The Olympics’ oldest contested sport has had a much-needed makeover with the debut of women’s boxing. I was lucky enough to watch them up close in London and am thrilled to report that these women have done something truly extraordinary: they turned “you hit like a girl” into a compliment.
After slugging it out for several gruelling rounds and finally bringing home the gold medal for Great Britain, the boxer had to struggle to blink back tears of joy.
The fighter in question wasn’t Britain’s Nicola Adams, the first woman to win Olympic boxing gold. It was her bantamweight counterpart, Luke Campbell.
I enjoyed Campbell’s performance, and he deserved the win. But what had me blubbing like a baby was watching the true boxing stars of the Games emerge to reinvigorate the sport I love so much.
I am, of course, talking about the 36 ass-kicking boxers who made history as women’s boxing debuted at the Olympics.
I was lucky enough to see the greats fight up close, including gold medalists Adams, Ireland’s Katie Taylor, and the U.S.’s Claressa Shields; as well as India’s Mary Kom, the U.S.’s Queen Underwood and Marlen Esparza and Britain’s Natasha Jones.
And every single one of them fought bravely and honestly, and met their win or loss not with tears, not with bitterness, but with grace, humility, and smiles.
Contrast that with the men’s bouts, which were marred with complaining and scandal.
The sport as we know it – by which I mean men hitting men – has a bad reputation. And it more than deserves it. Even at the Olympics, scandal dogged the sport. The International Amateur Boxing Association is now suing the BBC for reporting on an alleged decision-buying scandal by Azerbaijan.
I won’t get the Daily Maverick in the AIBA’s crosshairs here, except to note that an Azeri fighter won his Olympic bout despite being knocked down six times in the final round by his Japanese opponent. That decision was later overturned in favour of the Japanese fighter, and left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth.
Scandals aside, this year’s men’s boxing performance was, let’s just say it, disgraceful. My own home nation, the United States, did not bring home a single medal in the sport – the first time that has ever happened.
Boxing champ James Toney later denounced the nine-man team as “garbage.” I won’t go that far, but I could’ve done with a bit less complaining about the scoring system from the boys.
The women, by contrast, delivered solid performances, without complaints, and with great style, touching gloves collegially, holding the ropes for their opponents and congratulating each other after fights.
Ireland’s Taylor led the pack, fighting with calm and class to simply demolish her three opponents. We all knew she was going to go all the way – what was impressive was how methodically and gracefully she did it. Many critics of the sport worried they’d be squeamish watching women fight. Watching Taylor at work made that concern seem ridiculous. As she bobbed, wove and struck – and even charmed us with a bit of the Ali shuffle – it became clear that we were watching an athlete at the top of her game.
Likewise with Shields, the 17-year-old American champion, who strikes like a young Tyson: hard, close, accurate and lightning-fast. Her performance drew raves from fellow boxing gold medalist Oscar de La Hoya.
I was so excited after the finals that I called my coach, George Khosi of the Hillbrow Boxing Club.
George and I gibbered excitedly at each other for several minutes. Later this year, George will receive an award for being one of the best women’s coaches in South Africa. His crew of women fighters make Hillbrow more dangerous than it already is.
George told me he thought women’s boxing could one day surpass men’s.
I feel obligated to inform you that George is an incurable optimist. I know this because he thought I could beat up a 19-year-old cagefighter. Instead she gave me a concussion and may have broken my nose.
Still, I hope George is right. So I’ll let him have the final word.
“My girls are very good, and I think they are getting better than men, I’m telling you,” he said. “This shows ladies can be more powerful than men.” DM
Anita Powell is very happy to be a Johannesburg-based journalist. But she also has travelled around in search of a good story: to Iraq, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Congo and to the great nation-state of Texas. She's in London walking the streets and covering the Games - specifically, her favorite sport of all time: boxing.
The 2016 Rio Olympic medals are already showing defects including rusting and chipping.