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August 7, 2012

Strength. Masculinity. Manliness. Such words have always defined boxing. When the sport's modern era began in the mid-19th century, boxing expressed ultimate masculinity while containing its more brazen tendencies and lending a legitimacy to men bashing at each other's heads. Yet, for as long as there has been boxing, there have been women boxers. Now, with women's boxing an official Olympic sport for the first time,  that legitimacy is theirs, too.

The desire to hit something hard has never been the exclusive province of men. The first women's match on record took place in 1722. These fights, billed as entertainment (as were men's bouts) included scratching, kicking and throwing. That showbiz air of spectacle clung to women's boxing at exhibitions during the 1904 Olympics and continuing through Barbara Buttrick's televised fights in the 1950s.

But as after that, as boxing's popularity surged, women stood taller.  In 1975, Eva Shain won her battle to become a certified boxing judge, serving on the jury for the world championship bout between Muhammad Ali and Earnie Shavers in 1977. In 1979, Shirley Tucker led the charge to allow women to fight more than four rounds.

Finally, in 1987, former world women's lightweight champion Marian Trimiar dealt a blow to female-boxing-as-sideshow. Her 30-day hunger strike drew attention to the need for better pay and conditions for professional female fighters. "Unless women get more recognition," she said at the time, "we will be fighting just as a novelty for the rest of our lives."

The fight didn't end there. It took 16-year-old Dallas Malloy in 1993 to sue USA Boxing for gender discrimination to allow women to compete at the amateur level; in the UK a year later, Jane Couch filed a similar complaint against the British Boxing Board of Control, which had claimed that "PMS made women too unstable to box."

After those victories, more dominoes started to fall. Buttrick helped establish the Women's International Boxing Federation in 1995, enabling women to progress through a ratings system and compete in world championships.

And now the Olympics. This year features 12 fighters in each of three weight classes from 23 nations not enough to populate a round of 16, but a tournament nonetheless. This small but mighty crowd features some of the strongest fighters, both in and out of the ring, including at least one of the best amateur boxers in the world, male or female.

Irish lightweight Katie Taylor is the world's best, full stop.  Taylor has  won at least one gold medal every year since 2005 in world, European and European Union championships. In her first Olympic bout Monday, she crushed Briton Natasha Jonas 26-15. Look for a repeat of this year's world championship final between Taylor and Sofya Ochigava of Russia.

In the flyweight class, all eyes are on Marlen Esparza of Houston. Though she was the first American to qualify for the Olympics, Esparza hasn't won many bouts, a weakness she hopes to turn into a strength: "I'm good, but I haven't been medaling. So hopefully [my opponents] don't expect too much and I can sneak up on them," she's said. Guaranteed at least a bronze after topping Venezuela's Karlha Magliocco  in the quarterfinal, she faces next Ren Cancan of China, who beat her at the world championships last spring. Also in the running for a medal is veteran boxer Mary Kom of India, who fights Nicola Adams of Great Britain in the semifinal.

It's also well worth mentioning a few eliminated in the early rounds.  Seattle's Quanitta "Queen" Underwood, who lost her opening fight to Jonas, almost won the 2010 world championships, coming back from a 10-point deficit until Taylor won by a two-point decision. Underwood is as hard a fighter in her sport as she is in life having taken refuge in boxing, she told the New York Times, after years of abuse at the hands of her father. Underwood found a way to fight out from under her demons and win big. So did Edith Ogoke of Nigeria, whose12-14 first-round win against 2012 world championship silver medalist Yelena Vystropova of Azerbaijan shocked boxing fans. Ogoke and her son live in utter poverty in a Lagos slum, where, even during training, she has forgone eating so that her son could have food. Talk about a fighter.

If men's boxing remains a sport on the margins, women's boxing lives at its edges. These 36 athletes are only a fraction of the women who fight, but their showing here matters. Hopefully, it will encourage other nations, and other fighters, to join them. (Cuba, one of the world's strongest boxing teams, held women back because, as coach Pedro Roque said, women should "be showing off their beautiful faces, not getting punched in the face.")

It may take yet another century, but the full inclusion of women is clearly on the horizon.  The final bout is yet to come.