By Padraic Halpin
LONDON (Reuters) - Women's finest boxers threw ferocious punches in the ring and shed tears outside it as they brought an end to the last all-male sport at the Olympics in front of a packed crowd that quickly warmed to their presence.
Russia's Elena Savelyeva and North Korea's Kim Hye-song were given a hearty welcome in London by an intrigued audience on Sunday who eleven fights later rated the women as good as the men, putting paid to their rejection in the past because of a perceived lack of global interest.
After judging controversies marred the first week of fights at the Games, there was nothing but sporting behaviour on show on Sunday, from the families in the crowd who cheered, to the fighters who hugged and kissed at the end of their bouts.
"It was pleasure to make history. It was an amazing thing to do," said the victorious Savelyeva, who became a boxer after a trainer at her self-defence class recommended she give it a try.
After throwing the first punch, the most anticipated of the London Games so far, the Russian flyweight failed to land the kind of devastating blow needed to energise a crowd noticeably quieter at first than they had been for the men.
However, the muted response did not last long.
Venezuela's Karlha Magliocco, encouraging the fans to join in, grabbed their attention a bout later. Then the arena was as noisy as it has been so far at the Games when India's five-time world champion Mary Kom entered the fray.
After winning a bout as fearsome as any of the men's fights over the first eight days, Kom, one of the pioneers of women's boxing, was close to tears as she left the ring. She could not hold them back as she told reporters of her long battle to get to that moment.
"I have been boxing for 12 years, I have been trying to play in the Olympic Games," mother-of-two Kom said, wiping the tears away.
"Today is very emotional, today is my twins' birthday, their fifth birthday, and I can't celebrate their birthday but I am fighting in the ring and winning, that will be a gift for them."
When women were given the green light to make their Olympic debut three years ago, some still wondered whether they should be competing at all.
Former British world light welterweight champion Amir Khan, a silver medallist at the 2004 Olympics, bristled at the thought of women getting knocked out while amateur boxing powerhouse Cuba refuses to allow its females fight.
From former Olympic champions Lennox Lewis and Oscar De La Hoya lending their support on twitter, to International Boxing Association (AIBA) chief Wu Ching-kuo calling it "a proud day for the Olympic movement", few doubted their worth on Sunday.
The fans were among them.
"Having never really watched women's boxing before, I found it really enjoyable, really fast and entertaining," said David Coleman, 30, who travelled from Sheffield in northern England with his wife Emma and son Noah, 2, to watch the action.
"It's certainly as entertaining as the mens'."
AIBA wants to see more women box in the Games in 2016 and while they are only competing in three weight classes compared to the men's 10 this time, those who got their chance in London agreed it was a major step in the right direction.
"There are many countries out there that still don't have equality in their lives and I think it is very unfortunate and sad," New Zealand's Alexis Pritchard told reporters after winning her lightweight bout.
"I'm not sure this day will change that for certain countries but I think it is an absolutely great day for women. We have the right to be here and I'm proud to be representing woman. It is a very special day."
(Additional reporting by Steve Keating and Patrick Johnston; editing by Michael Holden)