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 Hanna Gabriels A Torchbearer In The Rising Tide Of Female Boxing – In Costa Rica, a country of 4.6 million, reigning WBO World female super welterweight champion Hanna Gabriels is a well-known personality. Strangers stop her on the street and ask for a selfie. In the United States, where she is currently residing, she’s anonymous. But that may change. Female boxing, which has enjoyed a few brief spurts of enrichment, appears poised to emerge from the shadows and become firmly entrenched in the public eye, a stable component of the sporting mosaic. And Ms. Gabriels, who currently owns a 15-1-1 record, is in the vanguard of those pushing the envelope. She’s very good at what she does, she’s photogenic, and she’s bi-lingual, as comfortable conversing in English as in her native Spanish.

As a schoolgirl in Costa Rica, Gabriels attracted notice for her prowess in track and field. At age seven, she was competing against girls four years older. At age 11, she competed in the novice division in the Central American games in El Salvador. Equally adept at running, jumping, and throwing, she had the makings of a world class pentathlete. But at age seventeen she was sidelined with a herniated disc that left her bedridden for six weeks – doctors questioned whether she would ever walk normally again – and that put an end to her budding career in track and field.

After graduating from high school, Gabriels spent a year in Oakland, California helping a friend manage a hair salon. While there she developed a fondness for doritos. “In Costa Rica,” she said, “my family was poor. We didn’t have money for snacks; only the basics.”

Hanna Gabriels A Torchbearer

With money to afford the luxury of junk food (and a hearty appetite born of homesickness), Gabriels predictably put on weight, ballooning to 206 pounds. But there was an upside to her sojourn. She became fluent in a second tongue — and for an athlete in a global sport, being bi-lingual can pay big dividends. Oscar De La Hoya transcended his sport, “building his brand” on both the English and Spanish talk show circuits. On the flip side, the career earnings of the great Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. were stunted by his failure to learn English.

Hanna Gabriels took up boxing at age 20 as part of a comprehensive program to lose weight. Four years later, she embraced boxing with a more serious purpose and had her first professional fight. Her father had boxed as an amateur, so there was boxing in the family genes.

At a gym in the provincial capital of San Jose, Gabriels honed her craft sparring with men; the alternative was no sparring whatsoever. The number of registered women boxers is increasing in leaps and bounds, but they are scattered around the globe and dispersed among the various weight classes. “What Hanna has accomplished,” says an admirer, “she has accomplished on her own. There are no great trainers in Costa Rica.”

On Jan. 9, 2011, Gabriels advanced her record to 11-0-1 with a 10th round knockout of Melisenda Perez at Punta del Este, Uruguay. Stablemate Bryan Vasquez, a future WBA World super featherweight champion, was also on that card. A nodding acquaintance between them blossomed into something more as they hunkered down to complete their training in Uruguay. They are now husband and wife.

Women athletes are subject to all the complications that disrupt the careers of their male counterparts, plus one. It’s called pregnancy. A 22-month period of ring inactivity that began in March of 2013 was punctuated by the birth of her daughter, Mia. The toddler may be the answer to a trivia question: name the only person whose parents – both of them – held world boxing titles.

Bryan Vasquez currently trains in Big Bear, California, under the watchful eye of the noted trainer Abel Sanchez. Hanna is with him in Big Bear, as is her mother, who watches the baby while Hanna does her roadwork. Sanchez and his associate Ben Lira will work Hanna’s corner in her next fight, the opponent, date, and venue as yet undetermined.

Gabriels hopes to someday land a rematch with Oxandia Castillo, the woman from the Dominican Republic who saddled her with her only defeat. The bout was stopped in the second round.

That match took place during one of the gloomiest periods of Hanna’s life. Her focus was clouded by the recent death of her dog, the faithful companion that nudged her into getting out of bed on those days when she was inclined to slough off in her training and would then tag along with her on her early morning runs. “Oxandia beat me fair and square,” concedes Gabriels, “but she isn’t better than me.”

Gabriels laughs when discussing her most recent fight, a lopsided 10-round decision over Rhode Island’s Kali Reis in Liberia, Guanacaste, Costa Rica. As the bout played out, the ring became smaller.

Well, not exactly. What happened is that rain started falling in sheets, soaking the crowd in the outdoor arena. Patches of the canvas became dangerously slick, forcing the referee to use his body language to maneuver Hanna and her opponent away from the affected areas. The province of Guanacaste was then experiencing a drought, making the incident more bizarre.

Hanna Gabriels A Torchbearer

The female boxers attracting the most buzz right now are Cecilia Braekhus and Claressa Shields. Raised by adoptive parents in Norway — where boxing is illegal – the undefeated (28-0), Columbia-born Braekhus recently broke with her German promoter and signed with Los Angeles-based K2 Promotions. Her stated goal is to win over North American boxing fans. Female boxers have a higher profile in Europe and other parts of the world than in the U.S., but American promoters have deeper pockets and can offer larger purses.

At the age of 17, Claressa Shields, a high school junior, was the star of the very first U.S. Olympic female boxing team. She won gold in London and hopes to repeat at the forthcoming summer games in Rio. She fights out of Flint, Michigan, where she was born and raised, which makes her story more compelling. The beleaguered citizens of hardscrabble Flint (if you go there, don’t drink the water) could use a positive role model to uplift their spirits.

A match between Gabriels and either of these ladies would be a big attraction, but the likelihood of either happening any time soon is remote. Cecilia Braekhus is a natural welterweight; Hanna is seemingly too big for her. Claressa Shields is in Hanna’s weight class, but it isn’t known if she will turn pro and, if she does, her management likely won’t rush her into a match against a strong opponent.

When her career is finished, Gabriels plans to work in some field of social work, ideally running a gym for people with handicaps and victims of domestic abuse. Despite her busy schedule she managed to earn a degree at Universidad Santa Paula in San Jose where she specialized in respiratory therapy. But she has more worlds to conquer before that day arrives.

Gabriels, who turned 33 in January, is younger than most of the top names in her sport. Female boxers that stay in shape tend to age more gracefully than the men, in large part because they go to war less often. Barring time off for another blessed event, Hanna Gabriels figures to win legions of new fans in the next few years.

Check out Hanna Gabriels’ full fight against Katia Alvarino at The Boxing Channel


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