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.

As the bell announced the second round, Esparza and Cruz skipped toward one another with more purpose. Whereas Cruz likes to draw her opponents out and score her points defensively, Esparza prefers to come forward. But the strategy she and Silva had devised for beating Cruz consisted of gaining a lead in the first round and then pulling back, placing the offensive burden on Cruz. When I spoke with Cruz the night before the bout, she seemed to anticipate this tactic. “I know she ain’t going to run at me like she used to,” she said. “It’s going to be more like a chess match.”

At the start of the round, Cruz took the center of the ring, seemingly accepting the role of aggressor. Esparza was ducking Cruz’s jabs, keeping her hands so high that her gloves obstructed her face. Cruz switched up her combinations, throwing an uppercut and an overhand right that broke through Esparza’s defense. Even in the more passive role, Esparza countered every one of Cruz’s advances, shooting forward each time Cruz’s fist withdrew. At the ring of the bell, Cruz had added two points and Esparza three, for an overall score of 6–3 Esparza.

In the corner, Silva pulled out a stool for Esparza and tipped a trickle of bottled water into her mouth. Kneeling in front of her, he reminded her to be patient. “Don’t force it,” he said. “We’re up.”

Unlike other boxers, who often question their coaches’ corner commands, Esparza trusts Silva’s instincts more than her own. “If he tells me spin three times and hit her in the face, I’ll spin three times and hit her in the face,” she told me. As a constant presence in her life for more than 10 years, Silva has played the role not only of coach, but also of overprotective father, nagging older brother, and closest friend. Now that Esparza is an adult, some people wonder whether Silva, who looks younger than his age, might also be her boyfriend. And though he is not—he’s married and has three children—they share the intimacy of two people who have grown extraordinarily dependent on one another over time.

When Esparza was a teenager, she would ask Silva’s permission to go out on weekends and see her friends. He allowed her to attend her high-school prom but waited up with her father in the living room. “Marlen’s dad was the laid-back dad,” said Kasandra Hernandez, the only high-school friend Esparza has stayed close with. “But Rudy was, like, her strict dad.”

Because Esparza’s parents had never talked to her about boys, Silva took it upon himself to have a series of what he called “father talks” with her. “He told me in a nice way, ‘Don’t be a slut,’ basically,” Esparza recalled. “He said, ‘I know young girls and I know fast girls, and you don’t need to be like that.’”

Esparza doesn’t have a boyfriend, but guys she’s dated in the past have felt uncomfortable about her relationship with Silva. Some asked why she always had to abide by his rules; others wondered whether Silva might be in love with her. “But it has nothing to do with love,” Esparza said. “It’s about the commitment we have to boxing. Normal people who have regular lives and no boundaries just can’t understand it.” According to Silva, his wife doesn’t object to the amount of time he devotes to his boxer. (Esparza: “I don’t think she likes me.”)

A few days after the Spokane tournament, Silva showed me around his gym, which he had recently moved into a small, carpeted space adjacent to Pastor Brady’s Houston church. A collage of photos taped to one wall—a shrine of sorts for the younger fighters to admire—is almost exclusively dedicated to Esparza. But in a few of the pictures, Silva stands next to Sylvia Villalpando, a female boxer he once coached, who has since left the sport.

“Marlen probably wants me to take that picture down,” Silva said. The two women competed for his time and attention, Silva explained, and Esparza in particular seemed to grow resentful. “I think she felt like, ‘Hey, this girl just came in here. I’m your star,’” he said.

Another coach at the gym, a pro boxer turned pastor called Termite (the moniker is inspired by his family’s pest-control business), told me that Esparza feels an instant rivalry with any female fighter who walks into the gym. “She’ll get the girl’s attention and let her know she’s the boss,” Termite said. “If you’re in the ring with Marlen and you’re a female, you’re probably going to get your butt whupped.”

Silva and Esparza bicker often, but the worst fight they’ve ever had occurred last year, when Esparza, for the first and only time in her career, considered leaving Silva for another coach. Neither can recall—or will say—how the dispute began, but for weeks they didn’t speak. They reunited only at the urging of Esparza’s father. “I told her, ‘Those other guys don’t know you like Rudy,’” David said. “‘If you’re going to finish your career and make it to the Olympics, you have to do it with Rudy.’” In retrospect, Esparza doubts she could have ever left Silva, even if she wanted to.

When I asked Silva how knowing Esparza has changed his life, he stumbled over his words for a few minutes. “Honestly, without me, maybe there wouldn’t be no her,” he finally said. “But without her, maybe there wouldn’t be no me.”

At the third bell, Cruz sprang toward Esparza with newfound energy. Esparza was trying to reclaim the offensive position at the center of the ring, but Cruz refused to budge, driving Esparza to the periphery and flicking her right fist again and again. When Cruz scored, Esparza responded with a series of body jabs, but she seemed to barely penetrate Cruz’s defense. Soon enough, Cruz scored again, this time with a mighty hook that sent Esparza’s head ricocheting. Cruz’s message was clear: the first two rounds might as well have been her warm-up; now she had decided to win. Cruz scored once more before the bell, winning the round 4–3 and closing the gap to just two points.

After a short break, the referee lifted his hand and the boxers surged into each other for the final round. In a matter of seconds, Cruz landed two hooks. Esparza, flustered, lowered her hands, and Cruz struck again with a hook and a quick right hand. As Cruz continued to apply pressure, Christy Halbert, who was narrating the bout for a Webcast, observed that Esparza appeared to be slipping. From the corner, Silva shouted, “Keep your hands up!”

When Esparza is in the ring, the cacophony of thoughts that torment her before a fight goes silent. Suddenly aware of every muscle in her body, she feels as if she has complete command not only of her own movements but of her opponent’s. She knows what’s coming and how she will respond to it, as though she is taking a test to which she already knows the answers. There is not a moment in her life when she feels happier, or more certain of herself. “I feel like I can do anything I want when I’m in there, when I want to do it,” she says. “Like I’m not even the same person.”

I once asked Esparza if that other person—the one she is outside the ring—lacks control. She nodded. “I’m told what to do and when to do it,” she said. “Boxing controls me, and I don’t control anything. I’m a boxer and I box and that’s all I can do.”

Now, in the ring with her biggest rival, that is what she did. Esparza raised her hands and took a wider stance, setting her feet to hit hard. After landing a powerful right fist, she peeled away before Cruz could counter. Esparza regained her rhythm hit by hit, coming at Cruz harder, stronger, faster than she had when she first entered the ring. She then buried a combination of hooks and jabs with such force that Cruz inexplicably turned her back to her opponent, prompting a warning from the ref. Esparza’s father clutched his head in his hands. “Ooh-ya-ya! Ooh-ya-ya!” he yelled. “All night long, Marlen, all night long! Just like that!”

Cruz was swiveling furiously and swinging in vain. Esparza delivered clean, beautiful hits. She flicked one combination, then another. And before Cruz could get her, she was gone.

When the final bell rang, Esparza had won the bout, 13–10. Two days later, when she beat 23-year-old Tyrieshia Douglas in the finals, Esparza became the flyweight champion of the U.S. Olympic trials.

The tournament ended on a Saturday in late February, and that Monday Esparza was welcomed back to Houston with a surprise party. At her church, just off Interstate 10, a mixed crowd of parishioners, boxers, trainers, and kids gathered around two store-bought cakes in a room with linoleum floors and red, white, and blue balloons bobbing beneath a low ceiling. When Termite led Esparza and Silva inside, everyone yelled “Surprise!” and applauded. Esparza summoned one of her wide, friendly smiles, but she looked tired. The back of her navy-blue Nike training shirt said Team Esparza; the front said Beast.

Some people snapped pictures on their cellphones; others asked her to autograph newspaper clippings. A little boy handed her a bouquet of purple flowers. A woman from the congregation presented her with a gift of a gold pendant in the shape of a fish, a nod to her first name.

A second party was waiting for Esparza at her house, where a local news van was parked in the muddy driveway and a cameraman roamed the kitchen. In the large, carpeted living room, Carmen was watching Dalila’s kids. David appeared to be in a good mood, supervising ribs on the barbecue and offering his guests drinks provided by Coca-Cola, one of Esparza’s sponsors. Her parents had invited a few of her friends from high school, but she hadn’t seen them in years and felt awkward greeting them. Mostly, she looked antsy, wandering from room to room like someone brought to a party full of people she did not know.

“It was annoying,” Esparza told me a few days later as we were driving to lunch. The golden fish was dangling around her neck, but the purple bouquet had wilted in the backseat of her car. For the first time since we met, she was wearing non-workout clothing: jeans cuffed above the ankle, a heather-gray tank with pink flowers, and sandals. “It’s not that I’m unappreciative, but I’m always so shut off that I don’t know what to say to people.”

For lunch, Esparza had chosen the Olive Garden, one of her favorite places to eat, and she ordered an entrée that combined lasagna, chicken Parmesan, and fettuccine Alfredo in a single dish. Now she could eat anything she wished. But soon she would have to resume her regular diet to prepare for the 2012 Women’s World Boxing Championships, in Qinhuangdao, China, in May.

Though Esparza had won the U.S. Olympic trials, she would still have to compete against flyweights from other countries to make it to the Games in July. Only eight boxers in each of the three weight classes would go on to London from the Worlds, with an additional four women to be selected by the Olympic commission. Up against some 60 flyweights from around the world who would be competing for these spots, Esparza’s chances were good. At international competitions in recent years, she had won two gold medals, two silver, and one bronze. Her greatest challengers in May, she predicted, would be Ren Cancan, of China, and Tatyana Kob, of Ukraine.

Looking past China to the Olympics, Esparza could imagine a scenario in which she wins the gold medal—but not one in which she doesn’t. “I feel like it will complete me—like it will make me what I want to be,” she said. “I don’t want to see someone else win.” Esparza put her fork down, and a tear slid down her cheek. “It would be like someone else living what you’re supposed to be living, and feeling what you’re supposed to be feeling. It’s like someone stealing what I want to be.” She paused again, wiping her eyes with her cloth napkin. “Failure is when your best isn’t good enough, and I’m trying as hard as I possibly can.”

Esparza finished her entrée and we ordered dessert—fried zeppoles with chocolate sauce. When I asked her how she envisions her life after the Olympics—after boxing, that is—she recalled driving to the gym one morning and seeing two girls, about her age, who looked like they were going to the mall. Esparza wondered what the rest of their day might be like, whether they would see their friends, or go to the movies. “And I was thinking, What the heck would I do all day?” She considered this for a moment. “It’s like a small kitten or an inside dog that scratches at the door all day, but when someone finally opens it, they don’t want to go,” she said. “They just look.”

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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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