The 10 U.S. athletes who arrived in Astana, Kazakhstan, on Monday for the 2016 Women’s World Boxing Championships include a reigning Olympic and world champion; another reigning world champion, who’s also an Olympic bronze medalist; two other world medalists; and a Youth Olympic Games champion. Starting on Thursday, they’ll be matched against 267 boxers from more than 70 countries. Storylines abound. Here are a few of the biggest:
1. Will The U.S. Bring A Full Women’s Boxing Team To Rio?
The world championships feature all 10 boxing weight classes, but women compete in just three at the Olympic Games: flyweight, lightweight and middleweight. Lightweight Mikaela Mayer and middleweight Claressa Shields have already earned their berths. With a top-four finish in Astana, flyweight Virginia Fuchs will join them.
Fuchs fell just short of qualifying for Rio at the continental tournament in March in Buenos Aires, Argentina; she won a bronze medal, and a silver or gold medal would have clinched her spot. (Fuchs can also earn an Olympic berth if Canada’s Mandy Bujold or Colombia’s Ingrit Valencia, who have already qualified for Rio, finish in the top four in Astana.)
The 28-year-old Texan began boxing in 2008 while a sophomore at LSU. She placed fourth in the 2012 Olympic Trials and has had Rio squarely in her sights ever since. Her big breakout came in 2015 when she won bronze at the Strandja Tournament, a competition in Bulgaria, and went on to upset heavily favored Marlen Esparza at the Olympic Trials in Memphis, Tennessee, in November.
2. Can Claressa Shields Continue To Dominate?
The 2012 Olympic champion has lost just once in her career, at the 2012 world championships. When she won her first world title in 2014 in South Korea, her dominating performance also earned her the Outstanding Boxer of the Tournament award. The 21-year-old from Flint, Michigan, arrived in Astana in outstanding form, with wins at the 2015 Pan American Games and 2016 Americas qualifier. In Rio, she has the chance to become the first U.S. boxer, male or female, to win back-to-back Olympic titles. Her inspiring rise from a tough childhood in Flint was told in the 2015 documentary “T-Rex” and, earlier this month, in an episode of ESPN’s acclaimed “E:60” series. Few are betting against her.
3. Will Esparza Regain Her Footing As A Light Flyweight?
Esparza, who won bronze at the London 2012 Olympic Games, was beaten twice by Fuchs at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, including a 2-1 split decision in the finals. At first, the 26-year-old Texan was inconsolable, posting a series of emotional videos discussing her loss on social media. Slowly, though, her posts became more positive and determined: “I’m not done. This is not over.” Before leaving for Astana, she posted, “Let’s do this.”
In Astana, Esparza will compete as a light flyweight, the division in which she won a bronze medal at her first world championships in 2006. She won gold as a flyweight in 2014.
4. How Easily Will Jajaira Gonzalez Transition To The Senior Ranks?
Gonzalez has a perfect international record, including youth and junior world titles and a Youth Olympic Games gold medal. She forced a decisive third bout against Mayer at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials, narrowly missing a chance to qualify for Rio. The 19-year-old Californian will make her elite division international debut in Astana, squaring off against senior division international competitors for the first time.
5. How Much Hardware Will Billy Walsh Bring Home?
In his 12 years as coach of the Irish amateur boxing program, Walsh brought home more than 50 medals in the European and world championships, in addition to seven medals at the last two Olympic Games. USA Boxing named Walsh as national team coach in October, just one week after he resigned his position following differences of opinion with the Irish Athletic Boxing Association. His former protégée, 2012 Olympic champion Katie Taylor, will try to qualify for Rio in the lightweight division, where she may come up against Mayer and Gonzalez.
U.S. women won three medals at the 2014 world championships, second to Russia’s five medals. Walsh would love to better that result in his first trip to the world championships for Team USA.