Women's boxing makes long-awaited Olympic debut
LONDON—Queen Underwood is grateful to every woman whose collective fight allowed her to become the first American woman to climb into an Olympic boxing ring.
When she takes that historic step between the ropes Sunday, she'll be thinking more about the fight that's right in front of her.
That's because British lightweight Natasha Jonas will be trying to knock her block off.
Women's boxing is an Olympic sport for the first time in London, taking over the ring for a five-day tournament ending in its first three gold medals Thursday.
"We're going to introduce this sport to the world, and there's going to be a lot of eyes on us," said Underwood, the Seattle fighter who overcame childhood abuse to become an Olympian. "There's going to be a lot of wows. People are going to see our skill, our ability, everything that women can do in a boxing ring. We're just going to shock the world."
A sport that was banned in Britain until 1996 will be contested by 36 fighters from 23 teams and six continents, all eager to showcase the skill and diversity of a sport that only gained legitimacy in most parts of the world during these boxers' lifetimes.
The Olympic fighters believe they can change the minds of anybody who still thinks women can't -- or shouldn't -- pack a punch. Cuba refuses to field a women's team, and most fighters in the London field can tell stories of sexism, prejudice and plain ignorance blocking their paths to this brutal yet elegant sport.
"You're always going to have somebody saying you shouldn't do something, but that's not just in boxing, but life," Underwood said. "You can't listen to people who don't want you to pursue your dream."
These women never listened.
Katie Taylor, a five-time world champion and the world's pound-for-pound amateur champion, gave up playing for Ireland's national soccer team to stick with boxing. She's now among the biggest stars on the Irish Olympic team, and she carried the flag at the opening ceremony.
The Olympic fighters range in experience from India's Mary Kom and Sweden's Anna Laurell, who both starred in the first women's world championships in 2001, to 17-year-old Claressa Shields, the hard-punching U.S. middleweight with the potential to dominate the sport in future Olympics.
The women's tournament has shined the brightest Olympic spotlight on amateur boxing in many years, with fans and nations realizing the importance of performing well in the final Summer Olympic sport that didn't have a female equivalent.
U.S. head coach Basheer Abdullah once was among the sport's detractors. The veteran amateur coach and Army officer acknowledges he had personal prejudices and religious concerns, but his work with U.S. amateur great Caroline Barry and Underwood turned him into an advocate of the women's sport.
"I think it's going to be great for young women throughout the world," Abdullah said. "The skill level in amateur women's boxing has really gotten better. It's exciting. Those women are not afraid to put it on the line. That's women throughout the world. They're exciting to watch, and people just don't know."
This Olympic moment wasn't reached without some compromises. The IOC allowed women's boxing in 2009, but didn't increase the total number of boxers allowed at the games, which meant AIBA had to slash one men's weight class just to squeeze this admittedly small women's field into London.
AIBA will lobby for more women in Rio in 2016, but this year, it'll be easier to win an Olympic gold medal than a world championship. Just one victory will be necessary for the top two fighters in each weight class to claim at least a bronze. American flyweight Marlen Esparza and Shields are among six other fighters who got opening byes and will be fighting for medals on Monday.
AIBA has long promoted and supported women's boxing, even adding female referees and judges to both tournaments in London. Yet AIBA threw another wrinkle into the women's struggle this year when President Wu Ching-Kuo raised the possibility of asking fighters to wear skirts, saying he had been told some fans couldn't tell the difference between the sexes when they're in the ring because of their headgear.
That would have seemed like a compliment to many women's boxers if not for the sexist undertones, Underwood acknowledged with a laugh.
The suggestion was met with outrage from many fighters, while others quietly considered the idea, perhaps hoping to please the international governing body. AIBA ended up leaving skirts as merely an option for competition, and most boxers have no intention of wearing them -- but Polish fighters wore skirts in last year's European Championships, and Polish flyweight Karolina Michalczuk is in the Olympic field.
Taylor is widely considered to be dominant at lightweight, but the other two divisions don't have a prohibitive favorite, reflecting the even level of worldwide competition that's necessary to avoid the Olympic criticism that's faced by women's ice hockey, where North America rules.
The Americans all have medal hopes, while the host British team would like to copy the men's team's spectacular start at home. Alongside Jonas, the former U.S. college soccer player from Liverpool, is flyweight Nicola Adams, a part-time construction worker who also found time to act on the beloved English TV series "Coronation Street," and world champion middleweight Savannah Marshall, the gold medal favorite.
The honor of fighting four 2-minute rounds in the first women's bout in Olympic history went randomly to flyweights Elena Savelyeva of Russia and Hye Song Kim of North Korea. Underwood and Jonas follow soon afterward, with the winner fighting Taylor in her first Olympic bout Monday.
The long Olympic fight for women's boxing finally is over. It's time for the real competition.
"I've been waiting for a long, long time," Underwood said with a smile. "We all have. It's hard to believe it's here, but I believe it."