The United States’ first female Olympic medalist in boxing, Marlen Esparza, will step into the ring on Thursday in her first professional fight amidst renewed interest in women’s boxing. The 27-year-old is the first female boxer to be signed up by Golden Boy Promotions, fueling the flame in women’s boxing sparked by fellow Olympian Claressa Shields who turned pro last year.
Esparza joins the pro ranks under a three-year contract with Golden Boy, which reportedly includes a provision that all her fights will be televised. This provision is critical not just in showcasing Esparza but women’s boxing, which has lagged behind men’s boxing in opportunity and payoff.
Golden Boy founder Oscar de la Hoya has committed to supporting her, noting that Golden Boy prides itself “on developing fighters and transforming them into the best of the best. We look forward to doing the same with Marlen.”
With a bronze medal in the flyweight division at the 2012 London Olympics, a 77-12-1 amateur record, numerous commercial endorsements, and an active media presence, Esparza is not a hard sell for Golden Boy.
“I am a beast. I do fight and I fight well. And I haven’t been able to showcase my talent and when I get that chance on March 23rd, I’m gonna do it. I want people to be like, dang,” Esparza said in an interview with Khou.com Houston aired on March 12.
Esparza will fight Rachel Sazoff (0-2-0) in a four-round bout at the Fantasy Spring Casino in Indio, California, which will air on ESPN. Sazoff from New Jersey, has yet to be prove herself as a boxer although she has had some success in MMA.
But Esparza’s path to pro boxing has not been smooth. She earlier courted controversy when she criticized pro boxing, and on March 23, the irony will not be lost to many who have heard her speak against going pro.
“I don’t want to go professional because the competitions are actually harder in the amateurs… Girls with the most experience are amateurs. Professional boxing is more about being flashy. It’s just boxing pumped up times 10,” she said in a video by Makers: Women Who Make America in 2012. A tweet in 2013 that she hasn’t “found a pro girl that I can respect” sparked a Twitter exchange with pro boxer Kaleisha West.
In November 2015, she lost to Virginia Fuchs in the Olympic trials, costing her a spot in the 2016 Rio Olympics. She had considered retiring after the Olympics but an offer by Golden Boy was too difficult to resist. “You don’t know what your house is worth until you put it on the market,” she said. On October 31, 2016, she announced her decision to go pro via her Twitter account, and the Golden Boy machinery has been rolling since then.
Esparza has said she admired Dutch boxer Lucia Rijker for being “serious” about the sport. “You could tell she respected herself as a fighter, not a female fighter.” She also cites Mexican fighter Salvador Sanchez as a big influence on the way she fights. “He was like moving and slipping and boxing, and it was like an awakening.” She has also cited Julio Cesar Chavez and Sugar Ray Leonard as her two other favorite boxers.
Esparza faces high expectations and the pressure to live up to the promotion will be high. Nonetheless, her well-supported pro-debut sends yet another signal that women’s boxing may finally be getting the respect that it deserves.