In time, Shelley Watts may become to Australian boxing what Annette Kellerman was to swimming and Phyllis O’Donnell was to surfing: an original whose name will forever be linked with her sport’s professional origins. There have been other Australian female boxers of note, but there will never be another first Australian female gold medallist. Watts has that for good.
Nor has there been any Australian with the substantial career Watts now has ahead of her, with world championships and an Olympic Games on her agenda. Having taken up the sport in 2010, just as it was made legal and professional in Australia, the 26-year-old criminal law student has dominated the lightweight division in Glasgow, although her final, against India’s Laishram Devi, was rugged enough for Watts to describe it as a ‘war’.
Watts’s style may best be described in contrast to the bout before hers. In the women’s flyweight final, England’s Nicola Adams’s spunk and bluff took her a fair way towards a contentious split decision over Northern Ireland’s Michaela Walsh. ‘I was cheated,’ Walsh later tweeted.
Adams, the sport’s inaugural Olympic gold medallist at London in 2012 and a world number one with an iconic career already behind her, inhabits that celebrated crossover space between ringcraft and stagecraft. But if Adams has something of the Apollo Creed of women’s boxing about her, Shelley Watts is the Shelley Watts and none other. There is little adornment or salesmanship; her boxing is nuggety and streamlined, as she bunches herself into a ball of efficiency that is ever on the advance. Her balance and speed suggest that she would be good at any number of sports, which indeed she was until a knee reconstruction curtailed her soccer and touch football days and sent her into a Lismore boxing gym four years ago.
There is plenty of personality in Watts’s boxing, but it’s not for show. Only after winning does she let loose her genuine happiness and kiss the camera. In the first round of her gold medal bout against Devi, she was consistently beaten to the punch. She regrouped with coach Don Abnett and stuck to her plan, which was to wear Devi out with high-intensity combat. "The coaches knew she was going to tire eventually," Watts said. "The fast pace was going to take its toll, and I knew I would have plenty in the tank."
The second and third rounds were frenetic, Watts engaging the taller and more experienced Devi with rapid-fire exchanges and landing some heavy blows with her right hand. Her hair came loose from its moorings and her ponytail flew as her straight right kept pummelling Devi. By the fourth, both fighters were clearly tired, though Watts said she still had energy to spare. By that stage she didn’t need it, as Devi was spent. "It was a great fight, it was a war," Watts said. "Not a lot of tactics, just a lot of punches thrown, but sometimes you’ve just got to brawl it."
Her wonderful tournament at an end, Watts was looking forward to having a plate of ribs and then getting home to reunite with her friends in Australia and her family on New South Wales’ north coast. For some, the sight of women boxing is as unseemly as women’s swimming appeared a hundred years ago in Kellerman’s time and women’s surfing fifty years ago in O’Donnell’s. Times change in big historic moments, and one has Shelley Watts’s kisser all over it.