This Saturday, fans are in for a real treat as we have ourselves a boxing palooza. There is boxing on every platform, but most eyeballs, if not all, will be on the return of lightweight contender Ryan Garcia (21-0). He will be putting his undefeated record on the line as he faces the tough veteran Emmanuel Tagoe (32-1) from Ghana. The card will be hosted by Golden Boy and DAZN live from the Alamodome in San Antonio, TX.
This card has some interesting fights, but one that will undoubtedly draw attention is the women's unification. WBC flyweight champion Marlen Esparza (11-1) will be putting her title on the line against WBA champion Naoko Fujioka (19-2-1). Both titles will be up for grabs, but this fight will determine who the queen of the division is as the Ring Magazine title will be on the line. This is the first time in women's boxing history that the Ring Magazine title will be on the line for the flyweight division.
With such a significant fight on the card, I checked in with the WBC Champion Esparza to see where she was both physically and mentally. Marlen is thirty-two years old and turns thirty-three in July. In boxing years, that tends to be the moment when you start thinking about life outside of the ring. Last year, Esparza fought three times, and the last time she did that was in 2019. How different was it to stay that active in her 30s vice her 20s?
Marlen told NYF, “To be honest, it wasn't (any different). I wish I felt like I was thirty-two (laughs). I feel like I'm twenty-two because I was raised in boxing. Remember, I didn't get that whole experience of being an adult and transitioning into something. I've always been a fighter. All I do is fight. I don't really have a lot of life experiences and I don't really know the things people know at my age. I feel like I've been doing it a lot, so it's time to give it up.” When I heard that answer, it gave me the sense that Esparza didn't have an opportunity to have a childhood or even a young adulthood due to the demanding schedule of amateur boxing. Esparza was the first American woman to qualify for the Olympics in 2012, where she earned a Bronze Medal.
On that topic, motherhood came up as Marlen has a three-year-old son named Saint. When discussing this, you can almost see that big smile from ear to ear as she spoke about her son. Trying to balance being a mother and an active fighter has to be extremely challenging and draining. Marlen took a deep breath and told NYF, “That has been the most difficult thing I have dealt with. It's not that it's bad; it's just different. Saint is my baby, and I have to make sure he is ok all of the time. For me, to do what I do is very difficult a lot of times. I'm not there every moment and every day.”
Esparza continued, “But at the end of the day, it's very difficult moving forward the way I fight and as active as I've been in my career. It's difficult to deal with that emotionally, but I also feel like it makes me very strong because I have to not only deal with that as a fighter but also as a human being. I'm not used to being a human being (laughs).” That is about as honest of an answer as they come. That was deep, and afterward, we transitioned into boxing and her opponent.
In July of last year, her opponent Fujioka was in a war with Golden Boy fighter Sulem Urbina (12-2-1). Marlen was on broadcasting duties for the Facebook Watch portion of the show and was able to get an up-close view of her future opponent. Did she know then that the fight with Fujioka would be in the near future? Esparza told NYF, “To be honest, I wanted the fight regardless, but you never know with boxing. I thought that Sulem (Esparza) did a really good job, and it could have gone either way.”
Marlen continued, “During that time and even now, I want to reach out to Sulem and ask her for sparring. I think there is still a lot of bad blood there for no reason. There are things I have to address as a woman to her. Like, hey, this is what's going on, and this is the truth. Can we coincide?” It sounds like maturity has settled in with Esparza; as she is right, there is still some lingering bad blood between her and Sulem which played out while promoting their October 2020 fight. It sounds like a conversation between these two women should happen sooner than later so they can bury the hatchet.
Getting back to the fight itself, Esparza saw something and felt she had what it takes to beat the WBA champ. When speaking to GBP Vice President & Matchmaker Roberto Diaz, he mentioned that he asked Esparza about the possibility right after that July fight, and Marlen said to him that she wanted the fight. So, what did Marlen see that day in July? Esparza told NYF, “I think she is a great fighter and is experienced. I can see there was a game plan and a lot of strategy. She is who she is for a reason.”
We have arrived to fight week, and this unification will also include the Ring Magazine title, an achievement that has gained more notoriety as of late. Fighters have publicly recognized the Ring title as the most important to them, so it adds a ton of pressure on both women. Esparza said, “Just say Ring Magazine as if I'm not nervous already (laughs). It's so cool and respectable. I understand what it is, and because of that, I'm really grateful but nervous. It's a good place to be.”
As we head towards the end of the call, something that is always asked is the expectations on fight night. Marlen confidently said, “It's going to be fun. I'm going for the win regardless. I work hard and based my whole life around this. This is what I do and who I am. Regardless of what happens, I do this because this is who I am, and you can bet on me.”
My Three Cents
Although I am interested to see how Ryan Garcia performs, this fight between Marlen Esparza and Naoko Fujioka is far more intriguing because of what's at stake. Can Marlen Esparza box her way to become a unified champion? Will Naoko Fujioka's pressure be too much for the Texan Esparza? You will have to tune into DAZN this Saturday night to find out.