“What a monstrous, degrading, disgusting idea!” wrote former BBC boxing commentator Peter Wilson in 1948. “Would anyone like to go out with a girl sporting two lovely purplish black eyes? Would any sportsman, or sportswoman, relish the sight of tears, after a stiff punch on the nose, mingling with mascara?”
Wilson was dripping acid after learning of the “grotesque” ambitions of Barbara Buttrick who wanted to box in England. Barbara eventually moved to Miami and trained in the same gym as Muhammad Ali, BBC reported.
Sixty-four years later on Thursday night, Barbara, now 82, was among the thousands who watched Nicola Virginia Adams celebrating the flyweight Olympic boxing gold with a big smile and a little Ali Shuffle.
“That’s now the Nicky Shuffle,” said the girl who snuffed out India’s dream when she defeated Mary Kom in the semi-final but has much in common with the plucky Manipuri mom who overcame adversity after adversity.
It is not necessary to labour the point that the 29-year-old boxer from a disadvantaged background in Leeds is black but the British have taken her to their heart.
Interviewing her for the BBC, former footballer Gary Lineker marvelled: “You are just about the only person I have seen who has got gold and not cried — you just keep smiling and it is a beautiful smile. You have done Britain proud.”
After defeating Mary Kom, she pointed to the British logo on her shirt. And now she told Lineker: “I wanted to get that medal for Great Britain.”
It has been possible to be “black and British”, especially in sport, perhaps for 20 years, overturning the old slogan, “there ain’t no black in the Union Jack”.
Later, Nicola, who had dissolved into a flood of tears when she had first won a medal in 2007, explained why there was no replay. “I was really trying to fight back the tears when I was standing on the podium. I was thinking it’s here, I’ve done it. I don’t think I will ever stop smiling.”
For the British, the (not very popular but super-efficient) Chinese may be vacuuming up medal after medal but an abiding image of the Games will be of their former world champion Ren Cancan knocked down by Nicola. At least, India escaped that indignity.
Lineker relived the moment: “Here we go bang.”
Nicola agreed: “I have got her number today, this is my time.”
It was always not so. Nicola, who has the kind of Yorkshire accent of which such professional Yorkshire men as Geoffrey Boycott would approve, wanted to be a boxer from an early age but no coach seemed prepared to take her on in a sport that was regarded as the exclusive preserve of men.
“I got my inspiration when I sat down with my father, at about eight or nine years old, and watched the Rumble in the Jungle (Ali versus George Foreman in Kinshasa in 1974, which Ali won by knockout),” Nicola recalled. “It was amazing watching Muhammad AliÖ.”
In Leeds, after her parents, Lawrence and Dee, were divorced, Nicola and boxing found each other. She had trouble persuading boxing trainer Fred Gummerson to let her fight. At 12, she started training with Sharky’s Boxing Academy in nearby Meanwood.
Nicola’s mother, Dee, 52, who came to the Excel Centre with Nicola’s brother Kurtis, said that although Nicola began boxing for Britain at 18, she could not get any funding. Nicola took odd jobs at building sites and as a soap opera extra to get by.
A back injury left her bedridden for three months. “I was packing my bag in a rush and my hand wraps were hanging out,” she said. “I tripped over them in my rush to get out and I fell down the stairs. I got up and I went to the fight, which I won. But my back pain just got worse and worse. I went to hospital to have it checked out and they discovered I had cracked my vertebrae. I ended up being confined to bed for three months.”
That was in 2009 and it was a bad time to get injured. Women’s boxing was being put forward for the Olympics for the first time and Nicola, having won a silver medal at the 2008 World Championships, was seen as Britain’s best. But when the try-outs began, she could barely walk.
It had been “really tough” for her daughter, said Dee, Nicola’s mother. “I thought, you know, she’s doing this for her country and she isn’t getting the recognition she deserves. But now she has made history. There were 10,000 people there, no empty seats and to hear people screaming and roaring her name — I just thought they have all come to see her — how fabulous is that?”
Unlike Laura Trott who has been spotted kissing her fellow cyclist boyfriend Jason Kenny (see Sport), Dee said her daughter had no time for romance. “She’ll have children at some point in the future but she’s having fun at the moment.”
Nicola intends keeping both feet on the ground. She was planning a family trip to Nando’s, the food chain. “I just like being the normal Nicky Adams, walking my dog Dexter and doing the normal day to day things.”
Today’s Daily Mail summed up the life of the lass from Leeds: “Champ from school of hard knocks.”