Before every night of boxing in the Continental Championships, a certain rousing theme has been broadcast throughout the NAV Center's auditorium.
"This is my new favorite song," says Zack, one of the documentarians following Claressa Shields.
The anthem has choral singing over some kind of tribal drumming, and the first time I heard it I thought it was horrible. Now I love it, as I have come to love everything about this week. I don't want the tournament to end.
Zack Shazams the song and it's by Vangelis. We both hum along as Alex Love enters the ring to face Claribel Cruz of Argentina. The other day poor Love didn't eat anything except breakfast in order to stay 106 pounds. Her austerity pays off in moments like this because she's so much stronger than Cruz, who is forced to hold on for dear life as Alex shows beautiful angles and skillful use of the uppercut, the most underutilized punch in amateur boxing. It's a 25-7 victory for the little girl from the llama farm who lives to fight. This will be the start of an incredible run for the US, who will take the team trophy with a total of six gold medals, one silver, and two bronze. Brazil will take second, Canada third.
The next bout is in the Olympic weight class of 112 pounds. Marlen Esparza comes in wearing her Stars and Stripes do-rag. Her opponent Erica Matos is draped with the Brazilian flag. When I'd wondered earlier if Esparza could handle the dancing southpaw, Christy Halbert waved off my doubts.
"Marlen is too strong for her."
Christy turns out to be right about this as she is about pretty much everything. If USA Boxing knows what's what, they'll send Halbert to London and China with these girls. Matos and Esparza spend time feeling each other out, but when they engage Esparza is more explosive, her punches straighter. The U.S. team's little alpha female takes the win 16-10, and maybe Esparza will train fighters some day. Her advice to her teammates all week has been generous and incisive.
Yanina Benavidez of Argentina faces Clelia Costa of Brazil for the bantamweight final, and Benavidez has faster hands but Costa is the aggressor in this all-offense fight. Neither girl knows much about head movement. Brazil takes it 33-18.
I get up to go to the bathroom and when I get back Tiara Brown is up 4-3 going into the second against Leonela Sanchez of Argentina. The crafty Argentine is octopus-like in the clinch. Brown's bombs are mostly smothered, but she works steadily and extends her lead by one point each round, winning 19-15. Sanchez weeps as she leaves the ring. Later on I learn that she collapsed in the cool-down room after the fight. The doctors say she is fine, but she looks like she's in pain at the medal ceremony. God bless Leonela Sanchez and may she heal up fast.
Brazil's Adriana Araujo meets Leonela's sister Dayana in the final of the Olympic lightweight class. Araujo's punches look much harder than her opponent's, especially the looping overhand right. I feel warmly toward Brazil because I went for a run earlier in the day with their trainer Igor and afterward he gave me a team tee-shirt. It is a high quality tee-shirt with a zipper and interesting Portuguese phrases emblazoned on the breast, and it makes me reflect upon how much more fun it is to be a sports journalist than a novelist. Nobody gives novelists free shirts. I've collected a magnificent haul of swag this week - miniature boxing gloves, a Puerto Rico bracelet, NAV hats, a plush boxing beaver - that I intend to distribute to the boys back at my home gym.
Araujo widens her lead through the middle rounds, her jab so hard it sounds like a hook. The final score is 15-11 Brazil, and I have a little bit of a crush on the tattooed, beautifully androgynous Araujo, who at 30 is one of the older boxers in the tournament and used to be a semi-pro soccer player before she took up boxing to lose weight.
Roselaine Silva, yet another heavy-handed Brazilian, faces Mikaela Mayer in the light welterweight final. While chowing down in the cafeteria, Mayer has expressed enthusiasm for her new, higher weight class, and she certainly wears it well. She makes this one look easy, taking a 25-11 win with some good old fashioned boxing behind the jab that would make trainer Al Mitchell proud.
Barbados' Kimberly Gittens got a bye to the 152-pound finals. She turns out to be a reticent southpaw, and Canadian Myriam da Silva makes the fight. Barbados comes on in the fourth, doing some fine headhunting with her lead left to bloody da Silva's nose, but it's not enough to take the 16-8 decision. I'm happy to see the first gold medal for our generous host nation.
Next up is the match we've all been waiting for, the truth test of Claressa Shields. Shields' trainer Jason Crutchfield arrived this morning after a nine-hour drive from Flint, Michigan. He's been prowling around all evening providing entertaining commentary.
"She ain't seen nothing like you, Ress!" he yells as his seventeen-year-old, undefeated protégée climbs through the ropes to face Canada's reigning world champion, Mary Spencer.
It's last night all over again. Spencer has no weapon in her impressive arsenal to counter Shields' blistering speed or her slick defense. There's a touch of ugly in the air as Spencer trash talks Shields and once hits her blatantly on the break. Shields's people don't help; I adore Crutchfield, but he's too negative in his cheering and I can see our hosts taking umbrage. Shields is a world beater now and she and her people will need to cultivate the demeanor of one. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down. The final is 27-14.
Canada's Maude Bergeron is deaf, and it's amazing to see the way trainer Danielle Bouchard dispenses instructions in the corner and mimes them during the rounds.
"We just have to let the referee know," explains the magnanimous Pat Fiacco, President of Boxing Canada. "Because she can't hear the bell and she can't hear when he says break."
Franchon Crews is the better boxer of the two and takes the bout 32-3, but there's no quit in Bergeron. Bravo to Team Canada for giving this fighter access to the sport she loves.
Women heavyweights are always a little funny. Not too many women are in peak condition at 178+ pounds, and the US's Victoria Perez and Brazil's Erika Cabrera are no exception. Both look tired after about 30 seconds. The mood of the crowd lightens considerably.
"Even Claudio thinks it's funny," Igor says later, referring to Brazil's head coach. "He was biting his towel the whole fight."
Kidding aside, it takes tremendous courage to get in the ring as a heavyweight. You're taking punches that have twice the weight behind them, but it's not like your skull is twice as thick.
I love the vibe of the Brazilian, who has blonde braids, a mischievous grin, and is as wide as she is tall. She dances in the corner while we wait for the final score, which sees her winning 14-3. I've heard that Cabrera came from a very abusive background and that the fight game saved her.
Teddy Atlas says boxing makes us better people. It certainly did that for me. It did that for the identical twins from St. Lucia, too. Each lost her first bout by stoppage, and they were far more lovable in loss than they had been before the tournament began.
"You cannot underestimate your opponent," said True.
"We were in deep water out there," said Noble. "We were at the top of the mountain, and that's where the eagles are flying."
The Paradise twins wanted me to tell any St. Lucians out there that they did their best, that they did not intend to shame their country, and that their hearts are pure.
"St. Lucia is such a beautiful country," True told me.
Noble said, "It's small but it's not the size of a thing that matters, it's the inner quality. I'd rather have a small box with a diamond ring than a big one that is empty inside."
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