First came a stinging left hook, followed by a flurry of punches, then a sharp right hook that sent Bulgarian boxer Milena Koleva to the mat in the 7th round. The knockdown cemented Irish fighter Katie Taylor’s victory in her fourth professional night on March 25th. Koleva managed to get up and finish the 8-round bout, but her legs were wobbly, becoming an easier prey for Taylor who went on to win by way of unanimous decision.
Taylor’s victory capped a month of revived excitement over women’s boxing. Boxing experiences its own March Madness that was notably headlined by the graduates of the 2012 London Olympics, the first year that women’s boxing became an Olympic sport.
The Ides of March
March 2017 may be looked back at as the watershed moment for women’s boxing. The month that a new class of fighters showed up in the pro boxing ranks, exhibiting strong technical skills that promise to add more excitement to the sport. And perhaps change the perception of women’s boxing for good.
Prior to her bout with Koleva, Taylor, 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the lightweight division, fought Monica Gentili (6-7-0) on March 4th, outclassing the Italian fighter with dazzling hand speed and combinations. Marlen Esparza, US bronze medalist in the flyweight division, fought her first professional bout on March 23rd, cruising to victory over American Rachel Sazoff (0-2-0). Claressa Shields, US gold medalist in the middleweight class, overwhelmed Hungarian Silvia Szabados (15-9-0) in her second professional bout on March 9th.
All three demonstrated the technical dominance that comes from years of training for accuracy and honed to perfection in prestigious sporting arenas.
The International Olympic Committee opened the Olympic doors to women boxers in 2012, more than 100 years after boxing was introduced in the summer Olympic games, and three years after the International Boxing Association agreed to allow women to box in the Olympics.
Proponents of women’s boxing believe the sport was restrained by a host of factors such as concerns on the impacts of boxing on women-specific health. Studies later on proved that women suffer less concussions and therefore, have lower risks than men. To this day, there is no conclusive link to chest trauma and breast cancer.
Perhaps the most stifling of all reasons are gender stereotypes. Both Shields and Esparza were told by their fathers that “boxing is not for girls” when they first expressed interest in the sport. Had they not persisted, the boxing world would have been deprived of two of the most talented boxers of this generation.
“People don’t want to see women fighting” or “women cannot fight like men” are common comments from boxing fans. But these were defied by the crowd turnout for the match between Katie Taylor and Natasha Jones for the bronze medal in the London Olympics. England Boxing, the national governing body in England, noted that “at 113.7, the bout…registered the highest decibel level of any sport during the Olympic Games. The road of a typical jet engine is 140.”
The women boxers who competed in the 2012 Olympics will carry the badge of honor of being “the first” to have fought in the biggest sporting arena not only for women but for their countries, their communities, their families. The Olympics also brought women’s boxing out in the open to a wider audience, forcing even the most skeptical male boxing fan to take notice.
The Class of 2012 is also set to break glass ceilings in the pro ranks. Shields was the first woman boxer to headline a main event to a sell-out crowd in Detroit. Esparza obtained a rare three-year contract where all her fights will be aired on TV. Another Olympic gold medalist, Nicola Adams of England, will make her pro debut over BT Sport on April 8th.
Beyond the business, it will be interesting to see how these Olympic champions change their game as pros. In winning by TKO over Szabados, Shields is establishing herself as a power puncher and a potential knockout artist. Taylor has captivated boxing audiences with rapid combinations that aim to work the body before the final blow to the head.
Esparza’s pro debut was lackluster, though not of her own doing. She was matched with a technically inferior boxer thus, the Houston-native did not need to do anything more than she had to win the four-rounder. But all three dominated their bouts this month in a show of brilliance in the ring, even made more exciting by the thought that they are only starting in their careers.
For sure, the challenges of women boxers will not end because of the new fighters. Most women’s bouts are likely to remain in the shadows, out of the sight and unnoticed. For most women, payoffs are likely to remain modest and endorsements hard to come by. Last year, light heavyweight titleholder Sergey Kovalev irked Shields when he said that boxing is not for women and that women should stay home. Comments on his interview posted on YouTube show that gender stereotypes will remain the toughest barrier even for the most skilled woman boxer.
But for now, the Class of 2012 gives women’s boxing reason to celebrate. The London Olympics is now paying dividends for both the boxers and the sport itself. In recognition of the potential marketability of women’s boxing, promoters are gradually signing them up and adding them as undercards to high profile fights. Puerto Rican Amanda Serrano (31-1-1) will make a bid for a fifth division world championship as an undercard in the WBC welterweight title eliminator bout between Andre Berto and Shawn Porter in the Barclays Center on April 22nd. Taylor is expected to be an undercard to the heavyweight title match between Vladimir Klitchko and Anthony Joshua on April 29th at the Wembley Stadium.
The sport itself is enriched by the entry of high caliber, highly skilled athletes, increasing the pool of women for quality matchmaking in the pro ranks. The women’s 115 to 135-pound weight class particularly holds promise because of the larger pool of women in those divisions.
Like the Fearless Girl defiantly standing against Wall Street’s Charging Bull, the class of 2012 is proving that women’s boxing is here to stay and haters will just to have to live with that fact.