Marlen Esparza: “I would definitely say this is the highlight of my career.”
By Gary Kittilsen
Marlen Esparza survived a high-action slugfest with legendary five-division world champ Naoko Fujioka in what was clearly, the fight of the night on the Ryan Garcia-Emanuel Tagoe card at the Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas. Esparza described her opponent as, “really strong, stronger than expected. She’s got power. I could tell right away.” However, the work she put in with head trainer James Cooper and their focus on slipping shots paid off as she secured the biggest win of her professional career. Esparza explained, “we worked on slipping shots. Once I got her timing, I could see everything coming, and we were able to slip everything and get inside.”
Esparza overcame a slow start and seized control of the fight in the middle rounds, executing slick movement Esparza was able to stabilize Fujioka’s offensive rhythm, close the gap, and beat her opponent up on the inside. It was all part of her game plan: “We were able to do everything my coaches and I worked on,” an ecstatic Esparza explained. In addition to unifying the WBC and WBA titles, Saturday’s win made Esparza the first-ever woman to hold the flyweight Ring Magazine belt. An achievement she described as the best moment of her career: “To be fighting a legend in Texas a few hours from my home and to have the Ring Magazine belt on the line, to beat a legend, I would definitely say this is the highlight of my career.”
Esparza was able to overcome what appeared to be a slow start and secured the unanimous decision victory over Fujioka by scores of 100-90 twice and 97-93. Overcoming slow starts is nothing new for the unified women’s flyweight champ, who said, “I am a slow starter. Everyone who knows me knows I had a slow start in the amateurs.” She was able to overcome that and capture an Olympic medal in 2012. Esparza added that her start in the pros was equally as slow: “I had a rough start to my career transitioning to the pros, but I feel like these last three fights have really defined me.”
Those slow starts are a thing of the past now as Esparza has established herself as one of the premier women’s fighters in the world. She credits the meteoric rise to her sacrifice, hard work, and the incredible team she has behind her: “I have been sacrificing my whole life for this. We put in a ton of work, from my second in command to my trainer, James Cooper. It’s been a whole village to get me here. Everybody has cried, everybody’s been angry, everybody’s had a lot going on to get me in this position.” Esparza explained.
The aim is now unifying the other half of the belts. When asked if her priority was avenging the lone defeat of her professional career, a decision loss to Seniesa Estrada back in 2019, or unifying the two remaining belts at 112-pounds and becoming undisputed. Without hesitation, the victorious Texan declared: “Becoming undisputed for sure! Seinisa will just be a cherry on top, a very little, tiny, 108-pound cherry on top.” Adding, “I wanna go for the other two belts. The WBO and the IBF. So I wanna fight the girls from Argentina and that would be [Leonela Paola] Yudica next.” The two other belts in the flyweight division are held by Leonela Paola Yudica and Tamara Elisabet Demarco. Both hail from Argentina.
Closing the show strong has become Estrada’s calling card. That is exactly what she was able to do again, Saturday night, in San Antonio to defeat a legend and become the unified flyweight champ and the first-ever Ring Magazine flyweight champion saying: “This stamps the best moment of my career,” and shows her three-year-old son that sacrifice is part of life and this is what happens when you really work for what you want.
Photo Credit: Golden Boy Promotions