One by one they shadow-boxed their way into the darkened Excel Arena, spotlights trained on them as if they were heavyweight champions of the world. Six contenders, fighting their way to three history-making gold medals. All the trappings of a Vegas-style showdown were there – the flashing lights, the menacing glare in the eyes, the show-boating jabs and feints.
But the roster for the title fights of the day — Nicola, Katie, Sofya and Claressa — didn’t read like your typical fight night of pugilists. Because these particular warriors were the first athletes to contest for gold medals in Olympic women’s boxing, the event that has made its debut in London.
The matchups were a boxing fan’s dream: in the flyweight division, Great Britain’s Nicola Adams, the native daughter and a clear fan favorite, faced off against China’s Cancan Ren, the current world champion who beat Adams just three months ago. Adams dominated from the start, however, and even managed to knock Ren off her feet in the second round, fueled by the partisan crowd and the Cinderella story that brought her from Leeds to the pinnacle of Olympic success. “I thought it was going to be a bit closer,” she says of the 16-7 score. “But I was so determined, I wasn’t going to let her win. My mind was set on winning today.
And not only did she earn gold #24 for Team GB, she made history as the first Olympic women’s boxing champion, a feat whose significance she is well aware of. “What I want to see [is] more girls getting into boxing,” she says. “I would love to see when I retire, girls coming up and wanting to achieve what I’ve done. That’s an amazing feeling for me.”
History was made again barely 10 minutes after Adams’s last bell rang, when Ireland’s Katie Taylor, fighting for her country’s first gold by a female athlete at these Games, outboxed Sofya Ochigava of Russia in the regulation four rounds of two minutes each by 10 to 8. Trailing Ochigava after the second round, Taylor fought for every point, coming back to edge Ochigava for the gold in the light weight division. Taylor, who is coached by her father, Peter, says she wasn’t overly concerned at the halfway point. “I knew I was one point down in the second round, but it’s only one point at the end of the day,” she says. “Dad said before to stay calm, composed and keep to the game plan, so I stayed relaxed, and wanted to stick to the game plan.” In her three bouts in London, Taylor’s best round is her third, so “We knew she was going to have a good third round,” says Peter. “Maybe we should start her contests in the third round.”
Just minutes later, teenager Claressa Shields of the US came out swinging for a 19-12 win over another Russian, Nadezda Torlopova in the middleweight bout. Just the day before, Shields’s teammate Marlen Esparza of Houston, Tex. won the first Olympic medal in women’s boxing, a bronze, along with India’s Mery Kom Hmangte, in the fly weight division.
So how justified was all the hand wringing over whether women belong in boxing — whether spectators would come to watch women go at each other, whether seeing women in the ring would send the wrong message to young girls about gender or body image, or the role that women have in sports?
All of that seemed quaint on Thursday, as the capacity crowd cheered the pioneering female athletes with more vigor than they have at other venues – the decibel level at the women’s matches possibly tops the meter of any of the Olympic events contested so far. And as for seeing women duke it out in the ring? “It’s more interesting than watching men [boxers],” says Cormac Hayes, 12, who hails from Taylor’s home town of Bray County Wicklow and came to watch her with his family.
And that says a lot. Seeing athletes like Taylor break gender barriers, says Cormac’s mother, Suzanne, “gives more and more women confidence to be able to think they can get out there and dream. It gives them a bigger focus that they can do sports like men can do, and just as well,” she says.
Even more important, it gives young girls role models that give them a taste of the breadth of opportunity available to them. “When I first got into boxing, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard were my greats,” says Adams. “If girls come into boxing because of what I did, then I think I’ve achieved everything.”
Adams says she remembers watching boxing movies with her father, who got her started in the sport, and seeing Ali in Rumble in the Jungle, and Leonard’s “wicked left hook” inspired her to imitate them. But if the Olympic stage gives women’s boxing more exposure, and inspires more women to take it up, then athletes like Adams, Taylor and Shields may soon replace male icons in the sport. “It’s a huge responsibility,” says Taylor of the enormous support and expectation that the Irish people have placed on her. “Hopefully I am a great role model, and hopefully some girls are watching, and are inspired to be an Olympic champion, or inspired to be a medalist, and I can show them this is what they have to look forward to.”
Soft-spoken and almost embarrassed to have the spotlight shone on her, Taylor is also showing a generation of girls that female athletes, and especially those in sports like boxing, don’t have to conform to gender stereotypes, and above all, can still be female. “She is sending a positive message,” says Alison Collins, a teacher from Cork. “There are so many pressures on women nowadays in magazines and TV to look perfect, be skinny and made up to the last. She’s breaking that barrier.”
In her hometown of Bray, certainly, those girls are watching, and dreaming the same dreams Taylor conjured over 17 years. Businesses shut down early, children were allowed to break from their classes, and the entire town stopped for nearly 15 minutes during Taylor’s bout.
The Excel arena was awash with Irish flags and green shirts, as confident fans bought up what seemed like the entire allotment of tickets in anticipation of seeing Taylor win the gold medal bout.
That’s what inspiration is about, and that’s what the first Olympic medals in boxing are about, whether it’s in Ireland or in the U.S. Shields, who grew up in Flint, Mich., often without enough money for three meals a day, says, “When I used to go running, I’d see all the crackheads, these drug addicts. I just didn’t want to be like them, not at all. I wanted to be where my sister and my little brother and my mom would never have to go without a meal again.”
If the crowd reaction was any indication, women’s boxing may have a healthy following at the Olympic Games, and with three trailblazing champions like these, the sport may have also won some important fans among the younger generation. Asked if it was odd to see women fighting in the ring, Cormac’s brother Corey, 10, didn’t take long in answering at all: “No.”
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