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Olympic Boxing a Sport to Watch in London

Jordan Newmark concludes his four-part series on the 2012 Olympics and
its relation to the sport of mixed martial, boxing

Other installments:
Freestyle wrestling
Greco-Roman wrestling

UFC middleweight and former boxer Costa Philippou“The value in boxing is not the skill acquired, although that too has real value in hand-to-hand combat, but because it quickly acclimates the mind and body to the violence and shock of combat so foreign to modern day youth, yet so absolutely essential to fighting men." - The US Navy’s Boxing Training Manual

We get boxing. As human beings, we get boxing. It’s the quintessential combat sport of hitting one’s opponent with one’s fists until they fall down, which intrinsically makes sense. Throwing a punch is as natural of a movement for a person as throwing a ball. We’re instinctually inclined to do it, we understand it upon first viewing, and one can spend a lifetime perfecting the art of throwing a perfect one.

But the truth in boxing isn’t written by one’s ability to throw a punch, but one’s reaction to eating a punch. “If I had to take one thing away from boxing, I would go with the courage that boxing is going to build up when you learn how to deal with a guy trying to take your head off two feet in front of you,” reveals Ray Longo, who is a lifelong martial artist and owner of the Ray Longo MMA gym in Garden City, New York. As a striking coach for boxers, kickboxers, and UFC stars like Chris Weidman, Longo believes boxing breeds a particular mental toughness by forcing its participants to accustom themselves to an opponent trying to do them harm with an onslaught of punches.

“Once I opened up the school, I always put a heavy emphasis on boxing more than anything else at the time,” explains Longo. “When I'm training guys, I force them to box to see how they deal with the adversity of getting hit. What you will get from boxing is the ability to endure punishment. It's not really how hard you can hit; it's how good you can take a punch. Boxing tests your courage, it tests your confidence. Some people can never get over the fear of getting hit in the face. That's just a problem. I've seen some guys who wrestle, the first time a punch is thrown they turn their head and run away. When you're doing jiu-jitsu, when you're doing wrestling, they're physically enduring pain on the body that gives you another whole set of skills, but the ability to take a shot, to take a hit, and keep on going is from boxing. Nothing is going to test your courage like boxing.”

At the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, the paramount of pugilism will award top honors to the latest crop of amateur boxers from around the world. The United States will send the most boxing representatives of any country, with 12 for the possible 13 weight divisions. Over the last 108 years of Olympic boxing, the United States has won a commanding and coincidental 108 medals, which is 45 more than the second most, Cuba. Many of boxing’s icons like Floyd Mayweather, Jr., Roy Jones, Jr., and Muhammad Ali began leaving their indelible mark with their medal winning Olympic performances on fighters of all generations like UFC light heavyweight Rashad Evans.

“I'm huge boxing fan,” tells Evans. “Boxing is one of my favorite sports and it always has been. A lot of guys I grew up watching I still idolize. It was really my basis to get into fighting. Having the chance to work with them and have them give me pointers has been a dream come true. It all doesn't translate because of kicks and takedowns, but certain things translate like angles and different positions. There are definitely gaps that MMA fighters don't exploit that a good boxer with good wrestling could exploit. There are gaps that a boxer could be very effective in in MMA. BJ Penn is a legend in the sport and you could probably count on one hand how many kicks he threw in his whole career. He doesn't really throw kicks, he gets everything done with his hands. Or the Diaz brothers. They are just amazing with their hands. Their punching style of 'punches in bunches' confuses you and they never stop hitting you - it wears on guys. Boxing is definitely necessary for MMA.”

Before the first punch landed and the first point was counted in London, the headline grabbing story of boxing in the Olympics was the historic addition of three new weight classes - women’s weight classes. Finally, women will be able to represent their respective home nation in the “sweet science” with three divisions: flyweight 51 kg, lightweight 60 kg, and middleweight 75 kg. It may have taken the International Olympic Committee decades to recognize the female fighters, but it took almost no time at all for the mass media to recognize the US Team’s boxing beauty at flyweight, Marlen Esparza. In the past year, the 23-year old has received sponsorships from Coke, Nike, Cover Girl, and McDonalds, and has also been the subject of Soledad O’Brien’s CNN documentary entitled “In Her Corner: Latino in America 2”.

“The addition of women's boxing to the Olympic docket has been huge for amateur boxing and our three female Olympians all have medal potential in London,” tells USA Boxing Public Relations Director Julie Goldsticker. “The first-ever Olympic Trials were held in February and due to there only being three Olympic weight divisions, each of the weight classes were packed with talent. Flyweight Marlen Esparza is a six-time national champion and World Championships bronze medalist. She spent the early part of her career at light-flyweight, but moved up to flyweight after the IOC announced it as an Olympic weight class. Marlen has enjoyed a ton of exposure over the last year and currently has sponsorship deals with Coke, Nike and Cover Girl.”

Looking to be crowned with gold at lightweight is Quanitta “Queen” Underwood. A former competitive track star, “Queen” began boxing at 19, and nine years later is a five-time national champion with something to prove in London. Underwood has had previous success on the international stage when she took bronze at the Women’s World Championships in 2010. Rounding out the women’s trio at middleweight has got to be the baddest high schooler in these United States, Flint, Michigan’s Claressa Shields.

“And Claressa Shields, the 17-year-old phenom, is the young fireball of the group,” adds Goldsticker. “At only 16, she surprised everyone by winning the Olympic Trials as well as the ‘Outstanding Boxer of the Tournament award’. Claressa defeated three-time world champion Mary Spencer in her first international tournament, so she's got great momentum going.”

The lighter third of the men’s side of the team is led by its smallest and most experienced, three-time Olympian and flyweight Rau'shee Warren. Incredibly only 27 years old, Warren is a former World Champion in 2007, but has yet to make the impact in an Olympic Games the way most would have expected. At 5’4” and 114 pounds (54 kg), Warren is still a favorite to make the medals podium, as he took bronze in the Worlds last year. Following Warren is bantamweight (56 kg) Joseph Diaz, Jr. who is a two-time national champion, who advanced to the quarterfinals at his first World Championships to claim his Olympic berth, and the highly touted three-time national champion lightweight (60 kg) Jose Ramirez, known for his high energy style.

The captain of Team USA Boxing is 26 year old Jamel Herring at light welterweight (64 kg). As a member of the US Marines, Herring continues a proud tradition of Marine Corps boxers in the Olympics like Ken Norton and Leon Spinks. At welterweight (69 kg), Errol Spence is a three-time national champion in his first five years of being in the sport and also placed in the top ten in the 2011 World Championships. Riding an enormous amount of unexpected momentum into the Games is middleweight (65 kg) Terrell Gausha, who won gold in the Americas Olympic Qualification Tournament in May, which included an upset win over the heralded Junior Castillo of the Dominican Republic. For Gausha, a roster spot on the Olympic team has fulfilled a dream of recognition of being one of the world’s best the 24 year old has been working towards since he was 10.

“The dedication, the attention to detail,” affirms Longo. “I think it has to do more with the mindset than the physical capabilities. It's the desire and dedication to be the best that really holds them to course. No matter what area of the Olympics someone is in, they're going to have to deal with adversity and they still have to go on. I tell my fighters, I want them to use the Octagon or the ring as a parallel to life. If you're going to dog it in the ring then you're going to dog it in life. If that guy makes excuses in the Octagon then he's going to make excuses in life. If they lie to you in there then they're going to lie to you outside. If they quit in there then that transfers over to life. With the Olympics, to reach that level, it takes such mental fortitude. It's learning how to stay on course towards your goals. How to stay established and focused on your goals no matter what happens. If you don't feel good one day, you still have to get to the gym. You face adversity, you have to pick yourself up, regroup, and still stay focused on what your goal is. People that get to that level have demonstrated that ability to really stay focused on a goal.”

While Olympic boxing is not known for them, if there are going to be any highlight reel knockouts they will most likely come from the heavier divisions. One such power puncher is Staten Island’s own light heavyweight (81 kg) Marcus Browne, who is a three-time NYC Golden Gloves Champion in two different weight classes. At heavyweight (-91 kg) is a former two-time National Super Heavyweight Champion in Michael Hunter, who had a chance to train with the current best, Wladimir Klitschko, in the lead up to his bout with David Haye last year. Lastly, at super heavyweight (+91 kg) is college football player turned Olympic boxer in only three and a half years, Dominic Breazeale.

As the UFC grows in popularity, more Olympic athletes from events like wrestling and judo are choosing a professional fighting career path in MMA. By and large, the crossover of accomplished amateur boxers to caged combat has not happened, but the future is full of possibilities, especially if one trendsetter does well and shows the rest the way. One that has made that leap of faith is Constantinos Philippou, who is 4-1 in the UFC with a vast amateur boxing background in his native Greece plus a few professional bouts stateside. Hs is also coached by Longo. It’s not a plug and play process going from boxing to MMA and the switch will require a lot of work and dedication, but that’s exactly what Olympic athletes are known for and are held in such high esteem for.

“I'm surprised more haven't already, but I think that will happen soon,” asserts Longo. “I think you will start seeing more guys who have won Golden Gloves and, maybe, wrestled in high school make their way over to MMA. I think it is an easy transition for them. I think once you get used to absorbing the punishment and you've developed the timing of having a live opponent in front of you and the necessary footwork to evade and attack properly, I think you're building an awareness that transfers over perfectly for MMA.”

From July 28th to August 12th, if you call yourself a fight fan then tune in and watch the original combat sport in the grandest spectacle of them all. “We all grew up watching the Olympics and to be able to compete on that stage is amazing,” declares Evans, who too wants to believe these Games can produce the type of Olympic magic that we remember from boxing’s yesteryear. “To be able to have that chance to get a medal or to win a medal, it has to be the best feeling in the world.”

Just imagine after a lifetime of training having the opportunity to wear your country’s flag with the whole world watching on TV and you could possibly win a medal for punching people in the face. It probably is “the best feeling in the world”.