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.”