Flyweight boxer and Houston’s own Marlen Esparza will be making her long-awaited professional debut on Thursday night, as she takes on New Jersey’s Rachel “The Black Widow” Sazoff, in a fight between relative newcomers at the Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California. Beyond it being her debut, the fight carries extra weight for Esparza, as she makes history for being the first female fighter to sign a multiyear deal with Oscar De La Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions. The table is set for Esparza to become women’s boxing’s first true Latina mainstream icon, something desperately needed for a sport with few female heroes.
Esparza has already made boxing history without a single professional bout under her belt. At the young age of 16, she became the youngest woman to win a National Championship, and she was also the first female American boxer to qualify for the 2012 London Games (the year women’s boxing first became an Olympic sport). She would follow that historic qualification with a well-earned bronze medal in the flyweight division.
As an Olympic medalist, Esparza has the potential to join an elite club of American boxers who earned Bronze medals before successfully transitioning to the professional ranks of the sweet science. This group includes fighters like Evander “The Real Deal” Holyfield, Floyd Mayweather Jr., and Deontay “The Bronze Bomber” Wilder.
Esparza’s own promoter, Oscar “The Golden Boy” De La Hoya, is no stranger to this career transition, as his 1992 gold medal win garnered him fame and marketability prior to turning professional. With his guidance, Esparza has the potential to become the first “Golden Woman” of boxing, and advertisers have taken note.
Coca Cola, Nike, and Cover Girl all saw Esparza’s marketability prior to her participation in the 2012 Olympics. These endorsers have continued to support her, even after she failed to qualify for the 2016 Rio games. With her star power and mainstream appeal, Esparza’s ascent could disrupt the traditional idea that boxing is strictly a man’s sport.
By signing with Golden Boy, Esparza has positioned herself to further build on her successes, on top of serving as a potential role model for the powerful Latinx boxing community. Along with boxers like Claressa Shields, Esparza can help change the male-dominated status quo of the sport, and make the case that women should be regularly showcased in boxing events.
However, as can be expected, with great stardom comes great criticism, and Esparza is no stranger to being in the crossfire, especially when it comes to her looks. In an interview with The Atlantic, boxing promoter Cassandra White attributed Esparza’s fame to her conventionally attractive good looks, which she argued creates a fan-friendly image for television. The article’s author, Kate Jenkins, continued by stating that “the media has disarmed Esparza, reducing her from a skilled athlete to just another frivolous female celebrity.”
Inside the ring, good looks will not take you far; boxers still need the skills to pay the bills.
Sure, male boxers have also been subjected to this type of scrutinity in the past. If you think about “The Golden Boys” of boxing, Art Aragon, Sugar Ray Leonard, and Oscar De La Hoya all had corporate-friendly faces that aided in their success in and outside of the ring. There is no doubt their good looks helped further their careers, but they also had the boxing skills to succeed in the ring. Inside the ring, good looks will not take you far; boxers still need the skills to pay the bills.
This is where Esparza finds herself, regardless of what critics might say about the value of her looks. In the ring, she has the potential to step up as this generation’s first iconic female boxer. The proof of potential success is in her amateur credentials; a 69-2 winning record (97% winning percentage), six National Championships, the London bronze medal, and a bronze medal in the 2014 World Championship games.
Esparza has gone on record as saying that she did not believe that women would ever be featured as main eventers for big promotions, making it difficult to earn a lucrative living in the sport. And it’s not like women’s boxing has a long and storied history to fall back on; women’s amateur boxing competition only truly took off in 1993, after 16-year-old Dallas Malloy sued the United States Amateur Boxing organization for not allowing women to compete.
The tide is turning, however, as Shields, Esparza’s former Olympic teammate, recently took part in the first female fight to ever headline a boxing event on premium cable television, when she scored a TKO on Hungarian Szilvia Szabados on Showtime.
Timing is everything in boxing.
Timing is everything in boxing. If Esparza can follow up Shields’s performance with an exciting win of her own on Thursday, the momentum of mainstreaming women’s boxing will reach its highest peak yet, giving women representatives at the top of a sport often ignore in the mainstream.
That representation matters. Not just the representation of women, but more specifically, women of color in boxing. Esparza understands that her star power and marketability fits within the business model that boxing operates out of. With this advantage also comes a sense of responsibility. As a Latina boxer fighting during a tumultuous time in America’s political climate, Esparza can serve as a beacon for the campaign that women should be prominent figures in a male dominated sport as well as in the broader society.