When he was inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, alongside his one-time rival Felix Trinidad as a member of the Class of 2014, Oscar De La Hoya concluded his speech with a rousing recitation of Golden Boy Promotions’ mission statement: “We can, will, and must make boxing the crown jewel of the sporting world again.”
De La Hoya vowed to the legends seated on the shaded dais as well as the media and VIPs seated under the canopy and hundreds of fans standing beneath the intense summer sun, myself among them. “We must put aside the egos that have damaged our brand and sullied our reputations.”
The hopeless romantic and pragmatic realist are at constant war within me and, as much as I wanted to believe the litany of pleasantries being laid out that Sunday afternoon in June, I knew even as I was hearing them spoken that Oscar’s pledges were most likely intended to have no more than a mesmerizing effect upon his listeners. I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt although, instinctually, I knew better.
Sure enough, like any self-proclaimed savior distributing opiates to the masses, De La Hoya has proven himself to be quite handy with propaganda tools, subtly manipulating the truth this way or that at any given opportunity (lefty loosey, righty tighty) or else taking a pen and pair of scissors to the history books to edit and rewrite versions of actual events when the need arises.
Case in point, Golden Boy Promotions issued a press release on April 27 to announce Marlen Esparza’s inclusion on the card headlined by the Canelo Alvarez/Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. catch-weight grudge match on Cinco de Mayo weekend at the T-Mobile Arena just off the Vegas strip. The statement read exactly like this: “Making history as the first female in boxing to fight three-minute rounds as a professional, former US 2012 Olympic Bronze Medalist Marlen Esparza (1-0) of Houston, TX will face Samantha Salazar (2-3-1) of Dallas, TX for a four round flyweight bout in a Texan turf war battle.”
There is a glaring problem with this alleged making of history, being that it requires only a rudimentary knowledge of boxing (or a quick Google search) to contradict and correct its authenticity. Female prizefighting, prior to the 1990s, was largely unregulated if not outright illegal. Record keeping from earlier decades was spotty at best and most accounts written then are notoriously unreliable today. What is not a matter of pure conjecture, however, is that women boxers have sporadically engaged in bouts consisting of three-minute rounds at least as far back as the 1950s when the likes of ‘The Mighty Atom of the Ring’ Barbara Buttrick, Joann Hagen, and Phyllis Kugler were blazing fresh trails for subsequent explorers to follow. This has been confirmed by Bob Holloway, a good friend of Joann Hagen who was the only woman to defeat the legendary Barbara Buttrick in 32 career fights.
Golden Boy doubled down on its claim in a press release this past week that alerted fans to the fact that Esparza’s contest against Samantha Salazar would be featured on a free-view event to be streamed live on HBO Boxing’s YouTube channel starting at 7 pm EST, preceding by two hours the main pay-per-view telecast. Esparza obviously cannot be blamed for boasts made by her promoter which are either willfully ignorant or deliberately misleading but Marlen, for what it’s worth, did nothing to apply the brakes on De La Hoya’s agitprop train steaming towards Sin City.
“It’s great to make history being the first woman in Las Vegas to do three-minute rounds,” Esparza told ESPN’s Dan Rafael, putting a different but still inaccurate spin on things. “I know it’s been done elsewhere, but tonight it feels really special doing it in this fight.” Rafael, caught up in the hype and oblivious to any inconsistencies, ran with the story. Having been outpointed in her final professional outing by fellow flyweight Paola Ortiz in a 2015 bout held in Brooklyn over six 3-minute rounds, former New York Golden Gloves Champion Susan Reno was quick to rally the troops around the battle flag on social media. So too did author Malissa Smith who literally wrote the book on female prizefighting (A History of Women’s Boxing, Roman & Littlefield 2014), causing ESPN to swap out some editorial semantics in Rafael’s piece.
Las Vegas resident and 19-year ring veteran Layla McCarter would be justified in taking personal exception to this egregious oversight. After McCarter strenuously lobbied the Nevada State Athletic Commission, then-director Keith Kizer approved the provision for female fighters to participate in bouts with rounds of three-minute duration in 2006, conditional upon the agreement of both parties. Layla battled Belinda Laracuente over 10 three-minute long rounds on November 17, 2006 and would go on to face off against Donna Biggers, Melissa Hernandez (twice), Angelica Martinez, Cindy Serrano, Dominga Olivo, and Loli Munoz under similar circumstances over the next two years with only the total allotted number of rounds varying from fight to fight.
Additionally, Marlen Esparza has been touted as the first woman to sign with Golden Boy Promotions since inking a deal with De La Hoya last December in the wake of having failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro. Shame on me for not fact-checking Oscar’s assertion and reporting it as true. But at least I was far from alone. It took the critical eye and untiring dedication to preserving the history of women’s boxing of Sue ‘Tiger Lilly’ Fox, former prizefighter and current administrator of the WBAN website, to demythologize De La Hoya’s little fairy tale.
One-time GBU Super-Featherweight World Champion Rhonda Luna has suffered the indignity of being expunged from the Golden Boy archives. This is adding insult to injury as Luna’s first slight at the hands of De La Hoya came when her six-fight contract with Golden Boy expired without the benefit of an extension. “I have always been here,” Luna expressed regrettably in 2010. “They just looked right past me.”
Sadly, that trend continues to this day. Rhonda retired in 2013 with little fanfare and a 17-4-2 record which includes a hard-fought ten-round draw with Cindy Serrano, a close split decision loss to Kelsey Jeffries, and her world title victory over Ela Nunez.
With that bit of business cleared up, what about last night’s fight? Marlen Esparza acquitted herself well, albeit before a nearly empty T-Mobile Arena, appearing more relaxed and confident than in her pro debut six weeks ago. With far more pop to her punches this time out, Esparza forced Samantha Salazar into a mostly defensive retreat behind a left jab which set up hard overhand rights. Beginning by bouncing on her toes, Marlen dug in and added leverage by sitting down on her punches as the fight progressed. Esparza’s fast-handed offense was aided by a concentrated effort in putting in work to Salazar’s body. This supplemented a sound defense as she slipped or picked off the majority of shots thrown by a more active and aggressive Samantha in the second round.
Salazar had some success with a few straight rights that penetrated Marlen’s guard but got countered by a well-timed right-hand check hook thrown by Esparza over the top of her own left jab in round three. Both women were visibly winded by the fourth and final round and Esparza carelessly walked forward into a Salazar left hook but came out on the right side of the verdict, all three judges ruling unanimously in her favor with identical 40-36 scorecards. The ring announcer was evidently asked to toe the company line and wrongfully acknowledged Esparza and Salazar as contributors to “making history”.
I wish Samantha and Marlen well on their respective journeys, enduring and fruitful may they be. None of this is pointed out to diminish their accomplishments or to unnecessarily beat up on Oscar De La Hoya. I simply feel compelled to do my part in holding Esparza and De La Hoya accountable and urge them, all members of the fight fraternity really, whether competitors or observers, to respect the history of the sport enough to learn about and acknowledge the significant roles played by their progenitors and peers. And to give credit where credit is due.