Gender argument has no weight in ring

James Snook/US Presswire

Marlen Esparza, Claressa Shields and Queen Underwood won their respective weight classes at the U.S. trials to advance to the World Championships.

SPOKANE, Wash. -- Claressa Shields was sparring with a boy in their Flint, Mich., gym one day when trainer Jason Crutchfield shouted at the boy in an attempt to boost his boxing confidence. Crutchfield didn't have to worry about Shields -- confidence was never an issue with her -- but the boy needed a boost. Why box so timidly? Not only was his opponent backed into the corner, but she was also a girl and he was a boy.

"Get her!" Crutchfield yelled. "Get her! That's a girl! That's a girl! That's a girl!"

"No, I'm a man!" Shields shouted back. "I'm a man!"

Crutchfield recalls the afternoon with amusement, as well as pride in Shields' confident attitude. Shields does not recall it with as much amusement. What she meant to say that day was, "I'm a woman!" But because of the obstruction from her mouth guard, it came out as "man."

Not that the 16-year-old Shields hasn't dealt with this issue before. When she started out in boxing five years ago and her hair was much shorter, people in the gym would mistake her for a boy.

"People came in the gym and said, 'Who is that?' People tried calling me a boy," said Shields, who now has her hair in long dreadlocks. "They were calling me a dude, and I would just look over at them. After the fourth or fifth time of somebody calling me a dude, I was like, 'I'm not a dude. I'm a girl.'"

Boy, girl, man, woman, dude ... what difference does it make whether the boxer in the ring is male or female? For those who are surprised to see females competing and the others who want the boxers to wear skirts when they make their Olympics debut this summer, Crutchfield has a better, all-inclusive term.

"When [Claressa] first started, I told her, 'The first thing you have to realize when you come down here to the gym is, you are not a girl. You are an athlete. Down here, it doesn't matter what gender you are, male or female, you are an athlete and you're going to be treated the same as everyone else.'"

Yes, athlete is a good classification. But given what female boxers have battled through along the way, perhaps the Kalispel tribal leader put it best at this past week's U.S. Olympic women's boxing trials: these boxers are "warriors."

Robert Johnson/Icon SMI

Trainer Jason Crutchfield told Claressa Shields early on that she would be treated equally at their gym.

The real fight for women boxers

The first U.S. Olympic women's boxing trials spanned six days, with some boxers fighting four two-minute rounds every night. Of course, the real boxing trials for these women occurred in the years leading up to these bouts. As flyweight Tyrieshia Douglas said when asked about the difficulty of so many consecutive fights, it was no big deal because she has been battling virtually her entire life.

Boxers often overcome rough backgrounds, and female boxers face all the familiar pains of their male counterparts, plus more. A number of boxers at the trials came from broken homes -- Douglas said she doesn't even know how many foster homes she shuttled between as a child in Washington, D.C. -- and several had one or both parents in prison. In addition to that, at least two fighters, Douglas and lightweight champ Queen Underwood, say they were sexually abused as children.

"We're not just [competing] for us, we're doing it for the world to hear our story," said Douglas, 23, who lost to Marlen Esparza in Saturday's flyweight final. "A lot of people who go through [stuff] give up. A lot of the people who go through that are very talented but you would never know it because we give up, because we don't have the right people in our corner."

Underwood, 27, had strongly hinted about her history with sexual abuse before revealing in a New York Times story last week the details of how she and her sister, Hazzauna, had been repeatedly molested by their father as children growing up in Seattle. She said she has received many comments from people thanking her for speaking out.

"I didn't give up on myself and I didn't use [the sexual abuse] as an excuse to be a bad person or anything," Underwood said. "People have choices about what they do in life and how they live. I choose to go out and be great and inspiring. I'm glad that I'm able to [motivate] other people so they can see that no matter what happens to them they can still be somebody."

Underwood took up boxing eight years ago after graduating from high school and worked her way up to national champion in 2010. She lost a well-paying job as a pipefitter because of the demands of her Olympic goal. No matter -- she went to the trials this week, rallied to win each of her first three bouts and then beat Mikaela Mayer in Saturday night's final to win the lightweight class (132 pounds).

"I'm just happy, ecstatic," said Underwood's sister, Hazzauna. "She has always looked to achieve, to build and to grow. She set a goal and she is striving to obtain that goal, which is to bring the gold home to the USA."

Other women at the trials often had to battle just for the opportunity to box in a ring. Many were told they couldn't box or shouldn't box because they were girls. Shields remembers how depressed her father seemed when her older brothers didn't go into boxing and how he then told her about Laila Ali, who followed her famous father into the sport.

"I took that as a sign that he wanted me to box, but when I brought up the idea to him, he told me no," Shields recalled. "I asked why, and if he had given me a good reason, I would have understood, but he said, 'Because boxing is a man's sport.' And when he said that, that was like hitting a light switch. I really wanted to prove him wrong."

Robert Johnson/Icon SMI

Queen Underwood, a five-time national champion, worked in construction to pay bills when she was knee-deep in 12-hour training sessions.

Shields eventually persuaded her father to sign a permission slip allowing her to box. It seemed like a natural pursuit.

"I was always fighting anyway," she said. "I'd be fighting with my family, or fighting with my family against somebody else, or fighting some girl or dude I didn't know. Fighting wasn't a problem for me. I knew I wasn't fragile. But as far as getting into a ring and boxing? I never even thought about it until I got in a ring."

So Shields took to the ring immediately. Despite her youth (she's a junior in high school), she won the middleweight division (165 pounds -- the highest of the three Olympic classifications for women) and was named the trials' most outstanding boxer.

Crutchfield said the boys back in the Flint gym "look up to her."

Esparza lost to Christina Cruz at last year's Pan Am Games qualifying tournament, but learned from the experience and beat Cruz on Thursday night before winning the championship bout in her class (112 pounds) Saturday.

"What I like best out of boxing is not hitting someone, but beating them as a person," Esparza said. "Because when you're in the ring, you have to think faster and try harder. When it gets nitty and gritty, you have to decide if you're going to fight harder or if you're just going to give up and lose. Whenever you get in there with somebody and you overcome them as a person, that's what I like about it. That means when it got ugly, that I pushed harder, that I was smarter, that I was faster. That means I did the right thing [my opponent] couldn't think of.

"I just think it embodies who you are and what you can do. And I beat you. Not really, like, hit you, but beat who you are."

Esparza is a 22-year-old former honor society student from Houston. She studied at the University of Houston before stopping to concentrate on her Olympic dream. She plans to return to college after the Olympics and major in biology with aspirations of becoming an anesthesiologist. In other words, she hopes to knock out far more people in the operating room than in the ring.

Given that boxing is a violent, dangerous sport, Esparza says she does occasionally worry about brain injuries. She tries to avoid blows to the head -- a good but rarely possible strategy in boxing -- and will not box after the Olympics. "The Olympics are my only goal," she said. "I'm not going to be satisfied until I have a gold medal."

Despite their wins at the trials, however, the three champs have not yet qualified for the Olympics. They now will go on to the World Championships in May in China, where the top eight finishers in the three weight classes gain Olympic berths. A committee will add four more boxers in each classification for the Olympics.

Jim Caple/ESPN

Marlen Esparza, who has won six national championships in two weight classes, needed to fight just three times to win the trials after an opening-round walkover in the flyweight class.

Still, the three champs had much to celebrate Sunday, and they did so with complimentary spa treatments at the casino that hosted the trials. After a week of beatings, they reclined in leather chairs with their feet in warm water while receiving manicures and pedicures. Underwood even sipped tea while wearing a mud mask. It was the first pedicure of Shields' life. She said everything about the experience was great, other than the exfoliating treatment.

There certainly was no mistaking the genders in the spa, not that it is an issue in the ring, either.

Which brings up that note about the skirts. Some national federations could require women to wear skirts at the Olympics. That won't be the case with U.S. boxers, but all three American champs said they would not have protested the skirts even had they been required. After all they've gone through to get this far, a skirt would be a minor issue.

Rather than see a skirt requirement as demeaning -- OK, we'll let you gals box, but only if you wear dresses -- Underwood prefers to view it as an affirmation of everything women have overcome in the sport.

"A lot of people are like, 'These girls can't fight, they don't have the skill,'" Underwood said. "But if you're worried about differentiating between the male and the female, then obviously we have the skill to compete at the level of the guys."

A view of the future

Prior to Friday night's semifinal bouts, there were a couple exhibition fights with junior boxers. One of those was 11-year-old Isabel Hernandez, who had her nose bloodied early in the fight and had to have it wiped clean with a towel between rounds. It was disquieting to see any child of that age -- girl or boy -- bleeding. Asked later about the nosebleed, Hernandez just shrugged it off. "I usually get bloody noses, so it's normal for me."

Blood still smudged across her cheeks and under her eyes, Hernandez spoke about how boxing made her stronger, both physically and mentally.

"It's taught me that I have more potential than I thought I did," she said. "Like, when I box, I feel good about myself. And when I box, I'm like, in a different place where I don't have to worry about anything. It makes me feel like I'm really good at something. I'm kind of good at boxing, but I have a lot to learn."

Her mother, Evie, said she doesn't worry too much about Isabel getting hurt -- "you can get hurt in any sport" -- and the benefits of boxing outweigh the risks.

Isabel, by the way, said she wants to fight at the 2020 Olympics. Even though she lost her bout Friday, she signed her first autograph when she left the ring. She signed it for a man.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His website is at jimcaple.net.

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