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.

Esparza grew up in a single-story white-brick house across the street from a vast, marshy bayou in Houston’s Harris County, an industrial area dotted with pawnshops and used-car lots. Her father, David, immigrated from Ciudad Juárez as a teenager, and works as a supervisor at a local welding plant; her mother, Carmen, who was born in El Paso, is an assistant at a dental office.

David is a devout boxing fan. The way some families watch football, the Esparzas—Marlen is the third of four children—would gather around the TV in the living room to watch VHS tapes of the Mexican professional boxer Julio César Chávez. David encouraged his sons, Diego and David Jr., to take up the sport, but resisted when Marlen showed interest. “I’m a Mexican guy,” David told me. “I like the sport, I just never thought it was for women.” But when there was no one else to accompany David Jr., his youngest, to the gym one day and Marlen volunteered, David gave in.

Growing up, Esparza was the most outgoing of her siblings, pulling pranks—a recurring one involved painting her father’s toenails while he slept—and telling jokes at the dinner table. “I always told her she could be an entertainer,” Carmen says. But after she was picked on in grade school for being chubby, her clowning turned into an attention-seeking bad attitude. “I lost weight and turned really mean,” Esparza says. “I had a lot of problems with girls, especially.” In seventh grade, she shoved a classmate’s head into a chalkboard and was transferred to an alternative school. That year was when Esparza, 12, walked into Rudy Silva’s gym.

Silva, who was in his late 20s and training to be a cop, had just opened a space in the nearby area of Pasadena, where he trained some of the local kids. On her first day, Esparza joined the beginners. “Man, this is lame,” Esparza remembers thinking. “I thought I would be boxing.” Nearby, Silva was leaning on the edge of a ring, observing some of the older boys spar. Esparza marched up to him and asked to train in his group. “He looked at me like I was a dog or something,” she says.

In February, I visited Silva at Jefferson Davis High School, where he is assigned by the Houston Police Department. On the wall of Principal Jaime Castañeda’s office, where Silva met me, autographed photos of Esparza climb all the way to the ceiling. “I’m not a boxing fan,” Castañeda told me. “I’m a Rudy-and-Marlen fan.”

At 38, Silva, who boxed as a teenager, is fit and good-looking, with the unemotional demeanor that typically accompanies both his professions. But when asked about the day he met Esparza, his features soften as he tries not to smile. “I said ‘No, no, no, no,’” he recalled. “‘I don’t train females.’” As Silva remembers it, Esparza asked him again the next day and again he said no; but he kept an eye on her. Esparza—“just this feisty, tiny thing,” he said—was clumsily pummeling every bag. When she returned a third time, Silva agreed to show her a few things. “But I’m not going to train you like a girl,” he told her.

At first Silva wanted to make her quit, so he put Esparza in the ring with the older boys and assigned the group impossible drills. In about a week, the boys started quitting, but Esparza remained. That year, he trained her for a local Golden Gloves tournament; she won. Her father was, by then, on board. “She jumped on that girl like it was nobody’s business,” David told me. “She was like a little grasshopper.”

When her parents divorced a few years later and her mother moved out, Esparza chose to stay with her father so she could continue training. She went on to win the Houston Regional Golden Gloves championship eight years in a row and to become, at 16, the youngest female fighter to win the National Championship. “We just started fighting and winning, fighting and winning,” Silva said.

Esparza’s behavior improved, too, and a year after she began boxing she returned to her regular school. Her savvy with the press can be attributed, at least in part, to the debate club, which Silva encouraged her to join once she began receiving media attention. “Because they’ll put a microphone in front of your mouth,” he told her, “and then what are you going to do?” By the time Esparza graduated from Pasadena High School, in 2007, she held a 4.1 grade point average and was class president.

Boxing’s violence, for Esparza, has never been its primary appeal. Her objective isn’t to hurt, but to outwit, outrun, and overpower her opponent more with her mind than with her hands. “And that’s better than being angry,” she said. “It’s never going to go away.”

Minutes before the opening bell of her bout with Cruz, Silva was speaking to Esparza in a low, stern tone. “Try to stay relaxed,” he said. Esparza was sitting on a chair backstage. Her right knee was bouncing rapidly and her gaze was fixed not on Silva, who was crouched down in front of her, but on her feet. “The reason you’re ranked first in the nation for six years straight is because you’re the best,” he said. “Don’t go out there and doubt yourself. Go out there and be confident. Be patient. Remember to box.”

When the announcer called Esparza to the ring, Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter” came over the speakers. The audience cheered. As Esparza emerged from behind the curtain, her blank, anxious expression gave way to one of her self-assured smiles.

At the bell, the two boxers came at each other in a hurry and then stopped, as if they were two people who couldn’t decide on a greeting. Esparza sprang forward first, with a fast left-right combination—known as a “one-two”—which Cruz seemed to anticipate and block easily. They bounced on the balls of their feet and moved clockwise, taking turns reaching for one another but catching only air. Each time one lunged forward, the other moved back. Some time into the first round, it was unclear whether either boxer had scored. The crowd wanted action. “Double jab right here, Tina!” yelled one of Cruz’s fans. “Let’s go!” hollered another. “Stop waiting on her!”

Among the voices, Esparza’s father’s was loudest. David, a plump, easily excitable man of small proportions, had jumped out of his seat at the first bell and was frantically pacing the aisle. “She don’t want to fight you, Marlen!” he shouted. “She scared!” Esparza can always hear her father when she’s in the ring; so can her opponents, which is sort of the point. But ever since a referee stopped one of Esparza’s bouts when David screamed “Finish her!,” he has had to choose his words of encouragement more carefully.

“In my English, I didn’t mean ‘Kill her,’ or nothing,” David says. “I just meant finish the fight. I thought I was helping.” Due to the frequency and cost of travel, Carmen doesn’t attend her daughter’s tournaments, but she’s been saving up to buy a ticket to London, should Esparza make it to the Olympics.

Chasing Cruz around the ring, Esparza delivered a blow with her right hand that sent her opponent backpedaling into the ropes. Esparza quickly buried another combination and followed it up with a series of rapid-fire punches to Cruz’s torso. “Beautiful!,” David screamed. Dodging Cruz’s fast counterpunches, Esparza seemed to strike and duck in a single motion, like an angry bird pecking and darting out of reach. When the bell rang, Esparza led, 3–1.

When Silva reminded Esparza to box, he wasn’t being patronizing. A few years ago, her only strategy in the ring was to win. She would pound her opponents relentlessly, exhausting them and sometimes coming out with a 20-point lead. But in 2009, when the International Olympic Committee added women’s boxing to the 2012 program, Silva began researching international styles and videotaping amateur men’s bouts. Esparza’s reckless offensive style, he realized, wouldn’t stand up at international competitions, where clean, efficient punches and impermeable defense were key to scoring points. (A decade ago, female amateur boxers were almost always trained with the aggressive professional style in mind, since many—not having the option to ever fight on the Olympic stage—eventually went pro.)

Silva decided to train Esparza to be a more mindful fighter, focused less on her strength and more on her opponents’ weaknesses. “I had to get it into Marlen’s head that it didn’t matter if she won by one or 101,” he said. “A win is a win.”

Together, they began reviewing footage of Esparza’s opponents, looking for defensive holes and devising custom fight plans. “I used to just fight, but now everything is mapped out before I get in there,” Esparza told me. “If I say I’m going to box this girl and she starts getting really aggressive, and I get mad and want to start swinging with her, I just step back and say, No, that’s not the game plan. That’s not how I win.

To improve her versatility in the ring, Silva handpicked boys for Esparza to spar with—taller boys, stronger boys, faster boys, left-handed boys—to stand in for every imaginable opponent. Observing Esparza in the ring at international tournaments the following year, Joe Zanders, USA Boxing’s national coach, took note of her new, calculating approach. “She was so knowledgeable about her opponents, that she could actually tell you, ‘I want to go about it like this,’” Zanders says. “Watching her do that, and then actually execute it in the ring—it was really amazing.”

Training for the Olympics also meant that Esparza, who had been accepted to Rice University, would have to delay school. For a while, she tried taking online courses at a community college, but then came her loss to Cruz last spring.

Esparza doesn’t like to talk about that time. Most troubling was the sense of failure she began to feel around Silva and her father. “I’m supposed to be the robot,” she said. “I’m supposed to do it right.” Silva, who saw the loss not as Esparza’s error but as his own, increased her workouts from several hours each day to a full-time commitment, leaving no time for classes.

On a typical day leading up to a competition, Esparza wakes up at about 8 o’clock and drives to a fitness center 45 minutes away, where she works with a strength trainer and swimming coach on her stamina and conditioning. She heads home for lunch, usually chicken breast or pork loin—no sauce, no seasoning—with vegetables. She takes a nap. In the afternoon, after Silva gets off work, she meets him at the boxing gym. There, she spars with the boys for up to nine rounds, jumps rope, performs hand-eye coordination exercises, runs plyometric drills, hits the bags—Silva used to have her wear a painter’s mask while doing so, to approximate high-altitude training—and finishes up with a grueling calisthenic workout modeled after that of Manny Pacquiao, the Filipino pro fighter. Sometimes she throws up and keeps going.

In the evening, after the gym, Esparza runs anywhere from one to four miles, depending on what Silva prescribes. If she has any energy left, she likes to go over to her sister Dalila’s house to see her nieces and nephew. “Or she’ll call and say ‘Can you guys come over? Just for a little?,’” Dalila told me.

In some ways, Esparza is still the child she was when she first walked into Silva’s gym. She is uncomfortable around adults she doesn’t know and prefers the company of kids. Her favorite foods come from Wendy’s and McDonald’s, and she loves Starbucks’ sugary frappuccinos. When she has free time, she likes to watch the Nickelodeon channel; her favorite movie is Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. At 22, she has made only one real decision in her life: to box.

After the Olympics, Esparza plans to quit boxing. She’s not interested in turning pro, which she sees as a lesser, sloppier version of the amateurs and, given the costs of trainers, agents, and promoters, not especially lucrative. Instead, she plans to start college and study to be an anesthesiologist. Someday, she’d like to get married and have two, maybe three, children. Her real life, she’s always told Silva, can begin only after she leaves the sport.

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Irina Aleksander has written for The New York Observer, The New York Times, Elle, and The Paris Review Daily. She lives in Brooklyn.

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