The way Marlen Esparza beat Sulem Urbina when they faced off Oct. 30, 2020, it had Urbina questioning herself hard, had her wondering about this pathway she's been on, since turning pro in July 2016.
Urbina (pictured above landing on Fujioka in Lina Baker/Under the Hand Wraps photo) born in Mexico, and living in Arizona, admitted how the Esparza loss messed with her as we discussed the Saturday night fight which pitted Sulem against a Japanese pugilism OG, 45-year-old Naoka Fujioka.
It was set for ten rounds, or less, with Fujioka jetting in from Japan holding the WBA world flyweight strap. She'd excelled at 105, 108, 112, 115, where-ever she goes, she gets it done. To that end, Fujioka got announced at Banc of California Stadium, in the main event of the Facebook portion of the Golden Boy card topped by a Zurdo Ramirez-Sullivan Barrera light heavyweight contest, as the most accomplished boxer in Japanese boxing history by ring emcee Joe Martinez.
I wondered, frankly, if the judges might have been over-impressed by that, after checking in with Sulem Urbina, who celebrated a birthday on July 8, she turned 31, without cake.
Or, more specifically, Lou Moret–he scored it 99-91 for Fujioka.
“I felt they didn’t value my defense at all,” said the lady born in Hermosillo, Sonora, Mexico. “As much activity as she had, my head movement was better than ever. I made her miss so much.”
She's not lying, or being “guilty” of painting too-rosy a picture of her effort in trying to make off with the belt held by Fujioka.
I sat down, and watched the bout, hard, pausing it, re-winding it.
That's because as Urbina and me talked about the bout, she told me that Lou Moret had sat ringside and judged Esparza-Urbina.
On that night, Moret's final tally card at Fantasy Springs was 80-72, same as Rudy Baragan’s, while Chris Migliore saw a 78-74 match. Urbina lost by UD versus Esparza, and “only” by majority decision to Fujioka.
“I felt I boxed her very well the first half,” said Sulem, who owns a 12-2 mark. “Then I stayed there a little too much slugging it out but I don't know, we thought we had it at least 96-94. I’ll take my loss, but 99-91? Me only winning one round makes no sense! In my fight against Marlen, I outworked her, I thought, and almost landed the same amount and the judges gave me only a couple rounds. In this one I box, make her miss but they prefer the work of Naoka. I don't know what they want from me.”
Urbina went 122-450 to 125-490 for Esparza, who sat ringside with Blair Cobbs and Beto Duran calling Fujioka-Urbina.
One thing came to mind for me when mulling “why,” is that Esparza has a fatter Wiki than Sulem, she won bronze for America at the 2012 Olympics. And Fujioka (19-2-1) is a big deal in sort of a small-ish pond, because women's boxing in Japan lags in relation to the gents, but she is quite highly regarded, for her seniority and perseverance.
Urbina wasn't coming to the table for either fight and being ushered to the ‘A side seat,' it's safe to say.
But I wanted to see how much maybe reputation and profile spoke, or if Sulem's perception got clouded by being in the arena, in the ring, assessing through the fog of the war.
Round one at Banc of Cali, that was a very clear Sulem round to me. She worked harder, threw more, her ring generalship was superior, and her counters were solid. Especially the left hand counters. In round two, Fujioka started out busier and maintained that through the first half of the round. Her launches didn't look very powerful, but her volume was upped. Sulem probably won the second half of the second round on my card, basically on the strength of her defense. She made Fujioka miss, glaringly so, a few times. But maybe the ultra vet stole the round with last-seconds throwing.
“Great counterpunching coming from Sulem,” analyst Cobbs said after the round, as co-analyst Esparza noted Sulem's movement was working well.
In round three, the first minute was about a tossup, I could see the judges giving the benefit of a doubt to the vet. Her hits to the body were landing clean. And the second half…Fujioka kept whacking the body, while Sulem landed the best power punch of the round, a right hand during a trade sesh. Another tight round, I could see it going either way, or being called even.
To the fourth, Sulem had the announcers wowing, when she slipped punches from Fujioka in fine fashion. And what was Lou Moret thinking as he saw the second half of the round? Did he not care for the fact that Sulem backed up, but mostly made Fujioka miss? Then, with 21 seconds left, Sulem slid inside, ripped a few shots, and then slid out. It was a stealth move, well planned and activated. Maybe Fujioka took the round because she late-loaded her work, she threw a bit more than Sulem did in the home stretch. It would have been good if Moret had seen what people watching on slo mo saw. A catch and counter from Sulem, and some hook-uppercutting that landed and caused Fujioka to kind of grimace in acknowledgement that she was getting tagged clean.
Cobbs told watchers after the round that to him, the work of Sulem stood out to him a bit more.
In round five, Team Sulem would be hoping, as they saw the first 25 seconds, that the judges were into nuance. The sequence in which Sulem made Fujioka miss, and miss again and yet again, had it looking like Fujioka was the newbie, in against a defensive master. I think the first half of the round was going to go to whoevers' style the judges preferred. The power shots thrown by Fujioka were showier, but her connect percentage was so-so, and Sulem's counters regularly landed. Again, tight round, and I could see it doing either way.
In round six, Sulem's mix of movement and sharp-shooting in the first 30 seconds showed that she was in a mode, in a groove, having fun using the ring, and using her mind to make Fujioka feel a step behind. The judges had to like Fujiokas' body attack, that was mostly what she concentrated on in the final minute. Urbina's best punches this round were her left hook counters, she threw them quick, from the right distance. Sulem finished strong, in her best round, bulling Fujioka back, into the ropes, to end the session. “Sulem finished the round off really nice,” Esparza said. Cobbs announced that he thought Sulem's work was the more high quality of the two, to this point.
But in the seventh, Fujioka came out like she'd been told in the corner to get hustling. The right hand worked for Fujioka, as Sulem chose not to move as much, though that was maybe influenced by Fujioka's persistent pressure. The mega vet's volume made it easy to score the seventh for her.
In round eight, Fujioka again showed herself to be the more obvious aggressor. She pressed forward, and Sulem boxed smartly, sliding, dodging, countering in retreat. A power right, and another one soon after, both impressed Cobbs. The stamina of the Japanese standout, and her body language in these late innings, had to benefit her. Sulem looked a bit tired, Esparza said, as Fujioka slid a right hand around the guard and landed a flush one. That looked like a Fujioka round to me.
In the ninth, I figured that Fujioka had really smartly paced herself, especially factoring in that it was a warm day, and the sun rained down on the two athletes at da Banc. The distance tightened, and both ladies showed the effects, just a bit, of having worked so hard for 8-plus rounds. That was a coin-flip round, and again, you could see a judge flipping the coin in their head giving extra credit to Fujioka, for being a legend. Cobbs said that Sulem was game all the way through, and a late power shot was an exclamation-point punch. Always game, Esparza echoed.
In the tenth, Fujioka, no stranger to what sorts of clowns judges can be, because she's done the rodeo circuit for so long, looked upright and energized as she went at Sulem. The Mexican-born American tightened up the D, and made sure to pay extra attention to right hands from Fujioka. But the Japanese talent's aggression and volume made it hard to evade everything. “Her energy is crazy right now,” Esparza noted, at the one minute mark. Then, a left hook from Sulem moved Fujioka off a step, she felt the oomph as the seconds ticked down. They rumbled to the final bell, and hugged.
Beto said he thought Fujioka nicked it, and Esparza concurred. “They were close rounds,” Beto said, and Esparza again agreed.
To the cards we went –Martinez read off a 95-95 result…then a 99-91, and a 96-94…winner by majority decision, and “stilllllllll…….”
Fujioka's face lit up into a mix of joy and relief, while Sulem, who had high hopes of getting her hand raised, fixated especially on that 99-91 card from Dr. Lou Moret. None of the announce crew called out the 99-91 card, Teddy Atlas nor his influence were in effect. But I will.
I think it would suit Sulem, and Dr. Moret, and the California commission, if maybe Lou reads this column, with a spirit of open-mindedness, that maybe he's missing a good deal of Sulem's skill set.
“Overall, I won a lot of fans and got nothing but love from people, which makes me happy because before the fight so many people talked, saying I was gonna get stopped and that wasn’t the case at all, I was never hurt,” Sulem said. “I was the stronger one in there. Was she what I expected? I expected more… people talked about her like she was so powerful, everyone I spoke to told me to be careful because she was very strong. And in the ring, I felt stronger.”
Sulem has been running the fight in her mind since right after the decision got dispensed. “Overall, I felt I boxed her very well and I should’ve kept doing it, but my team wanted me to go forward since I was stronger and would rock her every time I landed,” she continued. “I should’ve just boxed, it was easier. Either way Moret gave me one round,” she said, with a rueful chuckle.
No, she didn't see the work she did as a version of a win, and pop corks after the loss. “I never really celebrate, win or lose,” she said. “I just ordered some pizza for my friends that came to see me. They are good people, they always help me with little things here and there, helping me buy training shoes or supplements and whatnot. They made the trip out to my fight and I just wanted to spend some time with them and thank them.”
On Sunday, Sulem fixated a bit on the Moret curse. By Monday, she settled into a mode of more serene acceptance. “It was a good entertaining fight,” Sulem said. “I’ll improve. I feel better after this loss. Obviously, a loss doesn’t feel good, but after Marlen I was so insecure, not sure if I could come back. After this loss, I know I can. I know I am right there, close to a world title.”
My Three Cents: You get a sense of Sulem's character, I think. Outside looking in, it's easy to look at her recent past, her humility (and proper level of pride, on display as she didn't pull a punch with me, and pretend to be totally cool with the cards), and guess that probably Golden Boy understands her skill set and her potential to keep adding to her fanbase.
Next time, I'd guess we see Sulem put in a bout where she's the A side, and maybe the recipient of the benefit of the doubt in a tossup round. Tussling with Esparza and then Fujioka, she's earned it.