Best I Faced: Mariana Juarez
In a country that gave birth to some of the most extraordinary fighters in history, making a name for oneself requires a ton of talent, but it also requires a special kind of courage and determination to stand out against such great competition.
Mariana Juarez checks all those boxes, and more.
As one of Mexico’s female boxing pioneers, she is accustomed to seeing her accomplishments preceded by the word “the first.” From participating (and losing) in the first-ever official card featuring female fighters in Mexico City (after only one month of boxing training) to being the first female fighter to grace the cover and the centerfold of an issue of Playboy, “La Barbie” continues collecting firsts and highs and titles as she extends her already legendary ring run beyond anything she had imagined as a bullied child growing up in a rough Mexico City ‘hood.
This past Friday, May 22, Juarez defeated Alejandra Soto in four rounds to become the first woman to reach 55 wins, thus becoming the winningest female fighter of all time (surpassing Regina Halmich and her legendary 54-1-1 run, at least in the W column).
Which leads to another first: the one you are reading right now, as Juarez becomes the first-ever female boxer to be featured in The Ring’s Best I Faced series.
“I started practicing combat sports as a matter of personal defense, but as I learned more about boxing and its discipline, and what I felt when I saw other kids putting on their gloves and fighting and then doing it myself, I fell in love with boxing completely,” said Juarez in a telephone interview. “I made it a part of my life. It’s been 23 years since I stepped into a boxing gym for the first time. I am very happy. It hasn’t been easy because there were no other women in the gym, but doing it with passion and love for the sport is what allowed me to achieve such great challenges.”
Before becoming interested in boxing, and growing up in the Santa Ursula neighborhood in Mexico City, Juarez harbored dreams of becoming a professional soccer player… in an all-male team, an impossible dream spurred by a medal she received as a 5-year old for being the only girl playing soccer in an otherwise all-male regional league.
Although her love of soccer never died (she grew up only blocks away from the mythical Aztec Stadium, and even today she coaches a soccer team in her spare time), Juarez found in boxing a much more open path forward, a completely blank slate in which she could blaze her own path and forge her own destiny.
Even by her own account, she got considerably more than what she bargained for.
“I never imagined this,” said Juarez, in reference to her new record. “I just wanted to be a world champion, I didn’t know how many fights I would have to do to make it happen. It wasn’t easy, but I never imagined that I would be the woman with the most wins ever in professional women’s boxing. I am very happy now to learn that all the sacrifices I’ve [made] were worthwhile, that they always lead to being better every day. I vow to continue fighting to meet more challenges and reach more goals.”
After losing two of her first three bouts, and after finding herself running around a turnstile with a group of four or five other ladies fighting against each other for lack of better options, Juarez decided to try her luck in the U.S. where she “landed with a pair of gloves, a head guard and 100 dollars” in her pocket, by her own account.
That was, however, the beginning of a chapter that would take her, six years into her career, to South Korea for her first world title fight.
“At the beginning they were chanting her name, but as the fight progressed they started chanting ‘Juarez, Juarez’ and at the end of the fight they recognized that I was superior,” said the 41-year-old, describing her first title-winning performance against In-Young Lee in Yongin, South Korea. “I had a knot in my throat, hearing the national anthem there, and fulfilling my dream and becoming a world champ in a different country was incredible.”
The “less than credible” things kept rolling in, sometimes for the wrong reasons.
“One of my most difficult fights was in China, against a North Korean fighter, right on the border with North Korea,” reminisces Juarez, remembering her first title-losing effort a few hundred miles away from where she obtained that same belt, while attempting to defend it for the first time. “It was full of North Korean military personnel, in a very hostile environment where one couldn’t even talk. It was weird because I had my opponent cornered and I was punishing her, and then the referee intervened to protect her, and when I went to a neutral corner thinking they were going to give her a count they ended up raising her hand and stopping the fight in her favor.
“They took one hour to explain to me what had happened. It was difficult for me, they applied the rules as they wanted, and you’re not only fighting your opponent but also the whole situation. It was very sad, but it taught me to be more prepared and to learn more about where I was going to fight.”
The highlights of her 23-year career are far too many to mention, but her best moments include her WBC female flyweight title win over Italy’s previously unbeaten (amateur or pro) Simona Galassi in 2011 followed by seven successful defenses, her two-fight series against Japan’s power-punching Ryo Togo (a hasty stoppage in the first round followed by a decision win), and her wars against great fighters such as Ava Knight, Daniela Bermudez, Naoko Fujioka, Tenkai Tsunami, Susie Ramadan and many more.
As with any other fighter, injustices and heartbreak did not elude Juarez. She got pregnant in Denver just as her husband was deported back to Mexico. She followed him back home, penniless. She suffered violence at home and separated from her daughter’s dad, being left alone to start all over again from scratch – and with another mouth to feed. But as is always the case, pain only made her stronger and more conscious about the way her fellow women were suffering the same situations everywhere.
“I would like to help other women so that people can value their efforts, and a better pay goes a long way in that sense,” she says, echoing a common theme in women’s boxing nowadays. “I think women are being underappreciated in the work we are doing, and what we get paid is ridiculous compared to what other men get paid.”
As the oldest of five siblings in a household affected by drugs and poverty, and later as a single mom with a lofty goal in her career, Juarez had to deal with a ton of non-boxing situations that made her accomplishments even more admirable. But quitting was never an option, even in the darkest of times.
“Outside the ring, my most difficult situation was having to fight while my mom was at the hospital with cancer. She was very ill, and we knew it was only a matter of days for her, and it was very difficult to train and get in the ring instead of spending time with my mom,” said Juarez, who is now very active on social media and starting a career as a journalist/ interviewer/ talk-show host for her numerous online followers, as she continues in her trailblazing boxing career towards goals that she can now identify more clearly than in her earlier days.
“My plan is to become champion in the junior featherweight division, so I am working very hard for that,” said Juarez. “But before that I want to have a rematch with Yulihan Luna, so that I can regain my title and then move on to the junior featherweight division,” she concludes, in reference to her October 31, 2020 loss to the fighter that she would later accuse of loading her gloves in that fight (the WBC found no evidence of tampering, and Juarez later recanted her accusation).
The future legend graciously took time to make a list for The Ring with the best she faced in several key categories:
Ava Knight was a very intelligent fighter, very mobile with a style similar to mine but more aggressive.
Ryo Togo, since she stopped me in the first round and she was one of the strongest I faced in the ring
BEST BOXING SKILLS
Simona Galassi was a fighter that I knew would be a challenge in the ring. We had a flyweight title fight, and she was unbeaten as an amateur and as a pro, and she was also a southpaw with a lot of technique and mobility. I knew she was very intelligent in the ring but we worked very hard in the ring and got the win.
Most wins for a female boxer – all time (active ones in red)
Mariana Juarez (55-10-4), Regina Halmich (54-1-1), Zulina Munoz (53-3-2), (Marcela Acuña 49-7-2), Christy Martin (49-7-3), Mia St. John (49-14-2), Delfine Persoon (44-3), Layla McCarter (44-13-5), Jelena Mrdjenovich (41-11-2), Kelsey Jeffries (41-11-3), Amanda Serrano (40-1-1), Yazmin Rivas (40-10-1).
Juarez vs Soto (55th victory): VIDEO
Juarez vs Togo I: VIDEO
Juarez documentary (Spanish): VIDEO