Jessica McCaskill has not slowed down since capturing boxing’s undisputed welterweight championship last week with a surprise majority-decision win over Cecilia Brækhus, the previously undefeated Norwegian widely regarded as the sport’s pound-for-pound world No 1. But the 35-year-old investment banker from Chicago, who overcame homelessness as a child and the 6-1 odds against her on Saturday night, doesn’t know any other way.
“No days off is really a mentality that encompasses everything,” McCaskill tells the Guardian. “The one thing that helps me the most is to have a packed schedule. That way I just have to move from one thing to the next, and there’s not a lot of time for lingering or mistakes or to think about it. I just go and execute it and then I’m done.”
Three days a week, McCaskill starts her day at 3.30am, taking care of her two rescue pit bulls before meeting her trainees for a strength and conditioning session at a quarter to five. After heading to the gym in the city’s Pilsen neighborhood for another workout, she settles in behind her computer from 6am until 3pm. Unlike office life in the beforetimes, ducking out for a lunchtime run no longer requires a wardrobe change on either end.
“Somewhere in there I’ll get maybe a workout or two in,” she says. “Like 15 minutes, two miles on a treadmill, or maybe four rounds on the bag, take a quick shower, and then I’m back on my computer. So the lack of commute is what’s been the best thing since Covid has hit because now I can just work remotely. I have everything in one spot and I’m good to go in and it saves me a lot of time. So I haven’t been opposed to the quarantine at all. It’s been helpful for me.”
McCaskill says her co-workers have been amply supportive over the years, both through financial sponsorships and moral support: “Boxing and combat sports in general are very popular in white-collar surroundings,” she says. “They’ll send out messages to the entire Chicago office, the London office, the Dubai office, the office New York, and just say, ‘Hey, support her. She’s one of ours.’”
She was raised with two of her older brothers in the downstate Illinois town of Belleville by her great aunt, Christine, whom she calls mom to this day. But the family’s fortunes took a turn when McCaskill was in fourth grade, which is around when the memories become a bit patchier. “I just remember a couple of things changing here and there,” she says. “I remember being in the dark more. I remember furniture leaving the house. I remember not getting home-cooked meals, but getting McDonald’s and listening to a battery-operated radio. At that age you’re not really focused on the big details. You’re like, ‘Oh, McDonald’s, this is awesome.’”
She adds: “It was just adult time in my life and I was a young child. So it made me be more mature, seeing how people were dealing with those situations outside of myself, my mom and my older brothers. It’s just a really fast-paced learning environment. And you just mute your emotions and go with the flow and make it to the next day and to the next day and then finally you’re out of it. And then you just put it behind you, but you don’t forget.”
McCaskill completed middle school and high school in Belleville, maintaining the packed schedule that’s become her calling card. She played on the basketball and softball teams. She was on the cheerleading squad. She followed her passions no matter how weird or unusual, a trait she’s carried through to adulthood.
“I’m still a DIY queen,” she says. “I love to make things, create things. Even now, I mean, I have all the power tools that you can think of. I build stuff. I fix my house. I mean, anything that needs to be done, I’ll figure out a way to do it. I built a fire pit maybe about a month ago in my backyard. Also I’m very nerdy, so I’ve done websites, I edit pictures, I shoot a little photography. I’ve done weddings in the past. I’ve made my own creams and butters, health and beauty type stuff. I mean, anything I can get my hands on. I’ve always been that way, just interested in everything and wanting to do a little bit of everything.”
After high school McCaskill enrolled at the nearby University of Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, playing on the flag football team before graduating with a degree in communications and making the short trip across the Mississippi river to start her adult life in St Louis.
She was 24 when a friend gave her a monthlong pass to kickboxing class at a local gym. The premise of regularly stretching her legs to kick above her head was a non-starter, but as the weeks went by she found her attention drawn to the gaggle of boxers in training across the room.
“After my kickboxing class was over, I moved over to the boxing side and that’s where that started,” she says. “And it was just like I want to hit the next level, then the next level. I wanted to start sparring, I wanted to have my first exhibition bout, I wanted to have my first real fight, my first tournament, my first national tournament.”
McCaskill won the prestigious Golden Gloves amateur tournament in St Louis, then twice more in Chicago after relocating there for work. Having surpassed the minimum of 20 amateur fights required in Illinois before a boxer can turn professional, McCaskill felt confident enough in her fast-improving skills to take the plunge.
“One of the big turning points is, of course, when you get hit in the face,” she says. “What is your reaction, how do you feel about that, can you continue? And honestly, that punch, I thought: ‘That wasn’t so bad. Now it’s my turn.’ I’ve always had more power than the females that I thought.”
She continues: “Usually the guys that come here to spar with us here at Body Shop, if they haven’t been here before, they come in with an attitude of like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll help out. I’ll work with her.’ And between me and the handful of other girls that are here, the guys will leave bloody every single time. They’re just not prepared for our power and our work rate and our pressure. So it’s always seemed like less of a task to do this and more of a pleasure to do it. And it just fit in with my schedule.”
The seven years McCaskill has been moonlighting on the professional ranks have seen women’s boxing make significant strides in popularity. But while the gender pay gap in the sport remains is a hot-button topic, McCaskill is unsparing in her assessment that far too many female fighters who clamor for equal pay are putting the cart before the horse.
“There are things that people want to point the finger at,” she says. “It’s one of those things where you have to understand the business of boxing. People are saying, ‘Hey, women need to get paid like tons of money,’ but at the same time, those are the some of the people who will get a phone call that will say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a fight for you in four weeks,’ and they say, ‘I’m not in the gym.’ Why are you not in the gym? Why are you not always ready? This is a professional career and you should treat it as such, in a professional manner. You’re not getting knockouts. You’re not training at the highest capability that you can.
“I feel like people need to put a lot more focus on their training and their output rather than what’s coming in. And if that’s their motivation to do better, then that’s just kind of backwards. You don’t just walk into somewhere and say, ‘Hey, give me a million dollars and then I’m going to try my best.’ You work for it. You start in the mailroom and then you work your way up to the corner office. Maybe that’s my corporate-mindedness, but that’s just kind of how I feel.”
There is no bigger star in women’s boxing today than 34-year-old Katie Taylor, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist from Ireland who has already unified the lightweight championship in the span of 14 pro fights. When Matchroom managing director Eddie Hearn signed Brækhus last year to a stable that has included Taylor from her pro debut, the idea was to build toward a summit meeting between the pair to determine the sport’s best fighter regardless of weight.
That plan didn’t account for McCaskill upsetting the apple cart in Tulsa. And with the 38-year-old Brækhus having expressed no interest in a rematch and seemingly content to enter retirement, McCaskill will face either Taylor or Belgium’s Delfine Persoon, who are slated to meet this Saturday in a rematch of their epic first encounter in June 2019.
It’s been three years since McCaskill goaded Taylor for a shot over social media until the Bray fighter accepted her challenge for the first defense of her WBA lightweight title in the main event of a card at London’s York Hall. The game American gave Taylor all she could handle only to lose a unanimous decision that was closer than the judges’ scores might suggest.
As to whether the return meeting would play out differently, McCaskill is certain.
“I am a younger boxer physically [than Taylor],” she says. “I’ve had less fights. She’s had a lot of amateur fights and has the Olympic fights as well. And so I feel like she’s more so on her downslope, she’s on her way out, whereas I’ve always had so much more room for learning and growth to become better. And I came to her with maybe six pro fights and around 30 fights altogether.
“You take 300 versus 30, and (Taylor) almost getting knocked out with a left hook in one of those rounds. And now you double that by me fighting more world champions and having more experience and training my body to be just different altogether. I think I’ve learned a lot. There’s a lot of wisdom, a lot of boxing IQ that has come with my growth. And I think it would be definitely a different fight the second time around.”
McCaskill says it’s been years since she revisited a tape of their first fight. A rematch is something that she’d always eyed in the long term, but wouldn’t simply be given to her.
“And it’s one of those things where again, as a fighter, you can’t just say, ‘Hey, I want this.’” she says. “You have to earn it. I couldn’t just say, ‘Hey, I want a rematch.’ I had to go out, get some more fights, get some experience under my belt, work my way back up to a respectable level of being an opponent for Katie. And honestly the more she fights, the more I have to fight. If I want that rematch, I have to keep up. And so can’t take a lot of time off. I can’t fight pro debuters. I have to really keep testing myself and pushing myself and that’s what we did.”