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.

One reason that Esparza’s opponents were able to successfully challenge USA Boxing’s policies is that amateur women’s boxing is a relatively young sport with still-developing guidelines. Historians believe that women have been participating in professional boxing in the U.S. since at least 1876, when The New York Times ran an article about a winner of a women’s boxing match who collected $200 and a silver butter dish as her prize. Yet women were barred from competing in amateur boxing—also known as Olympic-style boxing—as recently as 20 years ago.

Amateur boxing, for both men and women, differs from professional boxing in scoring and style. Unlike the televised pro prizefights, in which boxers pound each other in search of a knockout punch, amateur fighters win on the basis of a strict point system, relying on clean blows to the head or body during four two-minute rounds for women and three three-minute rounds for men. They wear helmets. The strength behind a single punch is less important than precision and speed in the ring; the resulting matches are less sensational and more focused on technique.

Women’s professional bouts have been televised since the 1950s, leading to the rise of “the Daughters”—Laila Ali (daughter of Muhammad), J’Marie Moore (Archie), Freeda Foreman (George), and Jacqui Frazier-Lyde (Joe)—in the ’90s and early 2000s. But because women’s amateur fights are almost never broadcast on TV, the boxers (and the sport) have so far gained little national recognition. Women were not allowed to fight in amateur competitions until 1993, when a 16-year-old named Dallas Malloy sued U.S. Amateur Boxing, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union, after learning that she could train but not compete.

“I got asked ‘Why would a pretty girl like you want to box?,’” Malloy, now 35, recalled when I reached her at her home, in Los Angeles. “I think one time I said, ‘If I was ugly, would it be okay?’”

Malloy won her suit, and that fall, in October 1993, she beat Heather Poyner in the first amateur women’s boxing match. (She left the sport soon after to pursue an acting career, appearing as herself in Jerry Maguire and as a vampire from Dallas on HBO’s True Blood.)

The reasons for barring women from the sport were not entirely clear. Some officials worried they wouldn’t have enough participants to stage national competitions. Others claimed health concerns. As women began to compete, in the mid-’90s, USA Boxing required that they wear breast protectors, based on the fear—and lacking the medical research to suggest otherwise—that getting hit in the chest could cause breast cancer or the inability to breast-feed. The gladiator-style plastic shields were to be inserted beneath a sports bra or tank top. Some were rigidly molded, with an individual cup for each breast.

“I don’t know who they expected to fill these,” says Christy Halbert, a former boxer and the chair of USA Boxing’s women’s task force. “Athletic women tend to have much less body fat, so they don’t usually have large breasts, but these always had very ample bosoms.”

The contraptions proved more harmful than protective, bruising and lacerating the boxers as they struggled to throw punches with cumbersome disks strapped to their chests. “As a boxer, you keep your elbows in—that’s your defense,” Malloy told me. “It completely hindered that.”

After many women refused to wear the protectors, USA Boxing eventually made them optional. A 2009 medical report published by the International Boxing Association found not only that breast cancer was not a risk of the sport, but that women’s boxing was in fact safer than men’s, because of female athletes’ flexible necks and lesser musculature.

Concern about low participation also turned out to be unfounded. Between 1995 and 2005, USA Boxing’s female membership more than tripled, from 730 to 2,400 boxers. Three years ago, when the International Olympic Committee’s executive board voted to include women’s boxing in the 2012 Games, it was the only new event added to the summer program. (Baseball, karate, roller sports, softball, and squash were rejected for both sexes.) This summer will mark not only the sport’s Olympic debut, but also its introduction to American viewers, most of whom will be watching amateur women’s boxing for the first time.

Though men will have 10 Olympic titles to compete for, women have been allotted only three: flyweight, at 106 to 112 pounds; lightweight, at 123 to 132 pounds; and middleweight, at 152 to 165 pounds. For those old enough to remember the breast protectors, a particularly sore subject is the International Boxing Association’s suggestion that female boxers wear skirts in the ring so that spectators can distinguish them from the men. Though a recent vote has ruled the skirts optional, many boxers still feel pressured to wear them.

“It’s like saying ‘It’s optional, but we want you to do this,’” Esparza told me, and then joked, “I’m going to ask them if I can do it shorter. You want a skirt? I’ll give you a skirt.”

On the morning of Esparza’s bout against Cruz in Airway Heights, the boxers who would be fighting that evening gathered in a small, carpeted room off the hotel lobby to be weighed. The sun had barely risen, and most of the women sat around the waiting area in sweats, socks, and athletic sandals, rubbing their eyes. Esparza arrived with Silva. Dressed in black sweatpants, a white hoodie, and a red beanie pulled low over her eyebrows, she took a seat a few rows behind Cruz, next to the lightweight fighter Queen Underwood.

Esparza doesn’t have many friends among the other boxers, but Underwood is one of them. Like Esparza, she has been the national champion in her weight class for several consecutive years, and the two tend to keep to themselves. “I don’t think a lot of the other girls are too friendly on us, because they want to beat us,” Underwood told me. “So we stick tight.” Among her competitors, Esparza has a reputation for being a bit arrogant. This is due, in part, to her teasing of them in the press, and also to her many high-profile endorsements and the disproportionate amount of media attention she receives. (She is the only amateur female boxer known to employ a publicist.)

When Cruz and Esparza were called up together for their physicals, they stood inches apart, actively avoiding eye contact. Next to Esparza, Cruz, who is 29 and works as a secretary, looks awkward, almost mousy. She has long, straight hair that hangs over her sinewy frame, and she speaks in short, wary sentences. Her trainer, Marcos Suarez, who is said to also be her boyfriend, hadn’t accompanied her to the trials. Every time I saw Cruz, she was by herself.

Many female boxers have troubled backgrounds. Underwood has spoken publicly about being sexually abused by her father; Tyrieshia Douglas, a fighter in Esparza’s weight class, told me that she grew up in more foster homes than she’s able to count; Cruz, whose mother was in prison for most of Cruz’s childhood, was raised by her grandparents. Though Esparza’s parents are divorced, her upbringing was relatively stable, which she thinks may explain why some members of the press have favored her underdog opponents.

“So I have to feel guilty because I came from a good home? Or I have to feel guilty because my parents aren’t drug addicts?” she says. “I guess I’m in a poor-person sport. Not like I’m rich or anything, but if I was in gymnastics or, like, tennis, no one would think it was weird that I had a lot of support.”

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