of support she received.
It was then she realized everything she worked for was real. There were small tradeoffs in casting off her anonymity — she could no longer go to Walmart or Walgreens without being stopped by a fan asking for a photo. It became an adventure.
“But I don’t mind, though. Just a picture, a good conversation. I might brighten somebody’s day,” Jones said. “Somebody might be having the worst day of their life and then they see me, take a picture with me and might be like, ‘Wow, maybe I can do something with my life.’
“You never know. I’ll never turn anybody down.”
Turning pro is the next logical step in her career. She doesn’t think it’ll be a drastic change in style or stamina, and Jones has belief in her own potential. Within a year, she says, she wants to be fighting for something.
“I think about it all the time. I see it in my mind,” Jones said. “I see myself on the podium. I see it. I have a vision of it. I believe in it. Just manifesting it. I really think I’m going to be one of the greats in women’s boxing.”
Micaela Lujan, 22, junior bantamweight
Micaela Lujan’s journey to a world title started in a parking lot. A decade ago in her native Argentina, the then-12-year-old was making money guarding cars outside a supermarket for tips. A boy, she said, took her typical spot. They fought. She won.
A bystander noticed and told Lujan she should box. The idea sounded good enough to her, and so she went to the La Esperanza gym near her home in Villa Mercedes. Three days later, she started training, launching her career.
“A coach saw me and the first words he said to me were, ‘I’m going to make you a world champion,'” Lujan said through a translator. “And I didn’t believe him.”
By age 17, she had won the Argentine national championship. Out of fighters to beat and with an age restriction keeping her from turning pro until she turned 19, Lujan went to Colombia and knocked out Mileydis Mercado in under a minute. She fought in Mexico and trained for a period of time in Canelo Alvarez’s gym, until 2019, when she was old enough to return to Argentina to continue her career — this time as a pro.
In her third pro fight in Argentina, Lujan won a unanimous decision over Debora Anahi Dionicius, earning her a title shot in 2019 against Jorgelina Guanini. Lujan won that fight by majority decision, making her the IBF junior bantamweight world titlist. She’s since defended that belt twice, and she’s come a long way from when she was being paid 500 pesos — equivalent to less than $1 — to fight.
At 10-1-1, she wants to defend her world title one more time in Argentina, in her hometown, and then head to the United States in an attempt to get bigger fights and create more of a name for herself.
“That’s my goal for the next two years, to find a fight outside Argentina, for the promoters to see me and to have opportunities for title fights in Las Vegas,” Lujan said. “My dream has always been to fight in Las Vegas and to buy a house for my mother, that is why every day I am more convinced that I want to achieve my goal [this] year.”
Lucy Wildheart, 28, lightweight/featherweight
Lucy Wildheart found boxing because she moved. After training in karate as a child in her hometown of Lessebo, Sweden, she moved to Ronneby for work as a personal trainer. They didn’t have any dojos, but they did have a boxing gym.
It was different work — more arms, less legs — but at age 19, she loved it.
“I thought this was a proper challenge,” Wildheart said. “And I said to myself from the first day that, yeah, I need a challenge like this in my life to try and really go, see how far I could really come.”
That was almost a decade ago. Six months after she started, she fought her first two amateur fights in one day in Finland. After the first fight, she didn’t ever want to fight again. She was so tired. But an hour later, she changed her mind and wanted to fight.
It took Wildheart almost four years for her to feel like she was a good boxer, but she always had the inkling she wanted to turn pro. She wanted to do something “properly” after watching some K1 fights on television.
To change her career, she also decided she needed to leave Sweden. Wildheart moved to England almost four years ago to train — first with Colin Lynes, and now Sam Mullens — to help advance her career.
“I’m here to take over. They will see,” Wildheart said. “I’m not putting myself out there too much because it’s not really my thing. I like to show my skill and what I can do and people, once they are in the ring, they will feel what they can’t see.”
Gabriela Fundora, 19, flyweight
Gabriela Fundora has a bold goal for 2022: Fight every month of the year.
It may not realistically be attainable — she and her father, Freddy, are approaching it by the month — but the strategy is clear. Fundora turned pro last year with a desire to fast-track herself in boxing. The younger sister of light middleweight contender Sebastian Fundora has seen the arc of her brother’s career and feels like she could emulate it.
“I watch his fights and it pumps me up getting ready for my next fight,” Fundora said. “Just watching him, before this fight he was knocking out every guy. I was like, ‘Dang, he’s strong, man.'”
She’s the latest member of the Fundora family to find fighting. Gabriela started training at age 6 because she’d go with her mom and watch her shadowbox. Her father is her trainer. Sebastian, for now is the most well-known Fundora, and her brothers Alberto and Freddy Jr. also had pro careers.
During the pandemic, Gabriela also found a hobby in screen printing, so she and her mom have been making all of the logoed gear her family wears for her and Sebastian’s fights.
Gabriela trains constantly, which is why her and her father have stuck with an aggressive scheduling plan. She barely takes time off and figures she’s young enough her body can bounce back faster. Since she turned pro last year, she’s fought six times in three countries with a 5-0 record and one no-contest, including a unanimous decision win over Nataly Delgado in Panama on Jan. 14.
“Just keep an eye out, you know,” Fundora said. “I’m going to come up and when I do, it’s going to be really fast, so just watch.”