When Marlen Esparza was young, about 5 or 6 years old and growing up in Houston, she watched boxing on television, often VHS tapes of Julio Cesar Chavez, the Mexican fighter who won six titles in three weight classes in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Her father, David, who immigrated to the United States was a supervisor at a welding plant and was a huge fan of the sport.
Esparza recalls accompanying her father as he dropped her brothers off at Houston' Elite Boxing Gym where Rudy Silva, then training to become a police officer, took only boys under his wing. “My brothers didn’t like [boxing]. But I always wanted to try it so one time I did.”
She was about 12 the first time she convinced her father to let her go, but Silva needed convincing as well. After first refusing to train her because she was a girl, Silva then relented, but worked her hard, hoping she would quit. Esparza just worked even harder back, winning a local Golden Gloves tournament that first year.
She quickly fell in love with the sport she had been longed to compete in for years. "My whole life and everything about it has been about boxing," she says, and she's not exaggerating. She fell so deeply in love that she has worked out two or three times a day, year after year, preparing for fight after fight, passing up a chance to attend Rice University so she could dedicate herself to a sport that has, until recently, remained out of the limelight.
While reports of staged women fights go back as far as 1720 in London, a women's national championship in the United States has only been contested since 1997. Dallas Malloy, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, sued U.S. Amateur Boxing in 1993 and won the right to the first amateur fight, defeating Heather Poyner that October. Women's professional boxing burned bright in the mid-1990s with the ascension of Christy Martin's career (and Sports Illustrated cover story) and the bouts between "the Daughters:" Laila Ali and Jacqui Frazier, scions of the heavyweight greats Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. In 2001, they fought before 8,000 people in upstate New York.
This weekend, Esparza fights for Team U.S.A. in the first Summer Olympics where women’s boxing is an official sport. Esparza, who turned 23 on the first Sunday of the Games, is currently ranked sixth in the world, and will compete this Sunday, August 5.
At 5’3’, Esparza is a flyweight (112 pounds). She's also the new look of boxing, at least international boxing, where skills mean more than brawn. Amateur international boxing is not about battering an opponent, but outmaneuvering her during four, two-minute rounds. Boxers earn points for clean blows to their opponent’s head or upper body; power doesn't matter. If three of the five judges hit electronic buttons within a second of each other after a punch is delivered, the boxer earns a point.
Esparza has called the style "noodle arms" and says it's like fighting an octopus. It's as much cerebral as physical. She scouts her opponents, changing her style when necessary. Every fight is her against the world. "I fell in love with boxing because I like getting in the ring and being smarter than my opponent," she says. "When I win, it's not just about beating my opponent, but it is also about beating the symbol of them and everything they stand for."
But years before she mastered her brainy style, Esparza was a wild child. In the year before she began training with Silva, she was sent to an alternative school after behaving belligerently in class. "When I started dedicating myself to the gym and boxing, my trainer said that I also had to do things right at school and work through things with my behavior," she says. "When I started winning in boxing, everything got easier with my behavior. My grades got better. It was tough at home when my parents got divorced, but boxing helped me get through it."