LOCALS IN LONDON
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LONDON — Marlen Esparza was already having a bad hair day when the crowd at boxing started booing her for refusing to trade haymakers with her Venezuelan opponent.
Next thing you know they were going to say she was fighting like a girl.
Not such a bad thing these days, at least in amateur boxing. The way the women rocked the Olympic arena in their boxing debut almost made you forget for a moment how corrupt, inept and unsatisfying their male counterparts have been in way too many Olympics.
They moved, they danced, and they hit each other as hard as they could. What some of them may have lacked in technical ability they made up for with eagerness and desire, and thousands packed into the ExCel arena cheered their every move.
For years, women fought for the right to be punched in the face in search of Olympic glory. Now that they're here, they're threatening to make Olympic boxing a respectable sport once again.
It took a woman to do what used to be a man's job, with Esparza guaranteeing herself at least a bronze medal — the first for any U.S. boxer in London — with a 24-16 win over Karlha Magliocco of Venezuela on Monday. The diminutive former student body president from Houston did it on the biggest stage of her career despite having to constantly adjust her headgear because her hair kept pushing it off the top of her head.
Nothing a couple of left hooks to her opponent's head couldn't fix.
"If you keep thinking 'My hair, my hair' it messes with your aggressiveness," Esparza said.
At least she didn't have to worry about her makeup. Esparza has a deal with Cover Girl and puts on makeup before she goes into the ring and slips on her headgear.
Who's to say a girl can't look good when she's fighting?
"I know the USA needed it badly, so I'm excited," Esparza said. "Now it's time to get what I really came here for."
That would be gold at 112 pounds, though Esparza must get through the reigning world champion from China in her next bout to get to the gold-medal final. Still, she and Claressa Shields, a 17-year-old from Flint, Mich., who also won Monday, have medals while nine of the 10 men on the U.S. team have already been eliminated.
In this Olympics, women rule.
"I definitely don't feel like I fight like a girl," Shields said. "I'm boxing out there. I just happen to hit hard."
Adding women's boxing to the Olympics wasn't well received in all quarters, particularly since it forced officials to eliminate one men's division to make room. The logic behind keeping the total number of boxers — male and female — at 286 while adding golf, of all things, to the next Olympics is more than questionable, but the IOC pretty much does what it wants.
In just two days, though, the women have re-energized a sport that almost got tossed out of the Olympics a few years back after a seemingly endless string of scandals destroyed what little integrity boxing still had. They fight hard, aren't afraid to get in a scrap, and don't complain like the men when a decision doesn't go their way.
A couple of them even wore skirts in their opening bouts simply because they wanted to, not because the dimwits that run amateur boxing followed through on an earlier plan to mandate them for all women.
The best of the bunch is a lightweight from Ireland who has won four world titles and will almost surely take gold here. Katie Taylor once was on her country's national soccer team and played Gaelic football, so no one questions her toughness. But her true calling is in the ring.
She showed it Monday, fighting almost nonstop for four rounds to beat Britain's Natasha Jones in a bout that was every bit as entertaining — actually, even more — than anything the men have put on in these games. While Taylor and Jones traded punches, several thousand fans cheered, sang, waved flags and made so much noise it was a wonder either fighter could hear the referee's commands.
"I think we're shocking the world this week," Taylor said. "People have really opened their eyes to women's boxing."
Count me among them. I was ringside when Christy Martin fought on Mike Tyson undercards, and I watched pinup Mia St. John fight her way onto the cover of Playboy. But women's boxing on the pro level was always more of a carnival sideshow to sell tickets than it was an actual competition, and fans have always pretty much treated it as that.
This is different. These are women who are real athletes with real Olympic dreams. They've trained in spartan gyms and sacrificed normal lives for a sport where most can't make a dime, all in a chase for Olympic medals.
And this is fun.
Taylor's two male cornermen were so excited when her victory was announced that they jumped and hugged each other. Fans in the stands were doing the same thing, giddy at the thought of a young woman fighting her way to what might be Ireland's only gold medal of the games.
They live for the moment, and for most of them the moment will be fleeting. Unlike the men, there is no real market for professional female fighters anymore, even if they come with gold medals dangling from their necks.
That may explain why they fight with such passion and exuberance. Someone is finally paying attention to them, and it will be a four long years before the spotlight comes their way again.
For the 23-year-old Esparza, this is her only chance. Raised by her father to fight, she is hanging up her gloves after the Olympics.
She's going to college, eager to pursue a degree in something other than the sweet science.
Hopefully not before she gets the fight of her life.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg