(Ed note: We're pleased to bring you the Los Angeles Review of Books coverage of the 2012 Olympics. To read the complete series, click here.)
“’Now,’ Aeneas announces, ‘let any man with heart, with the fire in his chest, come forward—put up your fists, strap on the rawhide gloves,’”
—Virgil’s The Aeneid, trans. Fagles
“As in dying and death, so in serious pain the claims of the body utterly nullify the claims of the world,” says Elaine Scarry in her book The Body in Pain. And the “claims of the world” are still being made when it comes to the U.S. presence in boxing at the 2012 Olympics. Scarry talks about war in her book, and, if the Olympics can be considered a war of sorts by the poet Virgil, there will be some bodies in pain come Sunday. Even with the advent of Laila Ali, even with the wisdom of Joyce Carol Oates, and even with world records and medals in international boxing competitions, people, men and women alike, still can’t seem to believe in Women’s Boxing. For the first time, it will be an official competition at the London Olympics. The 1902 “demonstration bout” doesn’t count. This year, three women will represent the U.S. in three different weight divisions: Marlen Esparza, six-time National Champion, our World Champion Bronze medalist, will compete in the Flyweight division; Quanita “Queen” Underwood, winner of bronze at the 2010 World Championship and five-time U.S. Lightweight Champion will compete in the Lightweight division; and Claressa Shields, two-time Junior Olympic National Champion will compete in the Middleweight division; and
What’s at stake? Virgil would say the wrath of the gods, Juno and Venus in particular, and, somehow, the U.S. men have already managed to piss off both of them. The men’s team posted the worst performance in U.S. Olympic history, they were completely swept, left without a medal to kiss on the podium (so far, at least, but I’m still pulling for Errol Spence, who got to “fight on” after winning on a technicality five hours after further review). The U.S. Men’s Boxing historical record? Forty-eight gold medals: the most won by any country by fighters like Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Joe Frazier, to name a few. So, to make it plain, these women are our team; women boxers are not mythological beasts.
In The Aeneid, when Virgil writes about the boxing match between Dares and Entellus, the epic poem becomes a moral tale about willpower. No one will come forth to fight the young, virile Dares who challenges any man in the crowd to compete against him. We’re not talking about weight divisions and referees, either; this is before The Queensberry Rules, for you sports fans who don’t like epic poetry. So, to keep face for his hometown of Sicily, the old man, Entullus, throws down the gauntlet and steps up to fight:
With that challenge Entellus stripped his pleated cloak from his shoulders, baring his great sinewy limbs, his great bones and joints, and stood gigantic in the center of the ring.
Sometimes, as one contemplates being beaten they already are beaten. The belief in winning is so powerful and the fear of losing so debilitating that many fights can be summed up before the first round bell rings. It can be seen as they spar in their home gyms — some as if the gym isn’t big enough to hold their combinations, some as if they’re sucking their thumb in the womb — and it’s seen as they talk to their families and their trainers. I always look for the boxer who enters the ring with a sweat. The fighter’s heart rate is up, her body is warm, and her glare says, I own this ring. Mike Tyson almost always had that look in his eye; many of his fights were already won at the stare down. Claressa Shields has the look of a fighter who cannot lose. It’s clear that she believes she’s coming home with gold. Watching her spar with men, there’s little wonder why. Her father was a boxer, and at 11 years old, she was inspired to pick up the gloves. She believes, without a doubt, that she’s going to win. In a recent TV interview, she said that she’s entering London as if she’s at home in her gym, “and can’t nobody beat me in here.” I believe her.
Entellus is the more skilled, stronger fighter. We learn this later, once he cracks the prized bull’s skull — but he also gets tired and knocked down and counted out. Entellus, however, still believed he could win; though, it would not be easy:
….the giant’s full force poured in the crashing blow lands on empty air and his own weight brings him down, a colossal man, a colossal fall, he slammed the earth…
Marlen Esparza graduated in the top two percent of her class. Not too many boxers get to say that. The men’s bouts last for three rounds of three minutes each; the women’s, four rounds for two minutes each. There’s a one-minute rest interval between each round. What you’ll notice about Marlen Esparza is that she has what people called “perpetual motion” in the late great Henry Armstrong. When she enters the ring, she’s constantly moving, even when her opponents try to hold. When approaching her opponents, much like Armstrong, she employs a similar rocking back and forth style, which is hard to read. She doesn’t have the hard knocks story of her cohorts, Underwood and Shields, but she has a willpower honed through being underestimated. She mentions that being a Mexican-American woman is one of the hardest factors for her to overcome as a female boxer; too often, people don’t think she’s in the right place when she walks into a gym to strap on the gloves. She’s been proving the doubters wrong and making her father and trainer — the two people she cites as inspiration, in and out of the ring — proud. Esparza is not only the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team, but she’s also the only one who served as president of her high school graduating class. She possesses a mental toughness and focus that most boxers learn later in their careers. Watch for her footwork and her counter punches, two qualities most underestimated in boxers; these are her strengths. She can slip a punch as well as give it, but in the final round, no matter the odds, you won’t see her on the retreat. She keeps moving forward.
What Dares didn’t understand is that Entullus had been hit many times before, had been declared a champion before, and had been hit hard before in those battles — knocked down, even — but fought back to win. Entullus didn’t fear any fighter; he was the quintessential badass:
The champion, never slowed by a fall, unshaken, goes back to fight and all the fiercer, anger fueling his power now…
When we talk about armchair quarterbacks, we’re usually talking about guys who comment on NFL games in their TV rooms with a beer can balanced on their bellies, years after their high school football games have passed them by. But many spectators of boxing have never boxed, and many have never even been in an actual fight.
The biggest surprise to anyone who has never been in a fight is being hit.
Skipping rope, practicing your combinations by shadow boxing, hitting a speed bag, and doing roadwork can’t prepare you for getting hit. As a kid, the first time I got hit by another kid, I stood there crying as he took my bike. My mom, doing her best Burgess Meredith impression (1976 was a good year for boxing!), sent me back to claim it. I punched the kid off my bike and to the ground in front of his three brothers, all of whom looked as surprised as I was when I rode off with it. I was hooked. This was just in time for me to enjoy watching the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where Sugar Ray Leonard fought for and won the gold against the Cuban welterweight Andres Aldama.
Both Leonard and Aldama had great footwork, easily slipping each other’s punches and breaking clean from holds into precise combinations. Leonard danced, circling to the left, just outside of Aldema’s lead foot, but he maintained a wide stance, packing power into each punch. What was clear about both boxers was that neither was afraid; they just respected the skill of the other. Howard Cosell sounded almost as if he favored Cuba when he commented that, “They’re all so sleek looking, those Cuban fighters […] Leonard must continually escape that southpaw lead [the right hand].” And I admit now that my favorite at the ’76 Olympics was actually the Cuban heavyweight boxer, three-time gold medal winner Teofilo Stevenson, who recently died this past June.
The biggest surprise to a boxer, after knocking an opponent down, is seeing that fighter get up to fight some more. In his autobiography The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring, Leonard reveals that he was subjected to sexual abuse by one of his then trainers for the Olympics. No one knew, no one could have even dreamed, that any of this was lurking behind him as he fought his opponents in the ring. But for Queen Underwood, the sexual abuse she experienced at home has been news that, at times, has eclipsed her masterful boxing. Her road to gold has been the one less traveled; Esparza and Shields both got byes in the first round. They only need to win one match to get bronze. Underwood fought the British hometown favorite Natasha Jonas on August 5th and lost in a 21-13 Decision. Jonas will now face the Irish champion, Katie Taylor, who many consider the best woman boxer in the world.
Although Taylor beat Underwood three times before, I still picked Underwood to win. In fact, I picked her to win because she’s lost to Taylor three times before. Underwood is a finisher; she usually gets better as the rounds wear on. Against Jonas, she was ahead in the first round, but the hometown crowd got in her head, and she didn’t fight her fight in the later rounds. She told The Ring magazine that she was disappointed:
“I filled a spot that somebody could have had but I gave away half my life for this and it just doesn’t feel like the reward of being here is enough," Underwood said. "I just wish and hope that the fans and people who have been there and my family can believe the journey was enough and I’m a champion regardless of the decision. That’s where it ends with me is being a champion and pushing for it since I didn’t get the gold medal here.”
Despite her elimination, I think Queen Underwood will have a long career, and will be voted most improved fighter over time. Auspicious beginnings don’t always play out well for boxers. When Mike Tyson had his first-round winning streak, I think this is the element that finally brought him down: the surprise of losing. If Underwood gets past this loss to Jonas, she will go on and have a good career. Like Entellus, these Olympic games are Underwood’s chance to get up off the canvas. There was no visible sign of worry in any interview with Queen Underwood prior to her bout on August 5th; she knew that she had to show up to fight, no matter what, and she knew she could win. And, with the swagger that she’s bringing to the ring, media reports stopped focusing on her personal life and started positioning Underwood as the fighter Taylor had to beat — not the other way around. I think Underwood will face both Jonas and Taylor again, and I think she’ll be a very different fighter as a result of this disappointment.
Yeah, I’m with Virgil on everything he said. And I’m with Shields, Esparza, and, yes, Underwood, too. It’s on. In the end, these three women will show up to fight, and that will be all they will have to prove to the world.
“…Here, in victory, I lay down my gloves….”