Mat McCarthy photo, Waterloo Region Record
Greg Mercer, Record staff
This story originally appeared in the Waterloo Region Record.
TORONTO — A dozen boxers are working out in Atlas Boxing Club, a cinder block bunker beside the roar of Highway 401, hip-hop blasting from a stereo in the corner.
Mandy Bujold, a bundle of tightly packed muscles, is the smallest person in here. And the loudest. She’s unleashing ferocious jabs and hooks at the pads worn by coach Adrian Teodorescu, sending shock waves through a man easily a hundred pounds heavier than she is.
The fighter exhales sharply with each punch, like an angry tennis player on fast-forward. Ish-ish-ish. Hup-hup-hup.
“If I try to not do that, I can’t hit as hard,” she said afterward, sweat beading on her brow.
Judges were once so puzzled by the Kitchener boxer’s outbursts they docked her points for “talking” during her bouts. But no longer. At 28, Bujold is finally getting some respect in the ring, from officials and opponents.
Under the eye of Canada’s top amateur boxing coach, she’s become even stronger, more technically skilled and confident. Things are turning in Bujold’s favour at just the right time.
She’s coming off a dominating 2015 schedule, when she went 19-1. Her only loss last year was to world flyweight champ Marlen Esparza, who Bujold later beat for gold at the Pan Am Games in Toronto.
“I guess I got even for that one,” the Forest Heights Collegiate grad said, with obvious pleasure.
In March, Bujold can punch her ticket to the Olympic Games in Rio, Brazil, this summer at a qualifying tournament in Argentina. Bujold goes into the continental qualifier as the odds-on favourite, after Esparza was bounced from contention at a U.S. Olympic qualifier.
No. 4-ranked Clelia Marques da Costa of Brazil, another Olympic medal contender, is also serving a 180-day suspension for testing positive for furosemide, a banned drug used by boxers trying to cheat weight restriction.
After narrowly missing her shot at the 2012 London Olympics, Bujold is now the top-ranked female flyweight boxer in the world eligible for Rio. She’s widely considered a top challenger for the podium.
The fighter says Rio would be the exclamation point to a sparkling career that she plans to wind down after 2016. She wants to get on with life outside of boxing, but not before she tries for an 11th straight national title belt next fall, too, which would be a Canadian record.
Bujold remains a study in contradiction — gracious and friendly with her gloves off, ferocious and antagonizing in the ring. The two-time Pan American Games champion likes to read the same verse from the Bible before every fight. She’s a fan of an unconventional bobbing style that infuriates opponents.
She’s a master tactician who lures her challengers into making mistakes, then pounces with stunning speed. Her defence and footwork are supreme. In more than a decade of fights, she’s never been knocked down in the ring.
With luck on her side, Teodorescu thinks there’s no reason Bujold can’t win gold in Rio.
In this sparse Toronto gym, she’s been steeling herself for the biggest year of her career. Posters of boxing greats Muhammed Ali, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis line the walls. Bujold, sweating now, continues to hammer away at her coach’s padded hands.
Teodorescu is closely watching the accuracy and timing of her punches. If her gloves stray from the small target on his pads, he quietly offers instruction. The exercise continues. Hep-hep-hep. Hut-hut-hut.
Bujold is a different boxer than when she was trying to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. This time around, she knows she belongs with the best in the world.
“I think before, I had the skill, but I never fully believed I belonged with that top pool in my weight class,” she said. “Now I can look at these girls and see things differently.”
Four years ago, Bujold thought she was London-bound. She handily beat Colombian Ingrit Valencia for the gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, but later learned her performance would not count toward qualifying for the Olympics.
Instead, she had to battle a tough North Korean, Kim Hye-song, in the first round of the world championships, and lost 11-9, knocking her out of contention for the first Games to feature women’s boxing.
Once Boxing Canada opted, somewhat controversially, to not give her a wild card to the Games, she had to watch from home while lesser fighters performed in the sport’s historic debut in London.
“I learned from all that happened in the past, and I’ve tried to put that behind me. But it’s still a fuel for me,” she said. “I know how close I got to the 2012 Olympics, and I know how much it hurt to not go. So that drives me.”
Faced with waiting another four long years to fulfill her Olympic dream, Bujold thought about quitting. Instead, she refocused, moved her training to Toronto and paired up with Teodorescu. Bujold credits that decision with giving her the final leg up on the best fighters in the world.
“He knows what it takes to get there,” she said. “Just to hear him talk about my skills and my abilities, it makes me feel like, ‘OK, if he sees it in me, maybe I really do have it.’ ”
Teodorescu is Canada’s most successful amateur boxing coach, with 54 years of experience. He’s guided pretty much every Canadian boxer — including Egerton Marcus, Mark Leduc, Mark Simmons, Donovan Boucher, Tom Glesby and Domenic Filane — who has ever won anything at the Olympics since the 1980s.
Another Kitchener boxer, Lennox Lewis, credits Teodorescu with helping him win gold at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. He sees Bujold’s Olympic goal as a fitting addition to the already hefty legacy he’s leaving in the sport.
The Romanian-born coach first saw Bujold fight as a teenager. She was unpolished then, but fearless in the ring. That told him everything he needed to know.
“Coaches always tell me, ‘I have a little kid, he’s really good.’ But I watch the way they are in the ring. I didn’t see that fear in her eyes. I saw her confidence, even if her tools were not a lot then,” he said. “I thought she might have a good future.”
Bujold did have a good future. She’s been unrivaled in the country in her weight division for more than a decade. In recent years, she’s consistently been one of top 10 female 51-kilogram boxers in the world.
Teodorescu says Bujold has learned to control her aggressiveness in the ring, and has evolved into a dominating tactician with excellent physical conditioning. She’s defensively sound and rarely seems to tire during bouts.
“Before, she was a one-way street in the ring. Now, she’s using her talent more to move, to provoke her opponent to make mistakes,” he said. “For these Olympics, the most important thing will be to just polish what she’s already doing.”
Bujold clearly trusts her coach. With Teodorescu in her corner, she says she doesn’t need to think. She becomes a machine, firing almost on autopilot.
While some fighters need to get amped up for a bout, Bujold prefers to listen to calm, mellowing music. She clears her mind, and relies on muscle memory to react to her opponents.
There’s no place for second-guessing or doubts, anyway.
“The first rule here is the coach is always right. The second rule is, when the coach is wrong, go back to Rule 1,” Teodorescu said, with a smile.
The way he sees it, he’s an artist — “like Michelangelo” — moulding slabs of rough marble into polished, perfect fighters. He’s a former boxer himself, and has been in more than 400 fights. So he understands the mind of someone staring down an opponent to trying to knock them out.
Bujold, meanwhile, is trying to not get ahead of herself as she stares down her second shot at an Olympic Games. It’s been a long time coming since the disappointment of 2012, and she’s trying to keep her excitement in check.
She doesn’t want to just qualify for Rio — she wants to come home with a gold medal. But the boxer knows she has some work to do, first.
“I’ve worked hard for this, and I’m trying to let it happen naturally. I’m going to let the Olympics come to me,” she said. “I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing. That’s what’s given me success, and that’s what’s going to take me to the Olympics.”