Olympics Summer

Need To Know: Boxing

For the first time in Olympic history, female boxers enter the ring and Canada has a contender in middleweight Mary Spencer, the pride of pugilism in Windsor, Ont.
Canada's Mary Spencer, left, lands a punch on American Franchon Crews at the 2011 Pan Am Games, where Spencer won gold in the 75-kg weight class. (Scott Heavey/Getty Images)

Fast Facts

Dates: July 28-Aug. 12

Venue: ExCel complex

Medal Events: 13 (10 men’s, 3 women’s)

Athletes: 286 (250 men, 36 women)

The Basics

For the first time, female fighters will have the chance to join the likes of Cassius Clay, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis and Oscar De La Hoya as Olympic boxing champions, as women’s boxing makes its official Games debut in London.

There are only three weight classes for women: flyweight (48-51 kg), lightweight (57-60 kg) and middleweight (69-75 kg), compared to 10 for men, ranging from light flyweight (46-49 kg) to super heavyweight (over 91 kg).

Men’s bouts consist of three rounds of three minutes each; the women fight four two-minute rounds. Boxers earn a point for each punch landed to the head or upper body. There's no scoring bonus for power shots, but fights can also be won by knockout or referee stoppage.

Each weight-class tournament is single elimination, with all four semifinalists guaranteed a medal. The winners of the semis fight for gold, with silver going to the loser of the championship bout. Both semifinal losers automatically receive a bronze rather than battle for it in the ring.

The gender revolution isn’t the only one happening to Olympic boxing. The London Games will be the last major international competition where fighters wear headguards, and where bouts are scored under the maligned computerized system, which rewards fighters for the total number of punches landed without regard to the power of the shots.

The changes are being spearheaded by International Boxing Association president Wu Ching-kuo, who wants to move amateur boxing toward the more popular pro model.

Canadians To Watch

Fighting out of Windsor, Ont., by way of Wiarton, Ont., Mary Spencer is the best hope to win Canada's first Olympic boxing medal since 1996, and the first gold since Lennox Lewis won the super heavyweight division in Seoul in 1988.

An eight-time Canadian champ and three-time world champ, Spencer was fighting at 64 kg in 2009 when it was announced that the Olympic women’s weight limits would be 51, 60 and 75. Unable to move down, she was forced to bulk up to the 75-kg class, and the move didn’t appear to slow her down initially: She won her most recent world title, in 2010, at the higher weight.

But the last few months have been rocky ones for Spencer. In April, she suffered a surprising defeat at the hands of American Claressa Shields in the final of the continental championships in Cornwall, Ont. At the world championships in China in May, she was beaten handily in her opening bout (in the round of 32) against eventual semifinalist Anna Laurell of Sweden.

That defeat cost Spencer a shot at an automatic Olympic berth, forcing her to hold her breath (and stay sharp by beating German champ Andrea Strohmayer in a pair of exhibition bouts) while awaiting word on one of the backdoor spots awarded through a Byzantine wild card selection process. Spencer (who’s featured prominently in ads on Canadian television) got in, but Canada’s lone representative in women’s boxing is a shakier medal bet than she appeared as recently as four months ago.

Canada has two fighters on the men's side. Simon Kean of Trois-Rivieres, Que., competes in the 91-kilo division, and Halifax’s Custio Clayton is in the 69-kilo class.

International Athletes To Watch

One of the women standing in Mary Spencer’s way for 75-kg gold is a teenager. Claressa Shields, 17, cruised through the U.S. Olympic trials before upsetting Spencer 27-14 on Canadian soil in the final bout of the continental championships in Cornwall, Ont., in April. But, like Spencer, Shields got a hard lesson in the unpredictability of the growing sport of women’s boxing when the Flint, Mich., fighter was handled in the round of 32 at the world championships by eventual gold medallist Savannah Marshall of Great Britain.

Boxing is full of great characters, and India’s Mary Kom is one of the more interesting at the London Games. The mother of twin five-year-old boys emerged from the impoverished Manipur province to win five world titles (at 46 and 48 kilograms) and her newest challenge is moving up to 51 kilos to meet the Olympics’ limited weight-class options for women. The early returns are mixed, as she made it to the quarter-finals at the world championships before falling to eventual silver medallist Nicola Adams of Great Britain.

Canada’s Medal Outlook

Mary Spencer is Canada’s only real medal hope on either the women’s or men’s side. Given her uneven performance over the last few months, and the randomness inherent at this stage of women's boxing's development, she's probably got about a 50-50 shot at a medal.