“No, no. We don’t have to talk about coronavirus,” said John Dovi, coach of Samuel Kistohurry, beaming moments after his French charge had completed his first round win at the Boxing Road to Tokyo. “Coronavirus after the Olympic Games.”
After a remarkable week with sport shutting down around the world, Dovi reflected the general sentiment at the last sporting event standing in London, as 450 boxers from more than 50 countries converged on the Copper Box Arena in desperate search of an Olympic berth at the penultimate qualifying event, the Boxing Road to Tokyo.
As they danced around the rings and attempted to obliterate their foes, the message from all was clear: there is no time to think about viruses when you are trying to avoid being punched in the face.
The number of paying fans in the multicoloured seats in Stratford amounted to a few handfuls in a room otherwise consumed by the vast rows of boxers and coaches, who yelled tactics and cheered their countrymen and women. The format was three rounds and on Saturdayafternoon, the delirious tempo of the contest added an even more stressful edge.
In a country consumed by coronavirus, the Copper Box formed a tightly sealed bubble from reality. The only reflection of the current news cycle was the sight of one member of the Kosovo team who arrived at the arena with a surgical mask covering his face. Within seconds, the spell was broken: like everyone else in the arena, he sincerely traded handshakes and hugs.
The opening battles elicited frustration and glee in equal parts. After falling in the first round, Israel’s Bishara Sabbar sighed deeply as he rued the bitter luck of facing the talented Azerbaijani fourth seed, Tayfur Aliyev, before underlining why his priorities were unchanged.
“I was preparing so tough,” he said. “I was in hard training camps, but I got hard luck first fight, so thanks God. We came to achieve a dream. So the main thing is to protect yourself from the community. That’s it. You just have to take care of yourself.”
Delfine Persoon is widely regarded as the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world and the Belgian stood by the pinnacle of her class last year when she lost a controversial unification bout against Katie Taylor. As she marched past the mixed zone after being upended by Greece’s Nikoleta Pita, her rage was sharply contrasted by Pita’s joy. Bloodied cuts lined her face, but Pita’s words were laced with joy as she discussed the feeling of defeating a professional. “The way that I won showed that I’m good also,” she said.
The focal point of the opening afternoon was the precocious 19-year-old Caroline Dubois of Great Britain, who won the Youth Olympic games in 2018 and remains unbeaten. Dubois’s attempt to reach the Tokyo Olympic games marks her senior debut and she had to overcome Ala Staradub, a scrappy Belarusian, to start her career on the right foot.
“It was definitely as tough as I expected it to be,” she said. “I believe that in senior level all the girls are good. There’s no rubbish girls, there’s no low-level girls. They’ve all got winning power, they’ve all got experience. That’s what boxing is all about. I’ve been in tough fights where I get thrown on the floor. I know exactly what it’s like.”
Dubois’s origin story squarely reflects her relentlessness. She is the younger sister of British heavyweight champion, Daniel Dubois, and it took a while to convince her family that she should follow in his footsteps. When they relented, they devised a cunning plan, presenting her as a boy named Colin because even though she was born in 2001 girls were still not allowed to train in certain spaces. She has torn through countless barriers to reach this point but many remain – she will next face the No 1 seed, Mira Potkonen of Finland.
“At the end of the day, she’s only got two hands, two legs and one aim and that’s exactly what I have. To be the best you gotta beat the best and I believe I have the ability to beat the best.”
The hope is that Dubois will be able to put her belief into action in the coming days but recent events have demonstrated how quickly things can change. Until then, life continues within the Copper Box and it is only fitting that boxers are the remaining athletes still grinding away. You cannot uppercut a pandemic out of sight and mind, but they are all trying.
“It’s not in our minds,” said Ciobanu Tudor, the coach of the Moldovan Andrei Vreme. “We all have very healthy bodies and we punch the coronavirus.”
As he spat out each staccato syllable in rare Moldovan-accented Spanish, he crunched his right fist in his left palm. Then he smiled.