American boxer Claressa Shields celebrates after receiving her gold medal… (Dennis M. Sabangan / EPA )
LONDON — The boxing gold medalist from the United States stood proudly on the highest step of the podium Thursday as they played the national anthem. It was as it had been with Ali, Foreman, De La Hoya and many more.
The beatings and the beat go on for a country that has now won 109 medals in the sport.
So, at about "the rockets' red glare," when a wide smile broke over her face, it was understandable and commendable.
Wait a minute? Her face?
PHOTOS: 2012 London Olympics | Day 13
Yes, it has come to this in U.S. Olympic boxing. The lady was the champ and the men's boxers were the chumps.
"I felt the USA needed this one, and I'm glad somebody got it," said Claressa Shields.
Shields took the gold in the women's middleweight class (152-165 pounds). She defeatedRussia'sNadezda Torlopova in the gold-medal match, 19-12.
Shields is from Flint, Mich. She is 17 years old and was 16 when she qualified for the Olympics in the U.S. trials in February. Had she not turned 17 in March, she would have been too young to box. Saved by a child. A September birthday or later and we would be talking, yet again, about the decline of USA Boxing.
Within the framework of the women doing well, we'll do that anyway.
Shields' gold medal was historic because it came in the first-ever women's Olympic boxing event. Her teammate, flyweight (105-112) Marlen Esparza, also got a piece of history with a bronze medal.
The men's team? The bearers of the legacy of the aforementioned Ali, Foreman and De La Hoya — as well as the likes of Sugar Ray Leonard, Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, Andre Ward, even non-golden boys Roy Jones andFloyd Mayweather Jr. — left early.
In Beijing, the men's team managed one bronze medal. This time, they came nine strong and left nine meek. James Toney, longtime pro, pulled no punches in his assessment to London's Guardian.
"They were garbage," Toney said.
So it was left to new faces in a new Olympic sport to get the U.S. back on the top podium, and Shields not only did that, but did so by first beating the boxer who beat the top-seeded Brit, Savannah Marshall, and then defeating the second-seeded Torlopova.
"I hope people who think women can't box know better now," Shields said. "They saw me get down."
Women's boxing may have gotten into the Games because softball was dropped and female participation ratios needed help. For whatever reason, it began here with only three divisions and 12 fighters in each. The men had 250 participants.
Still, as new as it was, the women's competition was spirited and compelling. Shields fought so effectively that her victory seemed assured early, even after a 3-3 first round. Torlopova, at 33 the mother of a 12-year-old son, was almost twice as old and easily twice as slow. Her weapon is a strong right hand, but when she threw it, Shields not only had time to see it coming, but to count to three before ducking.
"I tried to overpower her, to get inside," Torlopova said, "but she was faster and quicker."
The two previous gold-medal matches brought more drama. Britain's Nicola Adams upset the current world champion,China'sRen Cancan, at flyweight. That was followed by another day of Irish emotional outpouring for Katie Taylor, four-time world champion, who won at lightweight (125-132) in a close match against Russia's Sofya Ochigava.
Despite the presence of local boxer Adams in the opening match, the crowd was overwhelmingly Irish. There was green everywhere — flags, shirts, hairdos. And the nonstop noise and adulation they brought for Taylor not only stole the show here, but bodes well for women's boxing to get another chance in Brazil in 2016. The Dublin travel agencies will be besieged.
Shields' father got her started in boxing by telling her he didn't think it was a girls' sport. That was shortly after he got out of jail after seven years and returned to his 9-year-old daughter. Clarence Schields couldn't watch his daughter in person here because convicted felons have a tough time getting visas.
Shields called him every day, but was on her own when the opening bell rang. Now, with the spoils of victory, she was asked whether she might wear the gold medal for the rest of her life. She didn't even pause.
"Nope," she said, "just every day for the next year."