Writing for Vogue Magazine, Nathaniel Rich previews a unique Olympic athlete.
For the first time in history, at the 2012 London Olympics, female boxing will be an official event Women’s boxing is making its debut at the London Games this summer, and Marlen Esparza will represent the U.S. in the flyweight division.
In the beginning
Rudy Silva, the head coach of Houston’s Elite Boxing Gym, was preparing a group of fighters for an upcoming tournament when he noticed, the way a bull might notice a fly buzzing around its snout, a child standing beside him. “Can I train with you?” When Silva looked over?and down?he saw a thin, bony girl with long legs, hair past her shoulders, and a bright smile. She was eleven years old but seemed younger; she came up to his waist.
Esparza's father, David, may have been waiting most of his life for one of his children to become a boxing legend, but he never suspected it would be his younger daughter. A boxing fanatic since his childhood in Juárez?he idolized the Mexican legend Salvador Sánchez?David taught his two sons how to box around the time that they learned to read. He invited his friends to bring their sons over to fight his sons in his living room. The fathers would watch from the couch, shouting out instructions.
The other women in the house?Marlen’s older sister, Dalila, and her mother, Carmen, whose family is also from Juárez?had no interest in boxing, but Marlen was always desperate to compete against her brothers. When her younger brother was nine, David asked Marlen to take him to boxing lessons. She refused unless she could train, too. David, whose work as an industrial welder on oil rigs prevented him from taking his son to the gym himself, reluctantly granted his approval.
Looks can be deceiving
Strangers do not take Esparza for a boxer. A track-and-field athlete, perhaps, or a runner, but at five feet three and 112 pounds she is neither brawny nor particularly fierce-looking. Esparza’s ponytail, tight V-neck sweater, strawberry nail polish, and giddy energy give her an adolescent, even girlish quality.
After graduating in 2007 from Houston's Pasadena High School, where she was class president and earned a 4.6 GPA, she was accepted to Rice University and the University of Texas.
Her training regimen
Even by Olympic standards, Esparza’s training regimen is extraordinarily rigorous. In the weeks before a competition she eats only organic food. She weighs herself three times a day, though it is hardly necessary?her knowledge of her body is so precise that at all times she can guess her exact weight, to the half-pound. She never drinks alcohol. Each morning she either swims or lifts weights under the supervision of trainers. In the evening she spends two and a half hours in the boxing gym with Silva. She also runs three to four miles every day.
How good is she
Esparza is 69–2 in her career, which gives her a 97 percent winning percentage. By comparison, Cassius Clay had an amateur record of 99–8 (93 percent); Floyd Mayweather, Jr., was 84–6 (93 percent); and Mike Tyson was 48–6 (89 percent). Esparza has been ranked number one in her weight class since she was sixteen.
Her plans for the future
If no major offers materialize after the Games, Esparza will attend college and then medical school, where she intends to pursue an unlikely field. After a dozen years of delivering pain, physical and psychological, to other fighters, she hopes to be an anesthesiologist.
Editor's note: Women boxers in the flyweight division are scheduled to compete on the following days: Sunday • 5 August • 1:30pm, Qualifying Round; Monday • 6 August • 1:30pm, Quarterfinals; Wednesday • 8 August • 1:30pm, Semifinals; Thursday • 9 August • 6:30pm, Finals.