RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) Mandy Bujold and Mikaela Mayer barely missed out on the debut of women's boxing at the London Olympics.
The Canadian flyweight and the American lightweight both stuck with their sport after that qualifying disappointment, and they both celebrated victories in their long-awaited Olympic debuts Friday.
They both realize they've accomplished no small feat, given how their sport has grown in the ensuing four years.
''When you watch the girls fight and you watch the guys fight, there's really no difference,'' Bujold said. ''I think the girls actually go for it more, because we've got the two-minute rounds. It's all excitement.''
Four years after the women's boxing tournament was the best thing in the London ring, the encore has begun in Brazil. With fast-paced bouts and charismatic fighters, Riocentro Pavilion 6 buzzed with excitement when women led off both sessions, starting with a thrilling first bout.
After peppering her larger, favored opponent with punches for four furious rounds, Ukraine light flyweight Tetyana Kob celebrated by doing the splits while her hand was raised by the referee in victory.
''The competition has just shot through the roof,'' Mayer said moments after dominating Micronesia's Jennifer Chieng. ''You go to a tournament, and if you want to get that gold medal, there aren't a lot of pushover fights. These girls are experienced. They've got Olympic medals.''
Just as professional women's MMA rapidly became vital to that sport's image and health over the past four years, the smaller world of amateur boxing has realized that its female competition is one of its most important assets.
The International Boxing Association (AIBA) aggressively backed the women's sport for years, and President Ching-Kuo Wu is determined to add more fighters and weight classes to the next Olympics. The current field is only 36 boxers in three weight classes, due to IOC restrictions on the total number of Olympic athletes, but Wu wants five women's weight categories at the 2020 Games in Tokyo, calling it vital for equality.
All three gold medalists from London are back to defend their titles in Rio fights featuring four two-minute rounds, rather than the three three-minute rounds fought by men. The women are still wearing headgear, while the men fight increasingly bloody bouts without the protection, but AIBA is expected to remove the gear from the women next year as well.
''AIBA is getting much, much better at showcasing the women and really appreciating the talent we have,'' Bujold said after beating Uzbekistan's Yodgoroy Mirzaeva to reach the quarterfinals. ''I love seeing it, because I've grown up in this sport. Seeing it grow, seeing it get into the Olympics, and now seeing the elite women out there (in Rio), it's amazing.''
Olympic committees around the world responded to the success of women's boxing in London by pumping money into their national programs - and USA Boxing used that to its entire team's advantage. After Claressa Shields' gold medal and Marlen Esparza's bronze, the Americans secured funds from the USOC to hire Walsh as women's head coach, but he oversees all eight men and women on the Olympic team.
''The (women's) sport has grown immensely,'' said veteran coach Billy Walsh, who helped Ireland's Katie Taylor to the first Olympic lightweight gold medal in London. ''The last world championships in May, the standard was fantastic, and it's only getting better each year.''
The world still hasn't changed completely, however. Cuba, the most successful Olympic boxing nation behind only the U.S., still hasn't sent a female fighter to the Olympics. A competition gap also exists among nations with more established boxing cultures, even at the top level: Shields hasn't lost a fight in four years since London, although her dominance is a reflection of her singular talent as well.
But the worldwide growth of women's boxing isn't slowing down. A record 236 boxers from 73 nations fought at the women's world championships in Kazakhstan earlier this year.
''It's so hard to qualify for the Olympics now,'' Mayer said. ''No one is just there, trust me. If you're there, you know how to hold your own. Qualifying is the toughest part. At this level, we are professionals. These are not amateurs.''