By JULIE JAG
LONDON – History will be made Saturday when a pair of women climb through the ropes and into the ring for the first women’s boxing match of the modern Olympic era.
Carina Moreno wanted to be there. And in a small way, she will be.
The Watsonville boxer sparred with Marlen Esparza, who will represent Team USA in the flyweight [112 pound] division, to prepare Esparza for the hard hits some of the European fighters will deliver during the course of the next week. More significantly, as one of the first generations of female boxers, Moreno beat back obstacles on the way to helping the sport make its debut in the 2012 Games.
“I think it’s great, it’s about time they make it in the Olympics,” Moreno wrote in an email. “I just don’t know why it took so long.”
Moreno took up boxing in 1999, two years before the creation of the first women’s world championship. Even then, she dreamed of being an Olympian. By the time the International Olympic Committee approved women’s boxing as an Olympic sport 10 years later, however, she had, for financial reasons, already turned professional. In Olympic boxing, unlike basketball, beach volleyball and a myriad of other sports, that makes her ineligible to compete.
“It’s very disappointing to see all the attraction and endorsements they are getting, because if they would of had it when I was an amateur, I know for sure that I would be in their position,” wrote Moreno, referencing Esparza’s sponsorship by Nike, Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble [Cover Girl] and McDonald’s. “But this doesn’t affect me at all. I think it will help all the women boxers.”
Many expect the addition of the women’s boxing to the Games and the attention sponsors are paying to vault a sport that has been experiencing waning interest on both the male and female sides back into the spotlight. Team USA men’s and women’s coach Basheer Abdullah said the Olympics will give young girls someone like them to look up to in the sport, someone to show them there is a future for them in it, whether it be at the amateur or pro level.
“I think after this Olympics our gyms are just going to be flooded with women boxers,” he said. “I think the timing of bringing women on board in an Olympic sport and the sport of boxing is great because the talent has improved immensely. I think that we’re going to see some great, exciting boxing in the women’s program at this Olympics.”
Neither Moreno nor most of the 36 women fighting for the first gold medal in each of three weight divisions, knew of a female fighter they could look to for guidance as they grew up in the sport.
Moreno mimicked a male cousin who boxed. Team USA veteran Quanitta “Queen” Underwood, a 28-year-old lightweight [132 pound], found a role model in Muhammad Ali. Meanwhile, 17-year-old Claressa Shields, Team USA’s welterweight [165 pounds], modeled herself after Sugar Ray Leonard and Joe Lewis.
In fact, Shields doesn’t even like to be compared to other female fighters.
“I figure I’m the best female boxer out there,” she said. “I know there’s not one male in this world that’s seen me box that’s said I fight like a girl.”
Esparza, meanwhile, now admires Lucia Rijker, but she grew up idolizing Horace Chavez.
“That’s who I tried to emulate when I was little. That’s how I learned about boxing,” said Esparza, 23, who took up the sport at 11 at her boxing-fanatic father’s urging. “I used to call boxing ‘Chavez’. I’d say, ‘Chavez is on, Chavez is on!’ and my dad was like, ‘Those are just boxers.’
“I definitely only knew about boxing when I was little. I’m talking about as far as I can remember, like until 5 years [old]. I thought that was part of everybody’s life. I thought that was life. Guess I was a little wrong.”
So few girls boxed at the time that Esparza says she now realizes how lucky she was to find a trainer, Rudy Silva, who would take her on as a student. Unfortunately, she added, not much has changed since then.
“It’s still hard. My trainer literally gets attacked for time,” said the Houston native. “He got laughed at a lot for paying attention to me. He got told one time, ‘Why do you even pay attention to her? She’s just going to get pregnant.’ That sort of thing, and he didn’t care. To run into something like that was close to impossible.”
Esparza, who got started around the same time as Moreno, said she hasn’t enjoyed being a trailblazer.
“It would have made my life a lot easier growing up” to have a female role model, said Esparza, who plans to give up the sport after these Olympics and her degree at a university. “There were so many days of: Am I doing the right thing? Should I just go to school? Should I just forget about this? Am I going to go anywhere with this? Is it going to be worth it? So, it was a lot of those days where it was like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ If I would have had somebody there, it would have given me something solid to go on versus just wishing and hoping and gambling.”
In the long run, though, that wishing and hoping and gambling worked. It delivered her right where she wanted to be – fighting for an Olympic medal. She and Shields received first-round byes, so their opening bouts will be Aug. 6. Underwood will fight in the first day of competition Sunday.
But Esparza is one of the lucky ones whose weight class will be featured. The Women’s International Boxing Federation features 18 weight classes, but only three made the Olympic cut.
So, the women of boxing aren’t taking their hand wraps off just yet. In fact, they’re warming up for another battle: to bring in all weight divisions..
“It’s always a struggle. They‘ve been fighting for this moment for years. And I don’t think they’re finished fighting,” coach Abdullah said. “I think they want more and they deserve more. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see some more weight classes emerging, too.”
Just getting boxing into the Olympics is a start, though. In addition to creating more competition, it presents something both veterans like Moreno and burgeoning starts like Esparza can be proud of.
As Abdullah said, “The Olympic Games don’t define them as role models. They were role models before they got to this point.”