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The first female boxer to win an Olympic title and the first to win two gold medals at the Games, British superstar Nicola Adams is in a class of her own in flyweight, having also claimed the divisional world title in 2016.
Hailing from Burmantofts, in inner-city Leeds, Nicola Adams was introduced to boxing at a very early age by her father Innocent, who also showed her videos of the “Rumble in the Jungle”, the legendary world heavyweight title fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman on 30 October 1974 in Kinshasa. Suitably inspired, the young Adams then she decided that she wanted to be Ali. Acting on her wishes, her mother Dee took her to the local gym when she was 12, marking the start of a remarkable success story. “I was good at it, I was the only girl and I suppose I was the little star, and I loved it, I loved it when people said I boxed like a boy,” said Adams, recalling her early days in the sport. “It gave me a lot of confidence and street cred.”
At the time, women’s boxing was actually banned in the UK, as Adams explained: “It’s hard to believe that ban carried on until 1996, and the reason is like something from a hundred years before. But women have had to fight for everything: they had to fight for the vote and they had to fight to compete in the marathon. It’s always been a fight.” Her first bout came when she was 13, in the very year the ban was lifted, though it would be another four years before she began to make an impact in the sport. Taking part in an England team camp alongside future world heavyweight champion David Haye in 2001, she was called up to box for her country not long afterwards and has not looked back since.
A four-time English amateur champion in the years that followed, Adams found rapid progress hard to make, with her chosen sport still in its infancy. Indeed, it was not until 2007 that she made her international debut, representing Great Britain at the European Amateur Championships in Denmark. A silver medal then came her way at the 2008 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championships in Ningbo (CHN). Despite problems with funding, Adams went on to win the Angered Centrum Box Cup that same year. Then, in August 2009, came the news that the IOC had decided to add women’s boxing to the Olympic programme at London 2012. Spurred by the announcement, Adams enjoyed further success, collecting another world championship silver in Bridgetown (BAR) in 2010 before winning the European amateur title in Rotterdam (NED) and the European Union amateur crown in Katowice (POL) the following year, the perfect preparation for the London Games.
Adams kicked off her bid for Olympic 51kg flyweight gold with a 16-6 defeat of Bulgaria’s Stoyka Petrova in the quarter-finals. After then overcoming India’s Mary Kom 11-6 in the semis, the popular Leeds pugilist took on China’s Ren Cancan in the first of the three women’s boxing finals. Though she had lost to Ren at the two previous world championships, Adams was at her very best on this occasion, dominating the gold-medal bout from start to finish. Making the most of her incisive right jab, she surged into a 4-2 first-round lead over her southpaw opponent, to the delight of a boisterous home crowd. Following a few words of encouragement from her coach, the British boxer poured on the pressure in round two, sending Cancan to the floor with a superb right-left combination with 52 seconds remaining. Though the Chinese boxer was able to get back on her feet, she could not get back into the fight, as Adams streaked away in the third and fourth rounds to record an emphatic 16-7 win, serenaded by chants of “Nicola! Nicola!” from the crowd.
“I’m absolutely over the moon,” said women’s boxing’s maiden Olympic champion. “I’d like to thank the supporters. There was a great atmosphere here when I was coming in. It’s been absolutely fabulous all the way through the tournament. The amount of support we’ve had: it’s been great. I’m so happy. I was trying to hold back the tears before, when I first got out. It’s just a dream come true for me. I’ve been training since I was 12 years old, and to think that my childhood dream has finally come true. Taking the gold medal back to Leeds will be very special. I think this first Olympic women’s boxing tournament has raised the profile of our sport, and I think a lot of girls are going to get into boxing.”
Building on her Olympic triumph, Adams then won the Commonwealth Games title in Glasgow in 2014 and European Games gold in Baku the following year before completing a full set of major titles by outpointing Thailand’s Peamwilai Laopeam at the World Championships in May 2016 in Astana (KAZ). “I want to create history by becoming a double Olympic champion,” she said, three months before her date with destiny in Rio. “I’d love to be able to do that. I think about it a lot, it always puts a smile on my face and gives me motivation. I think I’m just more experienced now. I’m more of a rounded athlete. I know what to expect at these major competitions, I’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt. That makes the difference really. Nothing is a surprise and you know what to expect. I know what it’s all like and I’m ready for everything.”
Adams proved that by sweeping all before her at Rio 2016 and becoming women’s boxing’s first double gold medallist. After defeating Ukraine’s Tetyana Kob in the quarter-finals and then getting the better of her old rival Ren in the semis, she outfoxed France’s Sarah Ourahmoune to win the final by a 3-0 margin, maintaining her unbeaten record against the Frenchwoman. “It feels absolutely amazing, especially to be able to think to myself that I’ve created history and I’m now the most accomplished British amateur boxer of all time. It didn’t come easy. It’s been an incredible adventure. It’s tough when you’ve already fought the same opponent a few times. She knows all your moves so you’ve got to keep coming up with new things, right to the end of the fight.” Adams did just that in Rio, boxing clever to secure her status as an Olympic legend.