Women's boxing enjoys raucous Olympics debut

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 6, 2012 - 5:30 AM

A sellout crowd raised the roof for the newest Olympic sport.

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Quanitta Underwood of the United States, left, ran into a home-country favorite in Natasha Jonas of Great Britain and lost her women’s lightweight bout 21-13.

Photo: Ivan Sekretarev, Associated Press

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LONDON - The broader picture was lost to Quanitta Underwood on Sunday, obscured by her loss to Great Britain's Natasha Jonas as women's boxing made its Olympic debut.

"History doesn't mean anything to me," said the lightweight, one of three boxers representing the U.S. in London. "The gold medal meant more."

Underwood -- who goes by the nickname "Queen" -- did say she hoped young boxers were watching, so they could see the possibilities that officially opened to them at the London Games. In a country where women's boxing was banned until 1996, 24 women sparred in opening-round bouts for three weight classes. Underwood, the only American in action Sunday, got a tough draw against local favorite Jonas and lost 21-13.

Russia's Elena Savelyeva and North Korea's Kim Hye Song received a rousing welcome at London Excel when they became the first two women to step into an Olympic boxing ring. A sellout crowd of 10,000 waved flags, stomped their feet and chanted the boxers' names, creating an atmosphere that delighted Barbara Buttrick. Known as "The Mighty Atom of the Ring," Buttrick, now 82, is a Englishwoman standing 4-11 who fought in Europe and the U.S. in the 1940s and '50s and later founded the Women's International Boxing Federation.

Buttrick was at ringside Sunday to see her sport take a stage that will bring it much wider exposure and credibility -- and, perhaps, acceptance. U.S. Olympic women's coach Charles Leverette was disappointed to see his first fighter lose, but unlike Underwood, he could immediately appreciate the historic import of the afternoon.

"The sky's the limit for these young ladies," said Leverette, who oversees a team that will send out Marlen Esparza in the flyweight class and Claressa Shields at middleweight. "They're disciplined, they work hard and they're very exciting, and they're finally getting showcased on a world level."

The Olympic tournament includes 36 boxers from 23 countries, including China, Tunisia, India, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan. In an opening bout that also was refereed by a woman, Savelyeva defeated Kim 12-9.

Karlha Magliocco of Venezuela brought her own energetic rooting section, a little group that stood and screamed throughout her 15-14 victory over Brazil's Erica Matos. Some of the loudest cheers Sunday came for Chungneijang Mery Kom Hmangte of India, a five-time world champion who goes by MC Mary Kom and is among the best-known female boxers in the world. Her bout against Poland's Karolina Michalczuk was a slugfest from the bell, as she fought back time after time when the taller Michalczuk backed her into the ropes.

Amid the deafening chants of "Mary Kom! Mary Kom!" and the incessant, thunderous stomping of feet, Hmangte won 19-14 and bowed to the crowd. A stampede of Indian reporters greeted her in the interview area, applauding when she came in. More than 10 minutes after her bout, Indian fans in the crowd still were chanting her name.

"This is a very special day," she said. "Every athlete works to play at the Olympic Games. This is my 12th year of fighting, and I came out of retirement and changed my weight because I had to take part in the Olympic Games."

The place got even louder when Jonas marched in for her matchup against Underwood. Underwood, 28, entered the Games as one of the most compelling athletes on the U.S. team. She and her sister endured a childhood in which they were sexually abused by their father; he served prison time for the abuse, and the sisters have used Queen's fame as a platform to raise awareness about that issue.

Sunday, she faced a tall task against Jonas, a Liverpool native and former college soccer player who is ranked No. 7 in the world. Underwood led 4-3 after the first of four two-minute rounds, drawing boos from the crowd. Jonas caught her with a series of right hooks in the second, keeping the pressure on while absorbing Underwood's best shots.

Jonas let out a primal yell after she won, raising her fists in the air amid the din of the home crowd. She faces four-time world champion Katie Taylor of Ireland, the top seed, in Monday's quarterfinals. All three gold medal bouts are Thursday, and all sessions are sold out.

Sweden's Anna Laurell, who will fight Shields on Monday, admitted she was nervous during her opening bout.

"It's the biggest moment in women's boxing," she said. "It is the last step for us to be truly accepted."

Underwood grasped that, but it was hard for her to relish the big picture when her own medal hopes had been extinguished.

"This is a big moment for up and coming boxers," she said. "But I don't think just getting here was enough for me. Being a part of history wasn't enough for me. I will always say I could have done more."

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