It’s Paid Off For Esparza To Look Good in the Ring (And Out of It)

JEJU, South Korea – Notes from the 2014 AIBA CONGRESS

The breakout star from the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team is here, primed and ready for the next interview request and camera zooming in for a close-up.

No, it isn’t a guy. American men did not win any medals in London, the first time that’s happened since the modern Olympics were introduced in 1896. Nor is it Claressa Shields, the then-17-year-old from Flint, Mich., who won a gold medal in the women’s middleweight (165 pounds) division in the first Olympiad in which women competed under the Olympic banner.

But there is something about Marlen Esparza, who won a bronze medal in the 112-pound division, that draws fans and advertisers to her like moths to a flame. Even before she stepped onto the medal stand two years ago, her face was on magazine covers (one of her sponsors is a glossy publication put out by Covergirl), and some of the commercials she filmed beforehand got heavy exposure during the Olympics’ two-week run, especially in her hometown of Houston, Texas, and in the Southwest.

It’s called s-e-x a-p-p-e-a-l. Esparza can box, sure, but it doesn’t hurt that she’s Mexican-American, petite and pretty, sort of a cross between Latina lovelies Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek.

“Is it unfair? I think it is for some people, yeah,” Esparza, who is here as a member of the USA’s Women’s World Boxing Championships that will be held from Nov. 16-24, said when asked if her good looks gave her advantages. “But at the same time, I have to take a lot of the bad, so I might as well take the good whenever I can.”

The good included a whirlwind of personal appearances and TV guest spots upon her return to Houston, where she received a heroine’s welcome.

“When I got back, it was crazy,” she said. “They told me my commercials were being aired, like, back-to-back-to-back during track and field and swimming. I couldn’t go anywhere without being noticed. They were giving me keys to the city and stuff like that. I was being called to go on David Letterman.

“I guess I don’t really look like a boxer. I’m Latina. I can fight. So I have all that going on at once. Everybody wanted to work with me. I didn’t know that was going to happen. I just thought I’d go to the Olympics and that would be it.”

The spotlight burned brightly for Esparza, but then it got shut off. The public moved on to other things, other faces. It probably was inevitable, given the low visibility of women’s boxing most of the time in the U.S.

“It was intense for maybe two weeks, then it started to die down,” Esparza said. “Being the first (part of a U.S. women’s Olympic boxing team) opened some doors, but now I want a gold medal (in the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics). That’s all I want.”

Esparza could take a step in that direction here, in the Worlds. She’s hoping for another shot at China’s Cancan Ren, who defeated her in a semifinal match in London.

Even if she does take gold in Rio, Esparza, 25, is thinking that will be it for her. She’s been boxing since she was 11, and she sees no future in remaining an amateur or turning pro, the women’s version of which she finds, well, boring. But if the right offer came along …

“If I say no to pros, they’re going to go find the next person,” she said. “I would (say yes), but I’d have to make sure I’d do it for the right reasons and with a good understanding of where I’m trying to go. I’m not just going to jump in and hope for the best.”

FEELING DRAFTY

An NBA-style draft, complete with numbered ping-pong balls popping out of a hopper, was conducted here. All that was missing was the newly drafted athletes bounding onto the stage to put on a team-logo cap while posing for pictures with AIBA president Dr. C.K.Wu.

Season V of the AIBA-sponsored World Series of Boxing, which will include 16 franchises around the globe and more to follow in future years, is another step on the path to what Dr. Wu said, hopefully, “will be like the World Cup of boxing.”

In case you’re interested, the No. 1 pick was Lithuanian super heavyweight Montas Valavicius, selected by the Rafako Hussars Poland. The United States entry – the USA Boxing Team Knockouts — passed in the first two rounds, eliminating it from the remainder of the process. That means America, like Russia and Cuba, will field a squad entirely comprised of its own nationals.

The Knockouts are in Group B along with the Argentina Condors, Astana Arlans Kazakhstan, Puerto Rico Hurricanes, Italia Thunder, Venezuela Caciques, Azerbaijan Baku Fires and Rafako Hussars. Their eight-match season begins Jan. 17 at a yet-undetermined site in the U.S. against Argentina.

GOUGH LAUDS `FUTURE OF BOXING’

The new marketing chief of the AIBA is David Gough, an American who signed on in September after having served long stretches as an executive with Coca-Cola and International Marketing Group (IMG). Gough also has helped with the marketing of the FIFA World Cup, five Super Bowls, four NCAA Final Fours, and three Major League Baseball and three NBA All-Star weekends.

Some might say Gough’s latest challenge – marketing the multi-nation World Series of Boxing and AIBA Pro Boxing (APB) – will be his most difficult selling job. He doesn’t think so.

“One of the reasons I joined this organization is I truly believe this is the future of boxing,” said Gough, who has not background in the sport. “The bulk of wealth in the industry is held by a few elite athletes and a few elite promoters. They have not demonstrated a mechanism for giving back to the grass roots. This model does. We have 196 national federations in AIBA, and our revenues go back to those grass roots to help develop and grow the sport.

“The fans deserve more than seeing their favorite boxers fight only once or twice a year. We’re going to give them a consistent, high-quality product.”

Boxers going into the WSB or APB will sign contracts tying them to AIBA “an average of about three years,” Gough said, which already is meeting with fierce opposition from those elite American promotional companies to which he referred.

USA TRIES A DIFFERENT WAY

At the 1996 U.S. Olympic Boxing Trials in Oakland, Calif., Lou Duva butted heads with USA Boxing’s hierarchy and came away with little more than a migraine.

“The amateur boxing establishment’s position is that it doesn’t want professional boxing interests to `contaminate’ their sport,” Duva said after being told he could not continue to work with a kid, Zahir Raheem, who went on to win a bronze medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. “That’s ridiculous. They act like we’re ruining amateur boxing or something. You can’t tell me that guys like Emanuel Steward, Eddie Futch, Angelo Dundee and myself don’t have something to offer, or shouldn’t train these kids.”

Countered then-USA Boxing president Jerry Dusenberry: “Too many of our boxers (at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics) came back to the corner and were looking for their pro coaches instead of paying attention to the Olympic coach. That was a distraction, and I think it was reflected in the medal count. Quite frankly, professional boxing in many circles has an ugly image. We have tried to disassociate ourselves from professional boxing.”

With AIBA dipping its big toe in the once-murky waters of pro boxing, the argument that Duva made 18 years ago finally is being heard in the offices of USA Boxing in Colorado Springs, Colo.

“Our men seem to do better with their own personal coaches,” said Mike Martino, interim executive director of USA Boxing. “A resident program for the men has not been successful in the past, for a number of different reasons. Funding has been a part of it.

“Most of the male boxers have a long-term goal of fighting professionally. The coaches that are with them are the ones that paid the dues with those others, and often supported them financially and emotionally. Those boxers seem to fare better staying in their own home gyms and, besides, their coaches are hesitant to release them to come to a national training program that may be long-term.”

The shift in policy may have been accelerated by the fact that former USA national coach Pedro Roque, a Cuban expatriate, left in April to coach the national team in Azerbaijan, where he has taken up permanent residence.

UNPADDED HEADS

You won’t see boxers – the male ones, anyway – wearing head guards in Rio de Janeiro, or in any other international tournaments leading up to 2016. Those pieces of equipment, first mandated for use in Olympic competition in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, have been determined to actually cause more and worse injuries than they prevent.

Dr. Charles Butler, the Kalamazoo, Mich., physician who is a former president of USA Boxing and still the AIBA medical commission chairman, has statistics which he said offer definitive proof that the wearing of head guards result in more concussions than occur when they’re taken off.

So if something’s good for the goose, shouldn’t it also be good for the gander?

“I think if the guys don’t have to wear them, we shouldn’t have to wear them either,” said Marlen Esparza, a women’s bronze medalist in London in 2012. “That’s pushing us down again. We’re trying to get up with the guys. For them to separate us like that, it’s not good for the sport.

“I understand there’s a difference in power, but we’re not fighting guys. But I don’t make the rules.”

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