Olympic boxing preview
When it comes to Olympic boxing, well, the U.S. team has had some problems. A precipitous decline in medals bottomed out in 2008, when the once-powerful Americans could muster only one, a bronze claimed by heavyweight Deontay Wilder, in Beijing. Yet historically, the Olympics have been a breeding ground for today's great pros, with Floyd Mayweather, Wladimir Klitschko and Andre Ward all shining during their Olympic experiences.
And in this field, there are plenty of prospects who could join them on that list.
Women's sports will break down another barrier in London, when women's boxing becomes a medal event for the first time. Long regarded as a sideshow, women's boxing has built momentum in recent years thanks to a crop of young, talented female fighters who have sprouted up all over the world. Women's boxing still faces many detractors, old-school coaches and trainers who think it has no place in the Olympics. But a strong showing by this field of talented women will go a long way toward silencing those critics.
Shields is the U.S. team's top dog, a bona fide superstar in the making who, despite fighting in a crowded weight class, will be a gold-medal favorite. Esparza is a stylish flyweight -- she admits she primps herself before fights as she would going on a date and has an endorsement deal with Cover Girl -- who fights with a slick style. She has won five straight national titles and a owns a bronze medal from the 2006 World Championships. Queen Underwood goes to London with a high profile, but USA Boxing sources have questioned her commitment in the last year. Underwood needed an exemption just to qualify for the Olympics.
Warren is the U.S.' elder statesman, and according to USA officials has been more focused than ever the last few months. Michael Hunter is a flashy heavyweight -- he wears an emerald-green robe to the ring -- who has sparred with heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko. The son of former pro Mike "The Bounty" Hunter, Hunter has thrived since dropping down from super heavyweight in 2008. Hunter was suspended for three months and stripped of his gold medal from the 2011 trials after testing positive for marijuana, but bounced back to win a national championship in March. Lightweight Jose Ramirez is just 19 but experienced with 143 amateur wins.
The computerized scoring system -- where a fighter gets points strictly for punches landed -- has been roundly criticized, and for good reason. It's hardly an accurate barometer for who is winning a fight, with pitter-patter punching being encouraged and the strong possibility of fighters building an early lead and then running and blocking for the remaining rounds to win. "It's a joke," USA Boxing adviser Freddie Roach said. "It's why many of the best amateurs these days are not turning into the best pros." The system will be scrapped after this summer in favor of a pro-style scoring system, but for one more year fighters will be at the mercy of scoring that doesn't always favor the better fighter.
With only three weight classes (112, 132 and 165 pounds), many of the 36 women in the field have been forced to bulk up (Shields, a natural 154-pounder, will fight in the 165-pound class) or slim down (Underwood, a natural 140-pounder, will fight at 135) just to compete. That could lead to some interesting size matchups. The goal, according to international boxing officials, is to ultimately increase the number of weight classes to 10, which would hopefully encourage more women to participate.