You might have a preconceived notion of what a woman boxer might look like. Big, broad with overly large muscles sounds about right, until you meet Marlen Esparza. Olympian, world championship title holder and petite by any standards, Esparza comes in at 5’3” and fights in the flyweight division. She may be small, but her size hasn’t stopped her from breaking every barrier that has been put in front of her.
Family time in the Esparza household often included watching boxing, her father’s favorite sport. Although it was meant to entice her brothers, she was the one to fall in love with the sport and began boxing at the age of 17. Since then, Esparza has made a career of being first. First American woman to qualify for the Olympics in 2012 when the sport made its Olympic debut (she earned a bronze medal), first woman to fight a three-minute round after pushing hard against the World Boxing Organization, and first woman to be signed with famed Golden Boy Boxing.
Esparza also wants to be the first to make the sport contend with women athlete’s needs. Until there is more demand, companies don’t want to risk profit margins on merchandise that will just sit, but that doesn’t satisfy Esparza.
“Boxing hasn’t evolved as a sport for women. We have to wear men’s equipment in men’s sizes, because there isn’t anything out there for us,” said Esparza. “I have to have my boxing boots custom made so that they fit correctly, but a lot of athletes out there can’t do that. I am hoping to work with Nike to change that. I am not doing it for me – I am doing it for all the other female boxers out there.”
The same can be said of breast protection. In most boxing matches (depending on level) breast protection is not mandatory, but highly encouraged. Yet, because it is so uncomfortable, many female fighters are still choosing to go without. This choice leaves them open to injuries, but for many like Esparza comfort is an essential key to winning.
“Breast protection is the worst. It’s hard, and it chafes against your sides and underarms – I would rather not wear it than be uncomfortable during my fights,” said Esparza. “Men have a standard cup that is worn in all kinds of different sports, but women don’t have something yet that is standard and comfortable. That needs to change.”
Along with an intense training regimen that includes time in the gym, physical therapy and nutrition, Esparza also prides herself on being one of the few female fighters that get glammed up for a fight. Hair done, full face of makeup, and shiny nails – it is all part of her athlete’s mentality.
“For me getting ready for a fight is a transformation for my body and my mind. I have to eat right, train, and when I look good, I feel good,” she said. “The only thing I don’t wear is mascara, believe me – I learned the hard way about that one, but I get ready for a fight like a get ready for a date, because I want to feel I am at my best in the ring.”