Claressa Shields

Top 5 Women Olympic Boxers to Watch in 2012

History in the making

While big names like Pacqiao and Mayweather kept men’s boxing in the online conversation during 2009, women’s boxing finally got some press with the August 13th announcement from International Olympic Committee chair Jacques Rogge, telling the world that the 2012 London Olympics would be the first to feature women competing in every single sport, including the final holdout sport of boxing.

In general, it’s fairly exciting news that the entire 2012 US Olympic team will have more women competing this year than men; that’s a first, and a proud tribute to the 40-year anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law that assured more athletic opportunities for millions of girls and women across the United States. In all, there will be 286 boxers, with 36 of them women. The U.S. will be sending a total of three female fighters: Marlen Esparza, Claressa Shields and Queen Underwood.

The limitations opportunities for growth

Yes, the women have only 3 weight divisions — flyweight (106-112 pounds), lightweight (123-132 pounds), and middleweight (152-165 pounds) — to the men’s 10 weight divisions.

No, we won’t be required to wear skirts in the ring.

Yes, the men’s Olympic boxing tickets will cost you 53% more than the cheaper women’s tickets.

As of today, shortly before the Olympic competition begins, there is still only  one photo of female contenders on the official Olympic website boxing “featured photos” page. Maybe that will change soon; this is history in the making after all.

And in a related note, one hopes that the women’s boxing teams will not have to fly coach while the men’s teams go first class, like Australia’s female soccer and basketball teams and the Japanese women’s Olympic soccer team. Sigh.

Finally, while I was thrilled to hear that Afghanistan was working to field a team of Olympic hopefuls, I was deeply disappointed when top favorite Sadaf Rahimi lost her only chance at a wild card invite (a special berth granted to nations that would not otherwise be able to qualify). Her performance at the women’s world boxing championships in China was not promising, with her fight being stopped short a minute and 20 seconds into the first round because she was doing so poorly. Next time, maybe these incredible women will get more resources and have a better shot at qualification.

The schedule

The women’s Olympic boxing rounds begin on August 5th (Round of 16), and continue on August 6th (Quarterfinals), August 8th (Semifinals), and end on August 9th (Finals). NBC will will televise 73 total hours of boxing coverage over 16 days, from elimination bouts to the men’s and women’s finals. Same-day coverage will air from 2 to 5 p.m. during the week, with six hours of live coverage airing each day on the weekends.

To satisfy cable and satellite operators, NBC is requiring viewers to prove that they have a cable or satellite subscription in order to access the online options. Which sucks for people like me, who don’t have a television at all. You can bet I’ll be looking for other options.

You can find the full boxing schedule as well as the fight results on the London 2012 website.

The women to watch

I’m hard pressed to narrow this down to only 5 fighters, and for me the real battle will be in the flyweight division, as you’ll see.

Katie Taylor, Ireland

26-year-old lightweight and four-time world champion Katie Taylor from Bray, Co. Wicklow, Ireland, started boxing in 1998 and has represented her Irish fighting people with pride and glory ever since.

Taylor first made Irish boxing history at age 15 in the first officially sanctioned women’s bout ever held in Ireland (she won). She’s the top seed in the women’s competition, and has a bye straight into the quarter-finals.

She’s picked up plenty of media attention — including a Lucozade commercial that shows her tearing up the heavy bag. That commercial came out shortly after she first came to my attention, and she’s been my fave contender the whole way.

She’ll be carrying the Irish tricolor flag in this year’s Olympics, and is the third boxer from her country to do so.

Click here to see the Katie Taylor Fanpage on Facebook.

 Queen Underwood, USA

Definitely an Olympic underdog, 28-year-old lightweight fighter Quanitta “Queen” Underwood won her berth in the Olympics at the last minute.

Underwood is a five-time national champion who won the first US Olympic boxing team trials in February. But she dropped a one-point decision to Norway’s Ingrid Egner in the world championship prelims, falling just short of Olympic qualification.

However, on June 18th she finally learned she had been chosen for an Olympic spot by AIBA, the international governing body of amateur boxing. She’s ready and eager for her shot at glory.

She came up rough, with few advantages. A father in prison, running with the wrong crowd, a failed suicide attempt. At the age of 19, she began the process of becoming Queen, the boxer. She racked up loss after loss, but boxing kept Queen away from her self-destructive lifestyle. In 2007, her persistence paid off and she captured her first championship.

She loved that first taste of victory, and she hasn’t stopped drinking from the cup of champions since.

I hate that she’s fighting in the same weight division as my top favorite, Ireland’s Katie Taylor. But the chance for glory is there, and Queen certainly has the capability and heart to grab it.

Join Queen on Twitter: @QueenUnderwood

Mary Kom, India

29-year-old flyweight Mary Kom, born Mangte Chungneijang Merykom, is a mother of two and the only woman boxer from India to qualify for the London Games. Kom is from a tiny village in a remote area of India, but she’s the only boxer in world to have won a medal in each one of the six World Championships (five gold, one silver), and she’s currently ranked world no. 4 in her division by AIBA.

Experienced in life and in boxing, she exudes the kind of calm confidence rarely seen among the younger fighters. In addition she trains with men heavier than her own weight, both orthodox and southpaw, in order to get a wide range of fight skills and style.

Kom has already defeated Ren Cancan (see below), but will have a major challenge on her hands if the two meet in the ring again during the Olympics.

“I believe the World Championship is more competitive than the Olympics,” she said, and she is confident of winning a medal.

Mary Kom’s website:

Ren Cancan, China

24-year-old flyweight Ren Cancan is a product of the powerful Chinese athlete creation machine, and she’s the one for Mary Kom to beat, if she can. (Cancan has already beaten Marlen Esparza, also on my list below.)

Cancan is already in the record books for becoming the first woman to win an Asian Games boxing title in 2010.

She started boxing late, after switching to boxing from hurdling in 2002. She’s a police officer in China, from a very small southern province of Guizhou, and has made her way up in a very cold climate for women’s boxing. Her trainer Tian Dong noted “Women’s boxing entering the Olympics will have an impact on the sport here and there, but I don’t think it will affect overall conditions.”

Marlen Esparza, USA

While Queen Underwood is my personal favorite from Team USA, the rest of the nation’s eyes are probably more focused on 22-year-old flyweight Marlen Esparza, who has won 7 national championships and was the first to qualify for an Olympic slot for the U.S.

Esparza grew up watching Julio Cesar Chavez fight on television, and she has much of his lightning-fast speed. She knows that when fighting outside the U.S., boxing styles differ, and she’s ready for the challenge. “In the U.S. you stay flat and hit with power. Outside the U.S. you try to bounce and be quick,” explained Esparza.

Esparza is definitely the media darling of the bunch, with a McDonald’s commercial, story in Vogue magazine, and sponsorships from CoverGirl, Nike, and Coca-Cola.

Click here to see Marlen Esparza on Facebook.

Also watch out for Claressa Shields

Claressa ShieldsClaressa “T-Rex” Shields, the third fighter for Team USA, is not in my top faves, but she might just surprise the watching world by snagging a medal.

At 17, she’s the youngest on the U.S. team, and she boasted a 26-0 record until suffering her first loss on the road to qualifying for the London games. But she prevailed against the odds, and now she’s bouncing determinedly in her corner, waiting for her shot at victory.

Contribute now to the Kickstarter campaign to help fund the documentary about Shields currently being proposed by LA team Drea Cooper, Zackary Canepari, and Sue Johnson.

Top Image: Natasha Jonas of Great Britain against Cheng Dong of China during the Test Event for London on November 27, 2011.

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