Inside the blue-painted Fontana Boxing Club dozens of mostly young aspiring male fighters fill every inch of the tiny square-shaped gym each day, but as soon as Heather Percival walks in the mass of bodies parts to let the petite blond pass.
She’s as close to royalty as a house of warriors allows.
Percival, 23, seems oblivious to the respect she garners from the young and old gathering of boxers. As she passes each gloved athlete, greetings and smiles are exchanged.
A highly anticipated fight looms for Percival against hardnosed Tonia Cravens (2-2-1) at San Manuel Casino on Thursday. Though her opponent is talented, it’s not the competition that makes Fontana’s Percival nervous, it’s whether the fight will actually take place.
In the past year numerous scheduled fights have dropped off like so many ripe apples, so close to fruition she can almost taste the battles.
“I had one fight cancelled against Melinda Cooper on the last day,” said Percival (7-2), who was anxious to face the undefeated flyweight world champion from Las Vegas who also campaigns as high as bantamweight. “We tried to at least have an exhibition with Mariana Juarez but even that didn’t go through.”
Last year the Fontana boxer lost a close decision to New Mexico’s Teri Cruz for the bantamweight world title but that fighter has refused to agree to a rematch. So Percival is resigned to look for any fight.
“You just got to take what you can get,” she says.
Opponents don’t like to face a boxer with Percival’s talent unless a lot of the green stuff is attached. Female prizefighting has not reached that level where world title fights equate more money. An offer of $3,000 is considered a lot.
“Heather will fight anybody,” said Larry Ramirez, her manager and trainer who has been training fighters in Fontana for more than 30 years. “As long as the person is in her weight class she can fight them.”
Three years ago when Percival crashed into the pro fight scene few expected much from “la rubia” who astounded fight fans at the Quiet Cannon boxing show in Montebello. Her opponent was a taller African-American fighter who seemed to hit pretty hard when she landed. But she seldom landed.
Those who know Ramirez were not surprised. All of his fighters are well-schooled in defense and offense.
“Heather is a good little fighter,” says Ben Lira, who trains former world champion Juarez. “She has good boxing skills.”
With her straight up defensive style, Percival uses a razorsharp left jab that cuts through opponent’s guards. When she fires combinations they come quickly and accurately.
During a sparring session with young Johnny Martinez, she has to be extra sharp. He takes no prisoners inside the ring. A few zinging right uppercuts snap her head back but she retaliates with four and five-punch combinations that mesh smoothly and effectively.
She’s a very sharp counterpuncher.
Kaliesha West knows Percival very well. They spar against each other regularly when approaching a scheduled match. West fought Cravens in her last fight. Percival helped her prepare.
“Heather should win that fight,” says West. “But anything can happen in the ring.”
Percival doesn’t worry about winning or losing as much as she worries about actually getting in the ring. Now the Fontana boxer is ranked in the top 10 as a bantamweight and finds it more difficult to get a match with anyone in her weight class.
“I never thought it would be so tough finding opponents,” Percival said. “I’m just happy I’m getting a fight.”
The Top Female Bantamweights
1. Melinda Cooper (16-0, 9 KOs) Las Vegas, Nevada – Though only 21 years old, Cooper has emerged as a dangerous opponent for anyone from flyweight to featherweight. Right now she’s campaigning as a bantamweight after capturing the flyweight world title last year. She’s fast and hits hard.
2. Mariana Juarez (17-4-3, 10 KOs) Los Angeles, Calif. – The Mexico City native Juarez, 26, moved to L.A. and gained additional boxing skills that have made her one of the most complete fighters in the world. Her parrying and left hook are top notch. Right now an arm injury has her on the shelf. Look out when she comes back.
3. Ana Maria Torres (12-1-1, 8 KOs) Mexico City – Back in Mexico she probably has about six more fights not registered in this country, but she’s a real warrior. Four years ago Torres and Juarez fought in three intense battles. They’re looking for a fourth after they finish with the other bantamweights.
4. Jeanine Garside (5-0) Ontario, Canada – A 5-0 southpaw in the bantamweight division is a scary thing. Garside has beaten some talented pros in her brief pro career. She was a former Canadian National champion.
5. Elena Reid (17-3-5) Las Vegas, Nevada – She’s fought for the world title twice and came up short. But that was in Germany. Let’s see what happens if she gets an opportunity in the U.S. Known as “Baby Doll,” the 24-year-old is still hungry.
6. Lisa Brown (12-2-2) Ontario, Canada – She lost to fellow Canadian Garside last November. A rematch is coming soon. For Brown, 35, there’s no time like now. She’s been fighting for six years now and wants revenge. Look for the announcement.
7. Heather Percival (7-2) Fontana, Calif. – At 23, Percival has made huge improvements in a short time. With first-class sparring against fighters like Mariana Juarez and Kaliesha West (another fighter on the rise), the blonde boxer has become an opponent to avoid.
8. Myung OK Ryu (4-0) North Korea – She captured the world title from Mariana Juarez, but it was more a hometown decision than an actual victory. But she does have an aggressive style that could give problems to many other bantamweights. A promised rematch with Juarez was never given.
9. Bettina Csabi (27-0) Hungary – She’s never fought outside of East Europe so nobody knows if she’s for real. The 28-year-old is on this list because of the curiosity factor, not because of skill. It remains to be seen if she can beat a real elite fighter.
10. Jackie Nava (13-1-1, 8 Kos) Tijuana, Mexico – In her last fight Nava dropped Kelsey Jeffries in the fourth round en route to a 10 round unanimous decision in January. She’s managed by Erik Morales and seems to be the real deal. Few outside of Mexico have seen her fight.