(Eds: Updates with quotes, details.)By GREG BEACHAMAP Sports Writer
When the first female boxers showed up at Al Mitchell’s gym in northern Michigan several years ago, the U.S. Olympic Education Center’s head coach had no interest in teaching women how to fight.
”They didn’t impress me,” Mitchell said. ”They were sloppy, and they were wild. I wouldn’t train any of them.”
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Basheer Abdullah had much the same reaction to the first women who stepped through the glass ropes at his Army gyms a decade ago, while Tom Mustin didn’t even see women in his Tacoma Boxing Club for nearly a decade after a Washington teenager’s landmark lawsuit against USA Boxing allowed female fighters into its events in 1993. Mustin figured his coaching style was tougher than a woman could handle.
Yet earlier this week, these three former coaches of the U.S. Olympic men’s boxing team were ringside at the first women’s boxing team trials, leading some of their favorite students. When Queen Underwood beat fellow lightweight contender Mikaela Mayer on Tuesday, all three veteran masterminds of the men’s amateur game were in their corners, strapping on headgear and imparting strategy.
Talent and tenacity changed their minds about women’s boxing, and all three coaches are happy they came around.
”I just thought this wasn’t a place for a female athlete, and I didn’t want to see them go through that,” said Abdullah, a 15-year veteran of the Army’s World Class Athlete Program. ”But I found out differently. I realized they have something special.”
Years removed from that initial skepticism, the coaches have all taken to women’s boxing as a pure version of their sport, filled with eager athletes who can use their coaches’ international experience heading to the London Olympics.
”Between the men boxers and the women boxers, the women seem like they want it more,” said Mitchell, who learned his sport in the same North Philadelphia gyms that produced Joe Frazier. ”The reason they impress me is that they want to prove to men that they’re just as good or better than them, and they’ve got good listening skills. They want knowledge. They want to learn.”
Although the medal success of the U.S. men’s Olympic teams has dropped over the past two decades, these coaches know every corner of the amateur game.
Mitchell started coaching at 17 and eventually led the U.S. team at the Atlanta Games in 1996, coaching Floyd Mayweather Jr., Antonio Tarver and David Reid. Mustin had a strong three-year run culminating in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney with Jermain Taylor, Jeff Lacy and Rocky Juarez, while Abdullah coached the 2004 U.S. men’s team in Athens led by medalists Andre Ward and Andre Dirrell.
The women following in those fighters’ footwork realize what they can learn from these wizened veterans. Mayer moved from sunny Southern California to frigid Marquette, Mich., a year ago just to work with Mitchell.
”Ever since I started training with him, I jump to a whole new level every month,” Mayer said. ”Every training camp, I’m just amazed … what he’s been able to do with me. He’s an amazing coach.”
Although women boxed in exhibitions at the Olympics more than a century ago, women’s boxing is in its adolescence as an organized sport. The International Amateur Boxing Association (AIBA) sanctioned Olympic-style boxing for women in 1994, holding its first world championships in 2001.
The International Olympic Committee didn’t add women’s boxing to the summer games until August 2009. While some fighters hailed the decision as long overdue for the only summer sport without a female Olympic analogue, the three coaches feel the IOC knew what it was doing.
”This is about the right time,” said Mustin, who works closely with Underwood. ”I remember when Christy Martin was fighting in the pros. They kept throwing people at her, and these people didn’t have the experience to be boxing against her. The sport wasn’t there yet. Now, the experience female boxers have gained, it’s just like being with the men. I think their level has come up to the men’s level now for competition and (parity).”
Yet women’s boxing still faces enormous obstacles for worldwide acceptance and equality. AIBA received international condemnation in recent months for suggesting female boxers should wear skirts in the ring, while amateur powerhouse Cuba is among several nations that refused to start a women’s boxing team in 2009, with coach Pedro Roque infamously saying women should be ”showing off their beautiful faces, not getting punched in the face.”
Mitchell, Abdullah and Mustin are far beyond those prejudices now. They never take it easy on their female students, using exactly the same methods and physical conditioning drills for men and women.
Mayer, Underwood and their fellow fighters all want it that way. After years of trailblazing work together, the results have put smiles on these three veteran coaches’ faces at the historic team trials.
”Some of them, until you take the headgear off, you can’t tell whether it’s a man or a woman when you’re just looking at the skill level and the technique,” Abdullah said. ”I think we have a group of women here qualifying for our team that are going to medal. I really believe it. We have hopefuls coming out of this group with a strong chance to bring home a medal, and I think that’s going to inspire women in this country.”