The Belles of the Ball: The British Women’s Boxing Team

By Matt McGrain on July 30, 2012
The Belles of the Ball: The British Women’s Boxing Team
Jonas says, “I’ve been the first woman to box for England and to qualify for the Olympics.”

Even if they all bring home gold medals, there is nowhere for them to go, no millionaire promoters waving contracts, no title fights in Vegas…

The UK’s Channel Four broadcast Knockout Scousers earlier this week, a documentary about the lives of three young Liverpool amateur boxers and the difficulties they face in their daily lives and their attempts to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics. Light on boxing but big on personality, two of the young men profiled revealed themselves to be fascinating during filming and whether we were hearing the warming tale of James Dickens and his determination to continue to aid the homeless despite a punishing schedule that sees him pound the Liverpool streets at four in the morning, or Tom Stalker, an ex-streetfighter and reformed car thief now ranked the very best light welterweight at the Games, we were hooked.

They are the type of stories boxing and the wider press just eat up. Reformation, piousness, humility, gratitude, boxing needs youngsters like this to fly the flag every bit as much as Britain loves its athletes humble. But it was neither Tom nor James who fronted and narrated the documentary. Nor was either particularly visible in the preview to the article that appeared in the Daily Mirror that same day. Both of those duties fell to a lightweight who, although charming, photogenic, well-spoken and sharp, has nothing like as compelling a back-story the other two subjects. Where Natasha Jonas is concerned, however, there has been a feeling that for both her and her gender, the time has come. How will she, and the other British women about to make history by boxing at the Olympic Games for the first time, fare on home soil?

Natasha Jonas—Lightweight

You can tell it is an Olympic year simply because nobody calls the World Championships the World Championships but refers to them instead as “The Olympic Qualifiers.” Natasha won a bronze medal at that tournament making her the first British woman in history to qualify for “The Greatest Show On Earth,” an honor that does not seem to be lost on her.

“I’ve been the first woman to box for England and to qualify for the Olympics,” she says. “Having a record like that is brilliant and they’re the things that people can’t take away from you.”

Natasha has fast hands and very decent footwork. Although she has a tendency to “hop” into position, a weakness that she could certainly do with ironing out, the sometime lack of glide in her movement is countered by good balance, an eye for the opening and a stiff southpaw jab. Her balance also allows her to move directly back and away from the opponent without fearing counter-rushes too much. A nice right hook is generally her weapon of choice against opponents that try to push her on the retreat.

A propensity for throwing wider shots in a firefight as well as a seeming lack of great physical strength means that she would do well to stick to her boxing as a general rule, although I think it is fair to say that her fearless streak will do her no harm overall. A very decent one-two in combination with a refreshing willingness to go to the body when the opportunity presents itself (and her judgment seems good) makes, overall, for a promising package. When Jonas is in full flow, her punches are trip-hammered out with a fluidity that will be the equal of many boxers at the Olympic Games, even if she lacks the killing power of the natural puncher.

So in spite of the fact that she is boxing in perhaps the toughest division at the Olympic Games—male or female—I just had a feeling that Natasha was a very good bet for a medal, perhaps even a shiny gold one. 

“If I became the first woman to win an Olympic gold medal at boxing I would be over the moon.”

Grounded and talented, Jonas has a lot of people pulling for her but the task has just become that much harder. It is difficult to see how her draw could be any worse.

She has drawn Queen Underwood in the first round. 

An American lightweight, Queen does not have the easy homespun charisma Natasha displays outside of the ring, but with good reason. Jonas speaks of a pleasant upbringing in the rough and tumble working class of the fighting city that is Liverpool whereas Underwood was brought up subjected to the worst type of physical abuse. A more natural puncher and a more rugged kind of boxer, these two would have let absolutely nobody down had they met in the final rather than the first round. Both would make a fine Champion.

All is not lost for Jonas who defeated Underwood at the end of last year in perhaps the best performance of her career, but whichever one of these competitors advances, Katie Taylor is lying in wait.

Out of Ireland, Taylor, who will win her first round tie, is the Teofilo Stevenson of women’s amateur boxing. We could run through her list of honors here, but we’d be far quicker to tell you what event she hasn’t won: she hasn’t won the Olympics. 

Jonas speaks of her respectfully but is not cowed. 

“When I first started in boxing, I used to be in absolute awe of Katie,” she told Boxing Monthly. “But as we have progressed, the sport has progressed. Even how good people think she is, there are chinks in her armor. She has paved the way for everyone else. But I want to spoil her big party.”

To get her chance, she has to beat Underwood. In the event that she manages to overcome both her, and Taylor, it would be nice to say that the heavy lifting is done, but that is not so. The Russian Sofya Ochigava and Dong Cheng from China are at least on a par with Jonas and Underwood, if not Taylor.

As a gold medalist, Natasha would be not just a history-maker but would also be the first woman ever to become the face of British boxing. She will also have earned it. It is unlikely anyone at the Olympic Games faces a tougher task. Fortunately, Britain has two other qualifiers for the women’s boxing—and either one of them could deliver the gold.

Nicola Adams—Flyweight

A little older than the other two qualifiers, Nicola understands better than the others just what women boxing at the Olympics means.

“I think that, after I retire, there will be more girls who can come into the gym and achieve the same things that I have—if not more. We’ve paved the way for the younger generation.  ’m hoping it will bring more girls into the sport because I didn’t have any female role models. So how nice would it be if us three girls are the ones that youngsters can look up to?”

Nothing less than an ambassador for the sport, Adams is grotesquely overlooked as a fighter. One gold and four silver medals to show from her adventures at the World and European champions, she is one of Britain’s most decorated amateurs regardless of sex. Exceptionally quick and armed with a poisonous right hand, Nicola is a stylist, an energetic ball of elastic energy with a reactions-based defense from which she has learned to throw truly venomous counters. Genuinely charismatic in the ring, she legitimately brings to mind a young Prince Naseem and you can expect plenty of surprising punches and slips when you watch her box (which I heartily recommend you do!). She has basically perfected her style and I suspect that she is going to take the gold medal on home soil. Universally liked within the boxing trade, it is hard to think of a more deserving or popular winner and although there is a long way to go—China’s Ren Cancan leads the chasing pack—she is the favorite. Aged twenty-nine, it is likely going to be her last, as well as her first chance

Savannah Marshall—Middleweight

Despite Nicola Adams’ undeniable pedigree, Marshall may be Britain’s best bet to land the gold. Eight years younger than her flyweight teammate, Marshall is not decorated, nor has she perfected her style in the same manner as the more diminutive Adams, but there is the small matter of the gold medal she has already won this year, at the World Championships. Coming up against the feared Elena Vystropova in the final, Marshall “stood her on her head” according to British broadcasting legend Steve Bunce, winning gold by a slim margin on what happened to be her twenty-first birthday.

Marshall, also known as “The Silent Assassin” due to her shy manner, sports an absolute thumper of a left jab, a punch that ranks amongst the very best in the women’s sport. For all that, she is not beneath leading with her right hand, likely her best punch, or surging in behind shorter punches, but her swarming attacks, when they come, are reasonably well controlled. A tendency to want to throw more punches upon missing makes her work occasionally look messy, and whilst once upon a time this was not the “done thing” in the amateurs, the judges and the code as a whole seems on the verge of lightening up a little, which will do Marshall, an aggressive handful of a fighter, no harm at all. Her left hook, when thrown short, is a punch that needs no adjusting and makes her the most rounded of the three medal hopes. She’s ready.

One problem is at hand: she is a fighter feeling the pressure.

“I have never felt the pressure from being in the ring before,” Savannah told The Northern Echo this week. “I just loved to box…I am feeling the pressure already with The Olympics. It’s going to be like nothing I have been to before…I’m going to The Olympics as the World Champion so everyone knows me.”

It’s a fact of life. If she can’t deal with it, she may choke. If she can, I suspect that the title is hers to win. Nadezda Torlopova out of Russia will likely have something to say about that and no doubt Vystropova will be out for revenge whilst Canada’s Mary Spencer can certainly be seen as a threat now that she has been drawn with a bye in the first round, but make no mistake—Marshall is the fighter to beat.

I had very high hopes for Jonas in the run up to the tournament and whilst I was always aware how deep her division ran, seeing her nightmarish draw on paper makes me wonder. She has every asset necessary to become the type of media darling that British boxing is currently desperate for aside from the gold medal but I fear it is beyond her. Should I be proven wrong it will be a victory for the ages.

For Marshall and Adams the pressures are different but I think, for once, it really isn’t the winning that matters, but the taking part. Here we have three women fighting hard in a man’s world. Even if they all bring home gold medals, there is nowhere for them to go, no millionaire promoters waving contracts, no title fights in Vegas, no encrusted Ring belt or WBC green velvet. Just more unpaid fights, or perhaps for Adams retirement and a return to the building trade which along with the generosity of friends, family and sponsors has kept her in the sport these past ten years.

All that matters is the moment and as Adams says, the next generation.

I think that’s rather exciting.

Don’t you?

(Women’s Olympic boxing begins on Sunday August the 5th)

Follow us on Twitter@boxing_com to continue the discussion

Glory Road Natasha Jonas Story Trailer

Inside Out: Natasha Jonas

Bunce's Boxing Hour: Natasha Jonas Interview

Light (60kg) SF - Ochigava (RUS) vs Jonas (ENG) - AIBA Women's World C'ship 2012

Dillon 'Nicola Adams Is A Little Sugar Ray Leonard'

Team GB's Nicola Adams and her coach Alwyn Belcher

Nicola Adams On Her Boxing Journey To The Olympics

Nicola Adams Boxing Highlights

Road to 2012: Setting Out - Savannah Marshall

Savannah Marshall GB Olympic team London 2012

Middle (75kg) Final - Vystropova (AZE) vs Marshall (ENG) - AIBA Women's World C'ship 2012

Middle (75kg) SF - Marshall (ENG) vs Torlopova (RUS) - AIBA Women's World C'ship 2012

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  1. The Thresher 10:15am, 07/29/2012

    Actually, I am one of the few (I think) who digs women’s boxing. Christy Martin took it to a new level and then Ali, Lucia, and a bunch of others took it further. I enjoy it and I am not afraid to admit it. They train hard and like female basketball players, are proficient with the fundamentals.

  2. McGrain 01:24am, 07/29/2012

    Thanks bud.  I really think that women’s boxing is going to land at this tournie.  There are simply to many compelling characters, narratives and styles, plus the depths in the lightweight division is genuinely outstanding.  I hope boxing fans take an interest.

    Will you be watching?

  3. the thresher 04:49pm, 07/28/2012

    Informative as only a article can be!!

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