LONDON -- One after another, the boxers walked down the neon-lit tunnel and into history.
Two wore skirts. They all wore determination on their faces.
And they put on a show that should prove their sport not only belongs in the Olympic ring, but might be a must-see event.
Women's boxing made its long-awaited Olympic debut Sunday, finally punching through the door to the only all-male sport in the summer program. A landmark tournament for gender equality in sports began with 12 entertaining bouts featuring uppercuts, haymakers and footwork that all measure up nicely to the men's amateur sport.
The fighters all understood the history they made with every punch. They couldn't let it distract them from their Olympic goals - not after every fight that came before.
"We waited so long," said Swedish middleweight Anna Laurell, who fought in the original women's world championships 11 years ago. "I'm so proud to be here. I felt almost tears when I was walking to the ring and I could hear the crowd and my family. I lost a bit of concentration for my fight, but I got it back."
Russia's Elena Savelyeva won the first bout with a busy jab and strong combinations. U.S. lightweight Queen Underwood lost a close fight to Britain's Natasha Jonas. The crowd roared for every fighter, clearly enjoying the tight competition and disciplined styles of the world's top female boxers.
Indian flyweight Mary Kom also fought in the first women's world championships in Scranton, Pa., in 2001. She became a women's sports icon throughout Asia with her international success in an unlikely sport, but often wondered whether she would ever wear an Olympic uniform.
That's one reason Kom wept after winning her Olympic debut, 12 years after she defied her father's wishes to pursue boxing - and on her twins' fifth birthday, no less.
"Every athlete wants to play in the Olympic Games, and these past years, we've been waiting and waiting," said Kom, who beat Poland's Karolina Michalczuk. "When will boxing be in the Olympic Games? I waited 12 years because I wanted to play. I'm very emotional, but I'm fighting in the ring. I am winning."
Perhaps it's appropriate that this historic tournament ended up in Britain, which banned women's boxing until 1996.
Barbara Buttrick, the English boxing pioneer known as the Mighty Atom during her dominant pro career in the 1950s, attended the fights and got a loud ovation before the show. Every fighter in London has a story of overcoming prejudices or misconceptions while turning this brutal pastime into an Olympic aspiration.
"It's a long time coming, and it should have happened a long time ago," said Gloria Peek, the U.S. assistant coach with 34 years in the sport. "It's going to do a whole lot to revive boxing, because boxing is dying a little bit. Women have skills, and it's nice they get to showcase them now. People are going to see this sport in a different light. I'm sure there's a lot of women around the world who are very happy."
The boxers' talent was clear, yet so was their perspective on the moment. The fighters usually hugged after putting on a succession of lively fights, showing a sportsmanship that the men's amateur sport sometimes loses in its incessant squabbling about narrow decisions.
Savelyeva beat North Korea's Hye Song Kim 12-9 in the opening bout, which also featured a female referee, Algeria's Kheira Sidi Yakoub. Kim threw the first punch of the Olympics, but her looping right missed the ducking Savelyeva, who soon proved too elusive in a well-matched bout.
"It was a total pleasure to make history," Savelyeva said. "I tried to show my pride in women's boxing. It was an amazing thing to do."
Gender equality still is a nebulous concept around the world, of course: The fans were greeted at the ExCel arena by eight female dancers in tight outfits who performed an NBA-halftime-style show before the biggest day in women's boxing history. (They did the same on the first day of the men's matches.)
Michalczuk and Australia's Naomi-Lee Fischer-Rasmussen then wore skirts into the ring, choosing the gender-specific outfit allowed by amateur boxing's governing body, but criticized by most fighters. Fischer-Rasmussen's skirt was particularly short, although she wore compression shorts underneath.
"I like it in the ring," said Fischer-Rasmussen, who lost to Laurell. "It's feminine, and it's something different than shorts that I'm forever pulling down."
Most fighters wore the same style tank tops and shorts worn by the men.
Underwood became the ninth boxer eliminated from the 12-member U.S. team, but few Americans had tougher assignments. Underwood knew she had to fight with uncommon aggression even to have a chance against Jonas, a precise counterpuncher with the home crowd screaming in the judges' ears for her every move.
"Making history, breaking records, that's all great, but I'm here to fight," said Jonas, who narrowly beat Underwood with elusiveness and counterpunching.
Underwood had a first-round lead, but Jonas curiously moved ahead in the second, and Underwood had to start taking risks that rarely pay off in amateur boxing. She received a standing-eight count in the fourth round after a combination by Jonas, although Underwood didn't appear hurt.
Underwood's mother surprised her by showing up in the crowd, further adding to her bittersweet feelings. She raised her gloves to her forehead and took a long walk around the ring after the final bell before hearing the decision.
"I gave away like half my life to this, and this doesn't feel like the reward," said Underwood, who survived years of sexual abuse by her father to chase her Olympic dream. "Just being here doesn't feel like enough. I hope people can look at my journey as a champion inside and outside the ring."
The final bout was won by Nigeria's Edith Ogoke, an ebullient middleweight with heavy hands who idolizes Joe Frazier. She crumpled to her knees after getting a rare decision for Africa, whose boxers typically struggle internationally.
"Whenever I'm in the ring, I think of Joe," said Ogoke, who believes women's boxing will grow exponentially in Nigeria and beyond after this tournament. "I'm going to smoke my opponents the way he used to fight.
"I'm very happy, because I lived my dream. Today, I am an Olympian."
West Virginia native Christy Martin is often described as the athlete who "legitimized" women's boxing. She has won 49 of her 57 matches.
Canino was a women's boxing world featherweight champion for two different associations, and won world titles in kickboxing.
"The Most Dangerous Woman in the World" has won all 17 of her fights.
Despite being well-known as the daughter of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali, Laila made a name for herself in women's boxing through pure talent. In her professional career she won all 24 of the 24 matches she fought.
Hamlich, who retired from women's boxing in 2007, helped popularize the sport in Europe. She has been the WIBF world champion in the Jr. Flyweight, Flyweight and Super Flyweight divisions.
Hagar Shmoulefeld Finer
Israeli boxer Finer started martial arts at age 13 in order to learn self-defense.
Heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier's daughter did not begin boxing competitively until the age of 38. She has a record of 13 wins and just one loss. Frazier-Lyde is also an attorney.
23-year-old Esparza was the first woman to qualify for Olympic boxing in the run-up to the London 2012 Olympics. She is a six-time consecutive national flyweight champion.
Quanitta "Queen" Underwood is another contender in the 2012 Olympics, currently ranked 4th in the world in the lightweight division.
Great Britain's Natasha Jonas is the first ever English boxer to qualify for the Olympic games.