She has never been one to genuflect daintily before preconceived notions. She has never cared for being told “no”. That she wasn’t big or good or tough enough. That the boxing gym, much less the boxing ring, was no place for a girl.
As a record-setting amateur boxer turned professional prizefighter with admittedly girly-girl penchants toward makeup and fancy dresses (she dreams of one day wearing a Vera West gown to her wedding), Marlen Esparza continues to demonstrate that the voices of nay-sayers will not dictate her profession or passions. That you can be written about in sports magazines and featured in photo layouts in fashion magazines. That you can indeed have it both ways.
The 5-foot-2 flyweight, who had once expressed reluctance to turn pro and aspired instead to become an anesthesiologist, compared wearing headgear to putting on a mask which allowed her to do things inside the ring she may not otherwise have even given herself credit for being capable of. She left behind her amateur status, and that mask along with it, by inking a deal last December with Oscar De La Hoya, making her the first female to fight under the Golden Boy promotional banner.
How would Marlen fare without the benefit of the headgear’s concealment in her paid debut, opening the show on Golden Boy’s inaugural boxing program in partnership with ESPN Thursday night? She predicted that her professional trial by fire might not be very pretty. If you were to look at it from the opposite end of the spectrum, you wouldn’t want it to be a little too pretty either. Finding and maintaining that precarious balance is what it’s all about. That has been standard operating procedure for the 27 year-old Esparza who defiantly states that “I was born for this.”
With her entire family joining her in Indio, California, Marlen was sent into battle by her new trainer Virgil Hunter with a kiss on the cheek. Esparza bounced across the ring to exchange leather with her adversary, 0-2 New Jersey southpaw Rachel Sazoff, who is 26 but looks easily half that. In addition to boxing, Sazoff has nine MMA bouts to her credit, winning only one, and appeared overwhelmed from the opening bell with little to offer by way of retaliation to Esparza’s overhand right which continued to find its target.
Even Teddy Atlas, the tough and plain-spoken critic that he is, appreciated the way Marlen was able to slip inside, do her damage, and get back out without hanging around in the pocket to admire her own handiwork. Esparza put her punches together quite nicely, snapping off quick one/two’s and doubling up her left hook with one to the body and the next to the head.
She took care as well to change up the sequence of her shots, negating any sense of predictability by leading with either a straight right, a left hook, or the left jab which set up the right hand coming in directly behind it. At the close of the third round, Marlen partook in a bit of showboating, dropping both gloves to her waist and shoeshining a handful of rights which peppered a hapless Sazoff.
All three scorecards unanimously reflected 40-36 scores in favor of Esparza, of whom Oscar De La Hoya said to Teddy Atlas in their post-fight interview that although there were undoubtedly “nerves involved”, he regards her as “hungry to be world champion and put women’s boxing on the map.” Indeed, these have been ambitions she has yearned for since an early age.
Growing up in Houston, Texas, Marlen became fascinated by her father David’s VHS tapes of matches featuring the great Salvador Sanchez, ones he had collected back home in Juarez, Mexico and watched repeatedly and reverently.
The encouragement David exhibited toward the interest shown in boxing by Marlen’s two older brothers, even inviting friends’ children over to fight them in their living room, was unthinkable when it came to his daughter. Dancing was a suitable pastime for a little girl, her parents reasoned. Not boxing.
This thought process ran parallel to that of Rudy Silva, owner of Elite Boxing Gym in Pasadena, a predominately Latin American suburb on the outer perimeter of Houston. He begrudgingly permitted the 11 year-old Esparza to hang around the facility and make use of its equipment but, if he was going to have to tolerate her youthful enthusiasm, he drew the line at personally nurturing her talents. Defying authority figures was second nature to Marlen, however, even if her resistance had gotten her placed in a disciplinary program at school. That very same rebellious spirit, channeled in the correct direction, could and soon would yield bountiful results.
Duly impressed by her fearlessness and dedication, which proved not merely equal to but greater than that of the gym’s boys (who Marlen often bested in sparring), Silva agreed to take her under his wing provided she got her academic act together and understood she would receive no preferential treatment specific to her gender.
Esparza rose to the challenge by achieving straight A’s and getting elected Student Body President, supplementing the intellectual stimulation of competing on Pasadena High School’s debate team with athletic endeavors in track and field as well as swimming, in which she helped guide her squad to a national title. Before she had even worn a cap and gown onstage to receive her diploma, Marlen had won multiple Houston Golden Gloves tournaments and, as a 16 year-old high school junior in 2006, became the youngest ever female to fight her way to a National Championship. This distinction earned her a trip to the World Championships in New Delhi where there was absolutely no shame in bringing home a bronze medal.
Five return visits to the National Championships would result in as many victories and, ultimately, a coveted spot representing the flyweight division on the 2012 Olympic team, traveling to London for the first Summer Games in which female pugilists were allowed admittance.
Endorsement deals with Nike, Coke, and Cover Girl materialized, as did the opportunity to train alongside Maurice ‘Termite’ Watkins, a fellow native of Houston and former super-lightweight world title challenger who had helped an Iraqi flyweight named Najah Ali qualify for an improbable appearance at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. ‘Termite’ equated Marlen’s work ethic and potential to that of Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, and Ray Leonard, expectations Watkins did not view as unrealistic.
Esparza’s semi-final loss to Ren Cancan from the People’s Republic of China was bittersweet in that, as disappointing as her elimination from the tournament was, the timing of Marlen’s departure secured her the bronze medal, the first ever Olympic decoration awarded to an American woman.
Despite a string of subsequent boxing titles at varying levels, the highlight a gold medal at the 2014 World Championships, 2016 would be a rough year for Esparza. A repeat as World Champion was denied by China’s Wang Yuyan, who shut her out 3-0 in the semis, leaving Marlen on the third tier of the medal stand yet again. Worse was yet to come when Virginia Fuchs defeated Esparza in the Olympic Trials, thus closing off her redemptive road to Rio.
While training in Colorado Springs with the 2016 U.S. boxing squad, Marlen crossed paths with Nicola Adams, immediately hitting it off with her former rival from Great Britain. The two had been placed in opposing brackets in the London games, set on a parallel collision course toward the flyweight gold medal match. Esparza, as mentioned earlier, would get bounced out of competition by China’s Ren Cancan who Adams then outpointed 16-7 for the first of what would be two consecutive gold medals for her.
Nicola has been commendably outspoken about her bisexuality but the recent disclosure of her romantic involvement with Marlen came as news to most. The two now train together but spar only occasionally. Never having been paired off as amateurs, Adams has also dismissed the notion that they will compete head-to-head as pros. Not to say that they aren’t naturally fired up both individually and collectively by existing within a competitive atmosphere.
As for who will be the first to attain world championship status, Adams hopes for it to be herself otherwise, she laughed, “I’ll never hear the end of it.” Now that Marlen Esparza has officially entered into the professional record books, Nicola Adams is next up to take the first step on the new leg of her journey in a few short weeks, in Manchester, England on April 8.
Boxing will be far more fun and necessarily diverse for having their unique footprints impressed upon its landscape. Happy trails to these trailblazers.