What's the biggest fight in women's boxing this weekend?, writes Rachel Steinberg.
Natasha Jonas and Katie Taylor’s London 2012 Olympic rematch on Saturday would certainly earn points in any pub quiz. The Liverpudlian southpaw is set to challenge the Irish favourite for her undisputed lightweight titles in a contest that’s left fans salivating for weeks.
But there’s another high-stakes bout brewing across the Atlantic, and it’s a contender for the most important battle of the year.
Mandy Bujold, an 11-time Canadian champion and Rio 2016 Olympian, isn’t just taking on one opponent—she’s challenging the entire International Olympic Committee (IOC) after learning maternity leave could be the reason she misses out on this year’s Games.
It’s a situation that struck a chord with Jonas, who retired from amateur boxing after giving birth to daughter Mela in 2015 before turning pro nearly two years later.
“It’s really tough,” said the 36-year-old. “Because I think when it comes to things like that, and decision making, there’s always politics.
“And it doesn’t always favour the athlete. It’s just an unfortunate situation.”
Flyweight Bujold, who finished fifth in Rio, was set to compete in a continental qualifier in Argentina next Friday but it was cancelled for the second time in two years over Covid-19 concerns.
With time running out, the IOC’s Boxing Task Force elected to allocate Olympic quota places based on athletes’ rankings from results in previous events.
But this presented a unique obstacle for Bujold, who placed second at the 2017 continentals. She was on maternity leave during three of those key competitions, having given birth to daughter Kate Olympia a week after the 2018 worlds. Under the restructuring, she won’t get a ticket to Tokyo.
On Monday, Bujold tweeted that she’d enlisted a lawyer to argue her case, writing: “A letter has been sent to the Executive Board of the IOC and we are hopeful they will make the right decision pursuant to the principles of gender equity embodied in the Olympic Charter not only for me, but for all female athletes who decide to take a brief break from competition to have a child.” A reply is expected this week.
Conversations about parental rights are increasingly prevalent in elite women’s sport. Last year, WNBA players negotiated fully paid maternity leave and a childcare stipend as part of their new collective bargaining agreement.
But for Jonas, even without the involvement of leagues and governing bodies, the first encounter with motherhood presents more than enough knockout challenges.
She said: “It’s not just sport. I was a new mum, I was a first-time mum, and you’re under so much pressure, a different type of pressure than performing as an athlete.
“You’re trying to be the perfect mum to this new human that you’re trying to mould, so it’s stressful mentally, physically, and financially as well, because as an athlete, most are self-employed.
“And obviously if don’t you work, you don’t get paid. So it’s a strain. You go through a big massive change and there’s the financial strain of it as well, and not many companies want to still support you when you’re not performing.
“It’s huge. It’s huge for the athlete, and it’s huge for the family situation.”
If you asked Mela, she’d say “mummy’s work is the gym”. Over lockdown, the five-year-old came to appreciate exactly what that entails. She joined Jonas at the ‘office’, helping her mum train for last summer’s fight with fellow Brit Terri Harper.
“In the first lockdown schools were shut,” Jonas said. “She had the option to keep going, to be fair, but I just decided to keep her with me.
“So she came with me to every session, she was handing me water in between spars, she was counting me reps. After I’d finished I was chasing her down the track.
“And it was good for me, to see her there as motivation, but it was also good for her.
“She is only five, she knows that mummy boxes, and she knows that mummy goes to the gym to work, but she doesn’t really know what happens at the gym.
“Now she understands what actually goes on. She sees that I’m confident, she sees that I’m hard working, she sees that I’m motivated. And they’re all the things that I want her to be.”
Harper ultimately retained her world super-featherweight title in a controversial split decision draw, while many observers felt Jonas had done enough.
Jonas and Taylor’s Olympic encounter was a sonic boom of a fight, famously reaching a pounding 113.7 decibels inside the ExCeL Centre. ‘Bray Bomber’ Taylor ultimately prevailed in both the match and the Games, becoming the first woman to win Olympic lightweight gold.
But Jonas, who spent lockdown devouring books about motivation and psychology when she wasn’t trying to entertain a five-year-old, wants to stop talking about London 2012.
She said: “I’ve experienced things [since], I’ve had to pick myself up from rock bottom, and that’s given me a different type of determination, because I never want to be there again.
“I think the after Harper [fight] proved I was world level, I wanted to stay there, and push beyond.
“I don’t want to keep going back to the Olympics, because I don’t believe either of us are them boxers anymore.
“We’ve both grown, we’ve have developed, we have aged!” she laughs, “but I do think our boxing IQ has increased.
“Physically, I know I’m better, mentally I know I’m better, spiritually, emotionally, I’m better.”
Plus, she’s got a new number one fan. And while Saturday is hardly just another day at the office, Jonas is determined to make her proud.