This year marks the debut of women’s boxing in the Olympic Games and for the next week, two dozen female fighters will be competing at the Northern Quest Resort & Casino outside of Spokane vying to represent the U.S. at the 2012 Summer Games.
Only three women’s weight classes will be contested in London: flyweight (112 pounds), lightweight (132 pounds), and middleweight (165 pounds). There’s been a lot of reshuffling lately as women cut weight or bulk up to fit into the Olympic classes.
When USA Boxing’s Joe Zanders addressed the fighters at the opening press conference, he told them, “You’re representing a lot of ladies who didn’t have the chance to be here. Their spirits are with you in the ring.”
As head coach, Zanders will guide the American hopefuls in London. This week, twenty-four American women will compete in a double-elimination tournament, but only the winners from each division will advance to May’s World Championships in China, where they will need to finish in the top eight to earn a trip to London.
The 24 women are a diverse group from across the country who come to the sport with different backgrounds and motivations. Each fighter has a story. Some are joyful but many are tragic. Whether they box as a response to abuse as a child, a way out of a dead-end career or relationship or to fulfill a lifetime dream of Olympic glory, they are all driven to be champions. The personalities began to emerge once the top four seeds in each weight class were called to the stage. The remaining four fighters drew numbered ping pong balls out of a basket and once announced, each pair posed in a face-off.
A handful of California fighters, including Patricia Manuel and Mikaela Mayer, are among the hopefuls on a quest to show their stuff at the U.S. trials. For the last two years the two women have shared the dream of representing the U.S. this summer in London, even living and training together for a time.
Both Manuel, a 26-year-old who sports an intimidating mohawk , and Mayer, a 21-year-old who grew up in Woodland Hills, will fight at 132 pounds – and each has a challenging first-round opponent. Manuel gets second-seeded Tiara Brown, who won silver in last year’s national championships, while Mayer opens with the no. four seed and fellow Angeleno Lisa Porter, a 23-year-old who got her start through the Cal State Northridge boxing club.
Whoever wins the latter bout will take a huge step up in their second fight. Top-seeded Queen Underwood is also on that side of the bracket and will get the Mayer-Porter winner assuming she beats southpaw Bertha Aracil of Yonkers, N.Y. Underwood, who has won the U.S. National Championships five times in a row and is from nearby Seattle, is a favorite to win.
In the flyweight division Marlen Esparza, a 22-year-old from Houston, is a heavy favorite after winning six consecutive national championships as well as a bronze medal in the 2006 World Championships. Among her toughest opponents could be second-seeded Tyrieshia Douglas of Baltimore, who along with brother Antoine, a middleweight who placed third in the 2011 Men’s National Championships, are trying to become the first brother-sister pair to box in the Olympics.
Middleweight favorite Franchon Crews comes to Spokane partly at the urging of former “American Idol” judge Simon Cowell. The flamboyant Crews, who is nicknamed “The Heavy Hitting Diva” was once a contestant on reality TV competition. When her rendition of “A Woman’s Worth” was rejected, Cowell suggested she stick to boxing. That’s proven to be good advice, since the 24-year-old Baltimore native has won five national titles at two weights.
Also in the 165-pound division is third-seeded Tiffanie Ward, a former basketball player from Hacienda Heights who placed third in the 2011 nationals. At 28, Ward is among the oldest competitors in the tournament.
The youngest fighter in the tournament, undefeated sixteen-year-old Claressa Shields from Flint, Mich., drew the number one middleweight seed Crefor her first bout. Shields, profiled in the New Times piece “Bout Time”, is a driven high school student looking for a way out of her depressed hometown.
Young or old, experienced or not, four of these fighters will have the opportunity to make history this summer when women’s boxing will be part of the programme for the first time.
Fighters at the U.S Olympic Women’s Boxing Trials
Flyweight (112 pounds)
Marlen Esparza (Houston; No. 1) vs. Cynthia Moreno (Phoenix); Taversha Norwood (Marietta, Ga.; No. 4) vs. Alex Love (Monroe, Wash.); Christina Cruz (New York; No. 3) vs. Virginia Fuchs (Kemah, Texas); Tyrieshia Douglas (Baltimore; No. 2) vs. Latonya Wingate ((Harrison Township, Mich).
Lightweight (132 pounds)
Queen Underwood (Seattle; No. 1) vs. Bertha Aracil (Yonkers, N.Y.); Lisa Porter (Northridge; No. 4) vs. Mikaela Mayer (Los Angeles); N’yteeyah Sherman (Barberton, Ohio; No. 3) vs. Asia Stevenson (Washington); Tiara Brown (Lehigh, Fla.; No. 2) vs. Patricia Manuel (Long Beach)
Middleweight (165 pounds)
Franchon Crews (Baltimore; No. 1) vs. Claressa Shields (Flint, Mich.); Dara Shen (Alexandria, Va.; No. 4) vs. Andrecia Wasson (Centerline, Mich.); Tiffanie Ward (Hacienda Heights, No. 3) vs. Tiffanie Hearn (Louisville, Ky.); Tika Hemingway (Pittsburgh; No. 2) vs. Raquel Miller (San Francisco)