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For years, Ariane Fortin and Mary Spencer fought as teammates for Canada. To gain a spot at the London Olympics they had to face each other.

Love – romantic, coupleform love – is compared to games, to sports, to pastimes. If anything, love is a match. It is not so neatly ordered or scored as tennis, and certainly not as intellectual as chess. Strategy is vital, as are wits, but in "the moment" it's all reflex, pain, a visceral rhythm, and then a victory that can't help but hurt. So, yes. Love is boxing.

Last Woman Standing, a new debut feature documentary from co-directors Juliet Lammers and Lorraine Price, feels something like the second act of a romantic comedy, after the meet-cute has given way to conflict and before the swelling climax of the meet-again. There is, however, only the bitterest ironic humour in its premise. In 2008, boxing was the only Olympic sport with no women's events. Four years later, at the London Olympics, that changed – but not all the way for better. Where male boxers could compete for titles in 10 weight categories, female pugilists would be eligible in three. The upshot: On women's boxing teams the world over, athletes gained and lost weight, then gained and lost friends as they competed against their best teammates, in new categories, for a chance at Olympic qualification.

For Canada, the two best teammates were also two of the world's best: Ariane Fortin of Montreal, and Mary Spencer of Windsor, Ontario (and how too near perfect, to have the fight seem also about two nationalisms). In Price and Lammers' pensive, unsensational documentary, Spencer says she and Fortin, who met as national team rookies in 2004, "bonded right away." In a phone interview, from Montreal, Fortin says no two boxers could have understood each other better.

Which is why, from the moment Fortin and Spencer found out they would duel for one spot on the 2012 Olympic team, and for almost the entire duration of Last Woman Standing, the two women did not exchange a word.

The result is relatable to anyone who has ever had what might be called a soulmate. Speeches by each protagonist and opponent feel like long voicemails left for the other, who will listen a year later. "From this friendship turned rivalry," says Lammers, "what grew to really interest us was the way their lives spoke to each other, how connected their lives were over the course of the filming."

"In the end," says Price, "[Fortin and Spencer] were the only two that understood each other's positions."

If you see Last Woman Standing, which premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this past weekend, don't expect a Tonya Harding-slash-Nancy Kerrigan melodrama – still the ne plus ultra of competition between females, as stereotypes go. Don't wait for anyone to lose an ear, either; this isn't the noir-ish bloodsport Joyce Carol Oates called "a celebration of the lost art of masculinity all the more trenchant for being lost."

Rather, some love is lost. Respect is gained. There's talking, but no trash. The documentary features more contemplation than action, more training than fighting, and a few hometown moments that are uncomfortably like Tim Hortons commercials. Still, it feels more like an exercise in humanness than in Canadianness. "We're good people," says Fortin, simply. "We're not just good boxers."

When we see these two very, very good boxers face to face, it's almost impossible – to the filmmakers' credit – to choose a side.

"We felt equally intensely invested in both of them," swears Price. I believe her. I knew, watching the fight for that one Olympic spot, that Spencer would win; I knew that Fortin would protest, calling the decision unfair (something she doesn't want to talk about now). I didn't know that Fortin's coach whispered to her, as she was losing, that "in every match, we're better than her."

He meant, Fortin explains to me over the phone, that they had a better strategy. But strategy is not outcome. It's unsettling and strangely familiar – even for a total non-athlete – to watch as Spencer's victory turns Pyrrhic, that chance gone to ash as she burns out, shockingly and unspectacularly, in her first Olympic fight. She can't even cry. To the camera, she says that she felt like she already won the gold medal, at home, when she beat Fortin.

Over the phone, to me, Fortin explains why she and Spencer were never really enemies. "If you want to beat someone," she says, "you have to respect them first."

To spoil yourself for the highest prize because you had to beat your best friend is maybe the most poetic – and perverse – kind of respect. Last Woman Standing has a tough pathos, a lesson for lots of us: Sometimes the most important thing in the world isn't whether you win, or how you win, or even who you play. It's who you beat.

The documentary shows in Toronto on April 28 at the Bloor Cinema and May 3 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox

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