“Embrace your femininity. Why should we push it to the side because it’s not respected?” Australian Ebanie Bridges fights Britain’s Shannon Courtenay for the WBA bantamweight title on Saturday night, live on Sky Sports
First Ebanie Bridges was told she couldn’t be a mechanic. Then when she started lifting weights she was told not to become a bodybuilder. She isn’t clever enough to teach, they said. Now they doubt her as a boxer.
“I am stereotyped for my looks – ‘pretty girls can’t box and pretty girls aren’t smart’,” she tells Sky Sports.
What makes Bridges fascinating is her deliberate manipulation of that stereotype and how she has used it to grow a genuine fan-base. There is more footage of Bridges in her bikini at a weigh-in circulating online than actually inside the boxing ring. Is this a real boxer or a gimmick?
The truth is that Bridges has two degrees, a Masters, is a maths teacher, a bodybuilder and an unbeaten boxer. On Saturday she could become a world champion when she fights Shannon Courtenay for the WBA bantamweight title, live on Sky Sports on Conor Benn’s undercard.
She is also, she insists, patronised for her feminine image. Rather than the more familiar story, outside boxing, of finding a perceived lack of femininity as a barrier to entry, Bridges has the opposite problem. She believes she is too feminine to be taken seriously.
But Bridges has cultivated a sea of interest through her willingness to engage with fans online and her message of female empowerment. Her nickname is the ‘Blonde Bomber’, a playful tweak to Deontay Wilder’s moniker of the ‘Bronze Bomber’.
“It’s got nothing to do with my record because there’s plenty of girls with more fights than me,” Bridges opens up. “The difference? It’s the way I look.
“Let’s be real. If I wore what everyone else wore, people wouldn’t be interested. I’d just be another fight. Whatever.
“I’m trying to bring more eyes to the sport. You can criticise me as much as you like. But if I looked plain then you wouldn’t even know this fight was happening.
“People will tune in to see if this girl wearing lingerie can actually fight, or is she just a model?
“The thing is; me and Shannon can really fight.”
Bridges’ unconventional weigh-in attire has attracted critics, not least her upcoming opponent Courtenay.
Savannah Marshall, also on Saturday’s undercard in a world title defence, said to Bridges: “I feel like you have got everyone wanting to step their underwear game up. Don’t know if I dare wear a plain black sports bra!”
Bridges knows that not everybody supports her method of publicity, but she says: “It comes because I get attention. If people had my body and my confidence then they would do it, but people are too scared of being judged.
“As a bodybuilder I stood on stage in a bikini flexing my body. I love it. I don’t care what people think.
“Doing weigh-ins is showing off my hard work. It’s something I enjoy. I make it a thing where my fans can interact with me. This is an entertainment business.
“This is something different that others aren’t doing. Why do I need to be the same as everyone else?
“Everyone wears underwear at weigh-ins. Do you want me to wear a paper bag?”
This wasn’t always the person that Bridges was growing up in Australia – she wore her brother’s clothes as a teenager and once worked as a mechanic.
Her day-job is as a maths teacher: “The kids say: ‘Miss, when’s your next fight?’ I bribe them to do well in exams by letting them watch videos of my fights!
“My kids want to learn. They love it. The classroom ethics I have? The kids want to learn because I want to teach. I’m about a positive mind-set and I build that into my kids, I programme that into them. I make them believe.
“I tell them ‘you can’.”
Female fighting was illegal in Australia when Bridges turned to bodybuilding but, in a pro career that only started two years ago, she has won her first five fights.
Cue more resentment that two relatively inexperienced pros like Bridges and Courtenay (seven fights) are battling for a world title, but that ignores the context of the growth of women’s boxing. Claressa Shields, by contrast, has 11 fights.
“They should be clapping and saying: ‘Wow this girl from Australia is well-known in the UK already’,” Bridges reacts.
“They should take their hats off.
“Terri Harper had seven fights before a world title. Terri got so much praise. So what’s the right number?
“To say it’s undeserving? You don’t know what I’ve gone through. You think I’m only here because of my looks? It’s because I’ve grinded.
“And I can fight. I can’t wait to show people that. It will shut a lot of people up.”
On Courtenay, who has rebuilt after last summer’s surprise loss to Rachel Ball, Bridges says: “She can box, she is skilled, has nice head movement and a right hand. She’s always been on big cards so is used to that.
“But her defence needs work. She got dropped by Rachel Ball and hit heaps in other fights. She gets flustered and panics.”
Bridges won her most recent fight four weeks ago then, in 24 hours, found herself on a plane to Philadelphia to prepare for a world title opportunity.
She knows that her face doesn’t fit in the boxing world yet but resentment will be mitigated if she takes the WBA belt back to Australia.
The true goal for this Leeds United fan, who has posed online in Raphinha’s shirt, is to challenge perceptions and inspire others.
“Girls in the younger generation who feel like they don’t fit into boxing because they look like me, and not like the stereotypical boxer,” Bridges says are her target.
“It’s uncommon [for female athletes] to show their feminine side because there’s a stigma that needs to be broken down.
“Pretty girls are told to be models or hairdressers but it’s not like that anymore. I want to keep breaking that stereotype.
“Embrace your femininity. Why should we push it to the side because it’s not respected? Not just in sport. If you are a lawyer or a CEO people say: ‘There is no way you used your brain or your skills’.”
There is a deeply personal undertone to Bridges’ big opportunity this Saturday.
She was a troubled teenager before her overwhelming confidence and positivity took over. In those dark years, she became estranged from her family who, 15 years later, can’t believe the route she has somehow taken.
“People who knew me through bad times are so proud,” she says. “They know that, when I say I’m going to do something, I will get it done.
“My friends know I have sacrificed my social life for 15 years. They can message me but forget about going for a coffee.
“Mum gets upset when I go overseas but she knows what I’m like!”
The rest of us will get to know what she’s like this week. There will be critics who say the image she portrays is inappropriate. Her in-ring ability is still a mystery but, if she produces where it really matters, the rest will be forgotten.
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