For the first time ever, women boxers will compete in the Olympics, in London's 2012 Summer Games. For the three fighters considered top gold medal contenders, the hardest part may be proving to the world that they aren't lightweights.
Author Tricia Despres Photography Thomas Chadwick
Samantha Guzman emerges from the locker room at the Jabb Boxing Gym in Chicago, and the first thing you notice is her shining hair, which she wraps delicately into a bun a few strands at a time and then secures with a butterfly clip. Then you notice her fingernails—long, painted and perfectly shaped. She stuffs her hands into bright red Everlast boxing gloves, lacing them up as she walks past a wall of mirrors toward the ring. Guzman’s eyes, rimmed with eyeliner, are piercing and cold, ready to stare down her opponent.
She steps into the ring with a sparring partner about her age—20 years old— and starts dancing lightly on the balls of her feet, then stepping quickly left and right. It’s that same movement you’ve seen time and again in footage of Muhammad Ali or Oscar De La Hoya or Rocky Balboa. She claps her gloves together, beckoning her opponent to make a move.
Guzman is one of around 2,500 female boxers in the United States whose future plans changed radically this past August, when the International Olympic Committee announced that women’s boxing will be a part of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. Men’s boxing was added 105 years ago, and until August the sport was the only one in the Summer Olympics without a female discipline. Now Guzman and two other young boxers from Chicago, Tiffany Perez and Alicia Gutierrez, are considered top contenders to win the first-ever gold medal in female boxing.
After sparring a couple of rounds as her father and coach, Angel, watches closely and quietly offers guidance, Guzman stands by a line of heavy bags.
Weighing just a tick over 100 pounds, with limbs more slender than you might expect from a National Golden Gloves Women’s Champion, she is proud, confident, witty and full of opinions— not unlike Ali. A light rain is falling outside the wrought-iron casement windows. She says she’s no longer distracted by the things that rattled her when she started out. “I don’t think about the pain,” she says. “I think about the fact that the person standing in front of me in the ring wants to hurt me, break something, knock me down. Luckily, that’s when the adrenaline takes over. I open my eyes up as wide as I can. My ears are clear but I don’t hear anything. Everything goes silent.”
Guzman’s career record is 21–5, and she’s punched her way to Illinois State U.S. Champion and a national ranking in the light flyweight division. Despite her bluster, the stats surprise her. “I was the little girl who would skin her knee and run to hide behind my dad,” she says. “Now the same dad I hid behind is my coach, always encouraging me.”
Once known as “Scrawny Sam,” Guzman told her parents she wanted to box back in 2005, after three years competing in gymnastics. “I remember my dad telling me that you don’t ‘play’ boxing. You ‘play’ soccer. You ‘play’ basketball. But this is boxing. You can get hurt.” Her parents tried to talk her out of it, even taking Samantha to a showing of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning weeper Million Dollar Baby, which doesn’t end well for the main character, a scrappy female boxer. The film was meant to dissuade her, but the plan backfired.
“I saw that movie and knew right then and there I wanted to get into that ring,” she says. “I think people inherently don’t like women hitting each other. I happen to enjoy it.”
Turns out she’s not the only one; a number of young competitors are preparing for the games. “In the last few months, we’ve already seen more and more female boxers working to shift their weight so they fall into one of the three categories,” says Christy Halbert, head of the U.S.A. Boxing women’s task force. “Of course, we were disappointed that they are only offering the three weight classes. The men have ten. Hopefully the remaining ones will be added in 2016.”
In London, women will compete at flyweight (105–112 pounds), lightweight (123–132 pounds) and middleweight (152–165 pounds). With four medals awarded in each class, a little math shows there’s enough room for only 12 female boxers from around the world to make it to the podium. By comparison, 40 medals will be handed out to the men.
“Just twelve women out of the entire world?” exclaims Guzman, who’s old enough to know that her only shot at the Olympics will be in London. “That’s not an Olympic Games, that’s an exhibition! For us, the world championships are more like the Olympics than the actual Olympics will be. Of course, I’m pretty psyched we’ll get the chance.”
Halbert isn’t convinced it’s merely an exhibition. “These boxers are going to have to perform at the top of every level before they get to London,” she says. “The top echelon in their weight classes, then the top echelons internationally. But I think that no matter how they do, just participating in this fight to make the very first female Olympic team is an impressive part of sports history.”
AT FOUR FEET, 11 INCHES, Tiffany Perez is tiny, but that’s not her greatest obstacle. She was diagnosed with severe asthma at the age of four, around the same time she first started watching Puerto Rican superstar boxers Felix Trinidad and, later, Miguel Cotto fighting on TV. Her fascination grew. Still, when she first stepped into the ring at 13, no one figured she had the fortitude to jog around the block twice, much less make a serious run at Olympic gold.
“My parents thought I would quit the very first time I got hit square in the face,” says Perez, who’s now a pre-med student at Purdue University. “They would tell me, ‘You don’t want to fight,’ or say, ‘Why would you want to mess up your face?’ They were surprised when I told them I could handle it—again and again and again.”
“We always say her head moves are straight out of The Matrix,” says her father, Jimmy, a former tae kwon do instructor who works 12-hour shifts at a local manufacturing plant. “You don’t tell Tiffany what to do. She just does it.”
Perez travels an hour into Chicago from her home in the middle-class suburb of Hammond, Indiana, to train with her coach, Rick Furnuto. At home, she works out in the basement gym that her father built for her in the family’s house. She wears a necklace with a gold pendant of a boxing glove and competes in a shorts-skirt combo embroidered with the Puerto Rican flag.
“When I am training, I don’t have a life,” explains Perez, who is the Chicago Golden Gloves Champion three years running. “Boxing is my life.”
That’s a sentiment shared by her fellow boxers. You don’t “play” boxing.
“It kind of sucks that I didn’t go to prom or my homecoming,” says Guzman, whose perfect teeth and fine features should make her a sought-after date. “I’ve lost a lot of friends and missed all kinds of trips to McDonald’s.”
Perez and Guzman know each other well, though they’re not the closest of friends. They travel the same circuit of regional and national bouts, and spend a lot of time in the same locker rooms. As Guzman once confided to a local reporter, “I’ve never been a team player.” But they share an obsession. It’s like a sisterhood.
“We boxers are a different breed of human,” Perez says. “No one quite understands us or where we come from.”
IT TOOK A FEW YEARS for the mother of 15-year-old Alicia Gutierrez to figure it out. Longtime Chicagoan Christina Gutierrez’s daughter first came to her at seven years old asking to take boxing lessons. “I never took her seriously,” says the elder Gutierrez. “When she was in second grade, I signed her up for everything—ballet, T-ball, basketball, everything in the parks deparment brochure. She played basketball and ended up on a national championship team. But when she turned twelve, she started asking about boxing again. I had to give in.”
Gutierrez, a Maine South High School sophomore, is taller than Perez and Guzman. She is learning always to go into a match with a plan neatly worked out in her head of how the match will unfold. “First round, I feel them out to see what kind of style they have,” she explains. “The second round, I figure out what I need to work on to beat her. The third round, I go for it.”
Fights don’t always go according to plan. Like all boxers, male or female, her education has been, at times, brutal.
“We were in Colorado last year for the national tournament, and in the first round my opponent came at me with an uppercut that hit me right under the ribs,” Gutierrez says. “I froze. My eyes started to water, and I couldn’t breathe. But I never got scared. Being scared would keep me from going back in the ring.”
“I’ve been ready to quit plenty of times,” says Guzman, who’d like to go pro. But she’s realistic. “I’m a small girl, and I’m not stupid. I know my body wasn’t built for this kind of wear and tear. I don’t know how much longer I can do this. Now there is a chance to compete in the Olympics. There is no way I’m going out without a fight.”
Chicago writer TRICIA DESPRES is still uncomfortable with women hitting each other.