In 1971, Muhammad Ali took on “Smokin’” Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden in what was grandly dubbed the “Fight of the Century.” It was such a mind-blowing event that to this day MSG still exudes the aura of Ali and Frazier, and really of the fight game itself. Just about every match fought there over the past 50 years feels like it’s taken place on hallowed ground because of that one boxing match. Ali and Frazier, who squared off a second time at MSG in early 1974, get name-checked at that venue as much as Sickles and Pickett do at Gettysburg. Their names are baked into the famous concave ceiling tiles.
That’s one of the reasons Saturday night’s main event (DAZN, 7:30 p.m. ET) between Ireland’s Katie Taylor and Puerto Rico’s Amanda Serrano feels so historic. It’s not just the first women’s boxing match to headline Madison Square Garden; it’s the symbolism of the fight to boxing’s central identity. The associations mean everything. Over 300 million people tuned in worldwide for the “Fight of the Century,” and half a century later Taylor-Serrano is projected to be the most-viewed women’s boxing match ever.
It’s champion versus champion, featuring two of the very best pound-for-pound female fighters in the world: Taylor, an Olympic gold medal winner and the undisputed lightweight queen who has been affectionately called “The Patron Saint of Ireland,” and Serrano, a seven-division champion who has Jake Paul as her hype man. It’s a perfect storm of momentum, timing, star power, and context. Given the complex politics within the sport, a true one-vs.-two in boxing almost never happens, yet that’s what we’re getting. And behind the two fighters are a million miles of ground that had to be covered.
Taylor and Serrano arrive at Penn Station on the backs of boxers like Lucia Rijker, Deirdre Gogarty, Christy Martin, and Laila Ali—who came before them and endured the dismissive attitudes toward female combatants for years, under much dimmer lights, with little fanfare, and for far less pay. Boxing has been surprisingly slow to embrace women. Slower than mixed martial arts, anyway, which over the past decade has discovered (and produced) the biggest female stars in combat. It took a big name—and a big event—to change the outlook in that sport, too.
What this weekend’s fight really feels like is another historic headliner, UFC 157, which took place back in 2013.
That was the night that U.S. Olympic judo player Ronda Rousey headlined a pay-per-view in Anaheim for a promotion that had until then been off limits for female combatants. Two years earlier, in 2011, UFC president Dana White said in a now-infamous TMZ clip that we’d “never” see women competing in the Octagon. Yet after he saw Rousey win the Strikeforce bantamweight championship and prove she was a star with far broader media reach than anyone on his roster, he changed his tune.
That night Rousey was facing Liz Carmouche, a retired Marine who is openly gay—another first in the UFC. Because the shine on Rousey was so bright, Carmouche (who is currently the flyweight champion in Bellator) received more exposure than ever before. Much like Conor McGregor would do with his opponents later on, Rousey helped turn Carmouche into a story. But it was a tricky spot for Carmouche to be in. She knew she wouldn’t be there if it weren’t for Rousey breaking through to the UFC, yet her task was to ruin everything she (and all the other women) had been working for by beating a potential transcendent star. A victory could spell doom for women’s future in the UFC, which worked as a strange paradoxical subplot to fight week that nobody wanted to look directly in the eye.
Even though there were a few tense moments when Carmouche got Rousey’s back, there was little reason to worry. Rousey defended the title she inherited from Strikeforce, and she was being talked about, written about, and featured within media outlets that had never even sniffed the UFC before. She helped break a million taboos and stigmas that hovered over combat sports with a simple smile after obligingly trying to rip Carmouche’s arm off her body. Her first PPV did nearly half-a-million pay-per-view buys, and she was off. By the following year, she’d transcended the sport and opened the floodgates for female combatants everywhere. She proved that women could run the show.
This week in New York, Taylor and Serrano have been showing up everywhere. They appeared on the Today show on NBC together. Taylor talked to her fellow Irish superstar Becky Lynch, which the WWE promoted. They’ve been on RTE, BBC, and ESPN. Matchroom’s Eddie Hearn and MVP’s Jake Paul—the fresh promoters who made the fight possible, in stark contrast to Bob Arum’s Paleozoic attitude that women don’t draw attention—are appearing everywhere, too. The dynamic between the promoters themselves gives the fight a “crossover” feel, though realistically the only crossover happening lies within people’s interests. It feels big in the way UFC 157 felt big.
Before Rousey broke through to the UFC, there was Roxanne Modafferi and Julie Kedzie and Gina Carano, the OG women of MMA who fought early on and pushed the women’s game forward when few seemed to care. Rousey just happened to be the star who came through at the right time and—through a series of vicious first-round arm bars—captivated the imagination. She was the right person at the right time.
Taylor isn’t going to finish her opponent in 30 seconds like Rousey. But because she is brilliant at what she does, she charges the atmosphere when she makes the walk. She is the pound-for-pound top fighter in the women’s ranks, with a perfect 20-0 record. Her footwork is superb. There has been plenty of GOAT talk surrounding her, and young girls look up to her, much as they did to Rousey. She is an inspiration, having won gold at the 2012 Olympics and the full bouquet of lightweight belts, and nobody can talk about the power of possibility as well as she can. Refreshingly, at 35 years old and on top of her game, she has no plans to retire anytime soon. She’s been through it all. Now it’s time to enjoy the view from the top.
She pretended to be a boy when she was young to get bouts, only to reveal the truth when she took off the headgear after. She had a setback at the 2016 Olympics, which closed out her decorated amateur career and started the run she’s on now. She has fought twice at MSG before, once in a title defense against Eva Wahlstrom and once in an instant classic against Belgian boxer Delfine Persoon. But she’s never been the main attraction.
Even with men’s featherweight champion Shakur Stevenson facing Oscar Valdez on the same night on a different card, the spotlight will be on Taylor and Serrano, who happens to be the betting favorite heading into the fight. When this bout was first being discussed, Serrano still needed to get by Miriam Gutierrez in December, amplifying the stakes and catching people’s attention. She got through and has now won 28 fights in a row. If you’re looking for backstory, it can be found in the measure of revenge. Taylor beat Amanda’s sister Cindy Serrano in Boston in 2018, after which Conor McGregor paid Taylor a visit to congratulate her.
Serrano isn’t like Carmouche in this setting, because she is right behind Taylor on the P4P rankings. If anything, she’s more like Joe Frazier in the Ali setting, having authored 30 career KOs. Frazier beat Ali in that first encounter at MSG in 1971. The gravity of that fight still gives the building its magic, and Taylor-Serrano is scheduled for 10 two-minute rounds right there in the center of the fight world. The fight itself is a coin flip, yet history will be made while it’s still in the air.
Chuck Mindenhall writes about combat sports without bias, and sometimes about his Denver teams with extreme bias. He cohosts The Ringer MMA Show on Spotify.