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By GREG BEACHAM,
Updated July 21, 2012
(AP) -- When Lucia Rijker dropped in at the European Championships of women's boxing in her native Netherlands last year, the greatest fighter in the history of her sport was overwhelmed by the splendor of what she saw.
A sport that once existed only on the fringes of society and legality is now practiced by thousands of elite athletes. Back when women were told boxing could damage their health and minds, Rijker and other pioneers propelled their sport around the world - and all the way to its first Olympics.
At that moment in Rotterdam, watching an eager teenage Belgian girl who already had knockout power in both hands, Rijker felt a sense of accomplishment she prizes even more than her world championship belts.
"It touched my heart to see so much young talent," recalled Rijker, the unbeaten professional boxer and kickboxer who now coaches and acts for a living. "I couldn't sleep all night. My heart was so open. Who would have thought this could happen?"
A generational struggle culminates in London next month at the first Olympic women's boxing tournament. Rijker is only the most prominent example of women who became fascinated by this brutal sport, persevering through discouragement, disinterest and outright discrimination to put 36 women boxers from six continents on their nations' Olympic teams for the first time.
Boxing was the only summer Olympic sport without a female analogue until 2009, when the IOC voted to include it in London. Rijker learned of the decision in a text message from veteran boxing coach Christy Halbert while she walked her dog on a cool Hollywood morning.
"I screamed so loud that I woke up the neighborhood," Rijker said. "I didn't care. I just felt it in my soul. I went to the Wild Card (Gym) later, and I cried. It's just a deep feeling that I feel for making something happen, creating an opportunity that other women can benefit from."
Halbert shared the feeling, although she kept it a bit quieter. She took up boxing almost on a lark, entering a pro fight to make money for graduate school, but it evolved into her life's work as a trainer, scholar and activist for the legitimization of the women's sport, particularly the amateur version that will be showcased in London.
"Now that it's almost here, I have these simultaneous thoughts: I can't believe it took so long, but I also can't believe we finally made it," said Halbert, now an assistant coach on the U.S. national team. "Because it's not just about boxing as a sport. It's also a very important part of the women's movement and women's rights."
Women participated in boxing as an Olympic demonstration sport in 1904, but women's boxing didn't take a cohesive shape until the tail end of the 20th century. The obstacles were innumerable: Along with the chauvinism that's familiar to Halbert and any athlete of the Title IX era, many women were told more fanciful tales about how getting punched would destroy their ability to bear or nurse children - or even cause breast cancer.
"They had these breast protectors, but they were really uncomfortable, and they just made for a bigger target," Halbert said with a laugh. "I do recall it sort of seemed like an obsession over women's anatomy and sexual characteristics. It was just speculation by people outside the medical field. When I presented medical evidence or research, I realized it wasn't a medical issue. It was a cultural issue. These sorts of myths, believe it or not, still do exist. There are people in every country that still do believe this stuff."
The amateur sport has grown steadily since Sweden first sanctioned it in 1988. Amateur women's boxing, with its safety precautions and shorter fights, is now tolerated and fostered by most nations - even Syria and Afghanistan, which held their first national championships last year.
The first amateur world championships were held in Scranton, Pa., in 2001, with Halbert coaching the U.S. team. Two boxers who performed well in that tournament will fight in London: Sweden's Anna Laurell, who did television commentary on the men's Olympic fights in Beijing, and India's Mary Kom, the mother of two who is among the most celebrated athletes in her nation's London delegation.
The amateur game's steady growth contrasts sharply with the madcap free-for-all that is professional women's boxing, which faced fewer cultural restrictions, but also went through tacky evolutions that emphasized either sexuality or gore. Pro fighters caused only minor ripples in the mainstream when Christy Martin or Laila Ali briefly captured the public's attention.
"There was resistance in the boxing world when I started, but especially in the amateur world," said Rijker, who reigned unbeaten as a pro from 1996 to 2004. "I mean, people thought we couldn't make babies. Where is this coming from, the 18th century? But you can't stop what's meant to happen. I knew it was just a matter of time. It's not like that as much now. Young girls can go to the gym and say, 'I want that,' and nobody will laugh at them."
The amateur sport grew too late for Rijker, who probably could have earned a neckful of medals. Although she is best known to non-sports fans for playing the villainous boxer in director Clint Eastwood's Oscar-winning "Million Dollar Baby," her athletic pedigree is much more impressive than fiction.
She excelled on an international level for the Dutch in judo, softball and fencing before exiting her teens, and she had a dominant career as a professional kickboxer. Searching for new worlds to conquer, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting and her childhood fascination with boxing.
Working with trainer Freddie Roach and "living like a nun," Rijker evolved into a fearsome puncher with technique and instincts to match many elite men. In fact, she was essentially too good for her sport: Rijker brutalized almost every opponent she fought, winning 14 of her 17 fights by knockout with a flair that left her widely considered the best woman who ever laced up gloves.
Rijker feels the Olympics will help raise the overall standard of competition to a level she never experienced, even if this debut isn't perfect. The IOC only allowed three women's weight classes, leaving out many boxers who couldn't cram themselves into those parameters.
But with her familiarity of the road that women's boxing traveled to London, Rijker sees enormous cause for celebration.
"Ever since I was a child, the Olympics were the biggest thing in the world," Rijker said. "I watched it all. I loved all of the sports. I conquered a lot of worlds, but at some point, it becomes empty.
"If you don't fight for a bigger cause, it's just a belt. If we don't share and help other people, whether it's money or knowledge or titles, it doesn't feel right somehow. This tournament is really the completion of a mission."