Marlen Esparza wants all the belts…and wants to create a new title
Almost a week has passed since Marlen Esparza won her first world title and the comments are still pouring in on social media about this long-awaited achievement to be added to a long list of firsts by a fighter once considered one of women’s boxing’s “most likely to succeed.”
The wait may have seemed too long but, for Esparza (10-1, 1 knockout), the timing is just right, especially considering the bumpy road she traveled leading to this moment.
“To be honest with you, there was a lot of adversity that I had to overcome,” said Esparza, on a phone interview, a few days after defeating Ibeth Zamora for the WBC flyweight title in El Paso, mentioning several behind-the-scenes issues leading to that fight, not to mention the boos she endured after the decision was announced.
“When that happened, I really didn’t notice,” she said, referring to that adverse reaction from her home state crowd. “I know that when they announced the winner, there were mixed emotions. The booing didn’t start until I started speaking. Obviously I want my fans to be happy. I want people to be happy but I was feeling so accomplished and it was literally the best moment of my entire life, so I didn’t really take it as anything but as part of the sport of boxing. It’s a world title fight. You can’t expect everyone to be happy all the time and since I was the contender, it wasn’t something that necessarily bothered me. I was just happy that I did my job and I believed fully, 100%, that I won that fight. There was no question in my mind.”
Her performance and the crowd’s reaction to it were a far cry from some of her most recent bouts. In November 2019, Esparza had a great effort against Seniesa Estrada, in a memorable bout that captured the attention of the “mainstream boxing” crowd or those fans whom normally wouldn’t take interest in women’s boxing.
On that fateful night, Esparza was faring much better than what the final scorecards would indicate, when a brutal clash of heads opened a ghastly gash on her forehead in the fifth round. As the fight progressed and the blood started covering her face, a forced stoppage was expected but referee Robert Byrd allowed the fight to go on until the end of the ninth round. By then Esparza had surrendered a few precious rounds that ultimately cost her the fight but she earned the respect of a much wider audience.
“Actually not, I think it did the complete opposite,” she replied, when asked whether that fight and the gruesome cut she suffered took something away from her or left any lasting emotional consequences. “I learned a lot in that fight. I learned how to fight with a headbutt (laughs). I learned to make decisions on who I believe in and who I am trusting with my career. I made tons of changes – new coach, new manager, new everything – and it really just made me a better fighter. It left me a lot of questions that I answered correctly and now I am back.”
It is difficult to envision someone actually becoming stronger after so much pain and blood loss, coupled with the bitterness of defeat, but Esparza credits the same heart that drove her to her current position for her ability to handle a horrendous moment.
“[The fight] should have been stopped,” she argued, “because it went too far with the headbutt. But I am a fighter. Same reason I fought Sulem [Urbina] coming off from COVID, same reason why I beat Zamora when no one could, same reason why I came back from one of the biggest headbutts and then still lost that fight. It’s the same reason why I made it through that fight and why I continued to fight because I am better and I am going to win regardless of what’s up against me.”
The Urbina fight was another testimony of Esparza’s resilience. Choosing to jump right back into action against yet another young, unbeaten fighter, she had one of the best nights of her career, dominating her Mexican opponent from bell to bell and scoring a spectacular comeback win. However Esparza does not feel she needs to complete that return to the top with an immediate rematch with any of her latest opponents. At least for now.
“I left a better impression where I am at right now,” she said, indicating that her new belt is all the proof she needs of her complete recovery. “People gave me a lot of respect because they learned that I am not just a pretty face and that I am actually all about fighting. They actually consider me a warrior. But as far as skill sets, I feel that I am 10 times a better fighter now, than I was when I was fighting Seniesa and Sulem. Forget the headbutt; forget all that. I am what I say I am because I came back from something that people were really counting me out and then, on top of that, I went from one hard fight to another hard fight. And I faced the most difficult fighter in my division.”
It is undeniable, however, that Esparza may have felt she had already earned the title with even more blood, sweat and tears before even climbing into the ring to face Zamora. The fact that she was outgunned at various points during the fight and then celebrated too early at the end of the ninth round point to the idea that she so relaxed, she believed there was no way she would lose in front of her home crowd. But she insists she never took Zamora for granted.
“I am the champ now because I beat ‘Godzilla,’” she said, in reference to Zamora, who had a 32-6 (12 KOs) record coming in and a reputation for being a fearless boxer-puncher who had already faced the best fighters in one of the most talent-rich women’s divisions. “I was the one who took on the person that no one wanted to take on and, in order to get to her, I had to take on another person that no one wanted to take on. So to be honest with you, it’s about me and what I want and what belts I want. I want all the belts in my division and if Seniesa doesn’t want to step up in my division, then we can get to that later or whenever it may be.”
With Estrada, the current WBA strawweight titlist, slated to fight for a junior flyweight title and promising to unify all the belts in that division before moving on, Esparza may have to wait for a while, hold her current flyweight belt and perhaps add a few more before a rematch can be arranged. But the scales are the last thing on Esparza’s mind when thinking about this already anticipated rematch.
“It’s not necessarily about weight classes; it’s a grudge match,” she said. “Me and Seniesa, we are a grudge match. So I am going to take my belts in my division and then we’ll make a new belt, you know? Like the “Who’s the Baddest Bitch?” belt. We’ll do that one and we’ll fight for that. And if she actually takes real fights, who knows? We’re going to keep winning; we’re going to cross paths but I am not crossing paths with her for belts. I am crossing paths with her to prove that I am who I say I am.”
Some boxing organizations have already proven that they will go to any lengths to create custom belts for marquee fighters in high-profile bouts (hello, Mr. Sulaiman) but even if they dare to desecrate their shiny leather trinkets with a plaque bearing those four words, they may have to wait a while for the fight to happen.
In fact, when Estrada and Esparza faced each other as two young, undefeated stars with unlimited potential, plenty of fans said the timing wasn’t right for that fight and that it should have been left to marinate a little longer (greetings, Mr. Arum). Throw in the lingering effects of a pandemic that had put most of the sports world on pause and the already slow pace of her career so far and we could be waiting for the next chapter of that rivalry for a long time.
“I’ve always wanted to be as active as I can be,” Esparza retorts. “With COVID, that was nothing that I could control. So 100%, I want to fight for another belt as soon as possible. It was difficult because there were things I had no control over. Seven days before I was going to fight, that’s when COVID officially cancelled everything. So after that, I was on hold. And then I got offered the Sulem fight and I took it right away. So I’ve been as active as I can possibly be.”
Not active enough for a woman who became known for her many “firsts” in her career (the first US female boxer to qualify for the Olympics, the first to earn a medal, first female boxer signed by Golden Boy Promotions, etc.) perhaps.
But ever the optimist, Esparza feels her next “first” is, in fact, already happening.
“I am in it right now. I am in the beginning of it!” she said. “You’re not going to find another female fighter in this era right now in my generation that is going to come back from the craziest fight ever to come back against an extremely difficult person that no one wants to fight, beating a world champion who has almost 40 fights when I had nine and getting knocked down in the first round and come back to win basically every single round after that and then continue on and getting more belts after that. This is what I want to be known for and I am in the beginning of the process.”
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