American Sweetheart

Fierce, cocky, and built for stardom, Marlen Esparza prepares to fight for the gold at this summer’s Olympic debut of women’s boxing.
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Jed Jacobsohn/Sports Illustrated/Getty

One evening in mid-February, Marlen Esparza and her coach, Rudy Silva, arrived at the Northern Quest Resort and Casino in Airway Heights, a small suburb west of Spokane, Washington, and walked to an empty pavilion just past the slot machines. As they crossed the casino’s kaleidoscopic carpeting, projector spotlights danced at their feet, wielded by lighting technicians trying out angles. A vacuum cleaner hummed among rows of chairs surrounding an elevated boxing ring where, in about an hour, Esparza would fight in the semifinals of the women’s Olympic boxing trials.

Unlike most of the other boxers participating in the trials, Esparza, who is from Houston, had declined the accommodations arranged for her by USA Boxing at the casino resort, and had chosen to stay at another hotel at her own expense. Esparza prepares for her matches psychologically as much as she does physically, and this means maintaining distance from her opponents before fights. “If we stay in the same place, that makes me feel like we’re equal, and I don’t want to feel equal,” Esparza told me. “I want to feel superior.”

This feeling, she has made evident to her opponents. “She once said I hit like a 12-year-old girl,” said Alex Love, a 23-year-old boxer from Monroe, Washington, whom Esparza has fought and beaten three times. Esparza’s confidence is not unfounded. At 22 years old, she is the six-time consecutive national flyweight champion. “She has a lot of experience, which she talks about a lot,” said Love, who has been fighting for only three years. “But I have nothing but respect for her—granted, I lost to her, so I have to have nothing but respect.”

After beating Love 22–12 earlier in the week, Esparza was preparing for her bout against Christina Cruz, a boxer from New York City. Esparza once told CNN that Cruz “boxes as a hobby. I box as a lifestyle.”

Words that may seem unkind to her competitors are, to Esparza, basic strategy. To beat her opponents in the ring, she must first convince them—and, more important, herself—that they can’t beat her. As a boxer, this is one of Esparza’s great strengths. “She doesn’t think she can be beat,” says David Avila, a women’s-boxing columnist for The Ring magazine. “The good ones are like that. If you start having doubts, it will show, and the other boxers will run you over.”

Backstage, Esparza had to forfeit her territorial advantage. A small area sectioned off with long black curtains gave her visual, but not audial, privacy from Cruz, who was warming up just feet away. That was one reason for the silence between boxer and trainer as Esparza unpacked her gym bag and Silva unspooled a roll of white tape to wrap her hands and wrists. Another was that this would be the most important fight of Esparza’s career yet. A loss would eliminate her chances to compete in the Olympic debut of women’s boxing in London this summer. A third was that Cruz has proved to be Esparza’s toughest opponent to date. Esparza had fought 63 fights in the United States and lost only two of them: one was when she was 12 years old; the other was to Cruz, last year.

Beginning her warm-up, Esparza rolled her head a few times and hopped up and down, alternating feet. Silva, a Houston police officer with deep-set, serious eyes, pulled her arms behind her back, stretching them one at a time. As Esparza started to shadowbox, she threw varying combinations of jabs and hooks and quickly pivoted her feet across the black floor, angling out and ducking from her invisible opponent. The effect was like watching a rubber ball with fists bounce in taunting circles. Silva, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt, stood with his arms folded across his chest, studying her footwork.

Esparza’s uniform was a pair of long red shorts and a loose red tank top with white trim. Her shoulder-length brown hair, which, when she’s not fighting, Esparza prefers to wear down—she thinks it makes her look prettier—was in cornrows to prevent it from coming loose under her helmet. As an extra measure, she had tied an American-flag bandana around the braids.

Esparza is five feet three inches tall. Her large brown eyes, high cheekbones, and tan complexion make her look more like a TV anchorwoman than someone who gets hit in the face a lot. (In addition to being sponsored by Nike and Coca-Cola, she is the first American amateur boxer to have signed with CoverGirl.) Esparza, who has always tried to avoid what she calls “the boxer body,” has a figure that is more feminine, less bulky, than the rippling musculature of her peers. But recently, she has become self-conscious about her back, which grew wide when she put on six pounds to meet the minimum Olympic weight class of 112.

Before arriving at the casino, Esparza had taken a nap, as she always does before a fight. To wake up, she takes a lukewarm shower; hot water, she has learned, can have a dehydrating effect. Just before she gets out, she turns the dial all the way to cold and shadowboxes for 10 seconds.

Outside the ring, Esparza is unfailingly cheerful. She smiles a lot, showing a neat row of square white teeth. Her voice, which is nasal and somewhat childlike, has a cartoonish pitch mixed with a Texan drawl. But before a bout, she goes quiet and asks that no one speak to her. When Gloria Peek, a coach with USA Boxing, passed her backstage, she gave Esparza’s arm a light tap and kept walking. “Marlen is very intense,” Peek told me. “She puts a lot of pressure on herself.”

The only person Esparza will talk to right before a fight is Silva. “Man, my heart is like ta-da-da-da-da-da,” she said to him at one point, tapping her fingers against her chest. “Like one of them machines they used to use to send messages.”

The headphone dangling from her left ear was playing Christian hymns. She used to listen to Drake and Eminem, but she found that rap music riled her up too much before a fight. When she gets in the ring, she wants to be calm—to think about each punch, and never just throw it.

Esparza picked out a pair of red boxing gloves and Silva laced them along her wrists. As he began to guide her punches with a couple of hand pads, her movements grew more assertive, her responses faster, and each connecting blow was accompanied by a cry that came out sounding like an angry “Ha!”

Out in the audience were Esparza’s father, David, and her pastor, Johnny Brady, who had flown in from Houston to watch the fight. Ten minutes before the bell, Esparza turned to Silva. “We’re going to go pray,” she said.

The bout in which Esparza lost to Cruz, last year, was never supposed to happen. In accordance with a new rule instituted by USA Boxing at the end of 2010, Esparza, as the winner of that year’s national flyweight championship, had automatically secured a spot in a U.S. qualifier for the 2011 Pan American Games. But a group of other boxers, including Cruz, contested the selection procedures. As a result, a box-off between Cruz and Esparza was scheduled for March 2011 in Colorado Springs.

Cruz is a defensive fighter. She runs the ring and hits accurately but infrequently. Knowing this, Esparza planned to stay on top of her and fire nonstop punches. But Cruz, who is two inches taller, dodged Esparza’s blows and countered with a precise right hook. Cruz won 10–7, dealing Esparza her first loss in nine years.

“It sounds mean, but for some of the other girls, they’re used to losing,” Silva told me. “But for Marlen, she took it real hard.”

Back in Houston, Silva doubled Esparza’s workout routine. But her confidence, her unwavering belief that she would always win, was bruised. She sought help from a sports psychiatrist, who thought she was under too much pressure and prescribed Paxil, an antidepressant. (She declined the prescription.) Around the same time, Esparza, who grew up Catholic, began attending Brady’s nondenominational church with more regularity.

A few months later, at the USA Boxing 2011 National Championships, Esparza faced Cruz again. This time, Esparza won, 9–3, ultimately securing her spot in the Olympic trials and maintaining her national title. Still, for Esparza, entering the ring with Cruz is a bit like peering over a ski slope where she’s taken a particularly ugly fall. She knows that she has beaten Cruz before and that she can beat her again, but still, her self-doubt lingers—and that, more than the sight of Cruz, frightens her. Before Esparza climbed into the ring in Spokane, her pastor, Brady, said a prayer for her: “Be with her, Lord, as You were with David when he beat Goliath.”

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