She looked formidable, even against a boy named Frankie.
Seniesa was 10, long-limbed and lithe. She strode across the ring, tentative at first, then gaining confidence with each step, shoulders back, chin tucked, gloved fists wagging.
Frankie Gomez was her age. But he'd been boxing for four years, more than 30 bouts, almost all victories. He was stronger and more experienced, so he sparred as her foil. He worked on his defense while she worked on her offense. He punched only to hold her off.
"Come on, baby, come on," chanted Joe Estrada, 44, her father. "Hit him. Hit him."
With each combination, she forced Frankie to step backward. For every step he retreated, she took a step forward, coiled quickly and let the gloves fly again.
Whap-whap-whap: the sound of a BB gun. Her ponytail whirled around her head. Whap-whap-whap. She pressed against him.
He fought back, throwing a right-left combination, his fist mashing her nose, followed by a punch that glanced against her shoulder and knocked her to the left. Sweat flew from her thin arms and glistened on the silver-painted canvas.
Frankie weaved and ducked and turned, creating little openings that she tried to seize. Some of her punches hit his gloves. Some hit his chin.
He grimaced, feeling the sting.
"Come on, Seniesa." It was Joe, again. "Hit him. Attack."
Whap-whap. Whap-whap. Step by step, she forced him across the ring, 25 feet square.
Then her father told her to finish him off. "Last ones, baby. Power punches, baby."
I stood against the ropes, a foot away. Joe's sweaty green T-shirt smelled like sour buttermilk. I saw a gleam in Seniesa's eyes.
She stepped forward, right fist leading.
From outside the ropes, a cross section of the neighborhood — gang thugs, muscled men, scrawny boys, teenage girls and middle-aged mothers — clapped loudly, especially the women. "Go, girl, go!" they shouted. "Dang, she's good. Dang, she is tough."
"Come on, mija," Joe said. "Come on. Come forward. Are you tired?"
"No," she huffed, around her plastic mouthpiece. She homed in on Frankie, who leaned against the ropes. Whap-whap-whap.
And it was over. Frankie reached out to touch her gloves, appreciative of her work.
Joe kissed Seniesa on the forehead, where her hair parted in the middle. "Good, mija, good. That's the way. You're gonna be a champ."
Being a champ. It was what she wanted. It was what Joe wanted for her. She was 4 feet 8 and just under 70 pounds when I first saw them. He was an ex-gangster, had done hard time and was not long off heroin. She had a dream: to win an Olympic gold medal, then to become a champion boxer, like her hero, Muhammad Ali. Her dream was Joe's dream.
If she made it come true, I realized, she would have to do it against long odds. The Olympics still didn't have events for female fighters. She could not get many matches; few girls wanted to box. She would have to do it despite her mother; Maryann Chavez worried about injuries and wanted her to become a cheerleader. She might even have to do it despite her father; Joe was her coach, but he was an ex-junkie with a blistering temper and a street instinct for revenge. One slip could send him back to prison.
Divorced from Maryann in 1996, Joe brawled with her boyfriend about a year and a half afterward. It was one of the upheavals in Seniesa's family that had a way of ambushing her. All it took was Seniesa's complaint that the boyfriend had twisted her arm.
Joe's anger flared. A few evenings later, he lay in wait outside Maryann's apartment. As the boyfriend left, Joe appeared.
Don't be f------ with my kids! he said, and he launched a fierce barrage of blows. With pride, he would recall that he had dropped the boyfriend in his tracks.
Joe stood over him. Seniesa, that's my baby, he said. Don't you ever touch her again. Seniesa didn't see the fight. But she did see the boyfriend barge back into her mother's apartment, blood pouring from his face. He had a swollen eye and a fat lip. Seniesa's grandfather was there. He had known Joe for years. Don't go against him, she heard her grandfather say. That fool is crazy. He will kill you. Maryann thought Joe was jealous of her boyfriend. But to Seniesa and her father, the brawl was about defending Seniesa. She was proud, grateful even, that he would go to such lengths, but she knew what might happen if he ever killed someone. He'd already served time for robbery. This could take him away from her for life.
Boxing was still new to Seniesa: the tournaments, held in sweaty, tinderbox gyms in the middle of tough neighborhoods; the spectators, breathing down on the ring, hoping for a knockout; the air, heavy with cigarette smoke and the smell of stale beer. Boxing was hard, ugly. But even when she lost, she loved every bit of it.
By the fall of 2002, she had started winning, and not just in sparring matches with boys like Frankie. Her reputation grew. Police Athletic League champ. Silver Gloves champ. The best little girl fighter in East Los Angeles. Sometimes it scared opponents away. They would find out they were fighting Seniesa Estrada, and they wouldn't show up.
She could always count on Joe. Always.
"I see her becoming an Olympic gold medal winner," he said. "And after that, a pro, champion of the world." We were standing outside the ring at the Hollenbeck Youth Center, a noisy athletic emporium on 1st Street, watching her train. His voice sharpened, mimicking Ali: "Cham-PEEN of the world. Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."
He reminded me that several women boxed professionally, and that women's boxing was at least being considered for the Olympics. "I guess I'm living my life through her," he said. "I always wanted the chance to be Olympic gold medal champion. Just like Paul Gonzales. I see her becoming something that I could have been if I would have not been around the environment that I was."
Like her father, Seniesa was enamored of the violence she could wreak with her fists. "I love how it feels," she told me. She noticed my brows rise. She looked me in the eye, something she didn't often do. "I like to hit people." In the ring, she said, she lost track of time and her surroundings. All she felt was a flash of energy, and all she saw were her own boxing gloves, lashing out, striking a nose, a cheek, a stomach. It was something similar to what her father felt in a street fight. It was what he called entering "the zone."
But she did not want him to go back to the streets. She sighed and shuddered when she thought about it. She knew she was doing this for him as much as for herself. "It helps him," she told me. "Helps give him something that's, like, good to do." She knew she must keep doing as he told her. "My dad keeps motivating me to keep boxing. He keeps telling me to practice and train.
"He says, 'We have to do this.' "
'Not Afraid of Nothing' "Three-three-three!" Joe yelled.
A three was a left hook. A two was a straight right.
It was Oct. 2, 2002, four days until the Desert Showdown, in Thermal, near Palm Springs. I watched her drill and spar and run miles through a park, then climb back into the ring and slam her fists into her father's big gloves as he shouted numbers that signaled the punches he wanted her to throw.
She pounded his mitts, rapid-fire. Whop-whop-whop.
Each blow came with an "OOMPH" — first from her pursed lips when she threw them, then from Joe when he took them. As she waded toward him, fists up, he began jabbing softly at her head, to keep her honest.
When they finished, he wrapped his arms around her narrow shoulders. "Nobody can beat you, baby. NO-BAH-DEE!" They leaned against the ropes. "She's fierce, Kurt. She's not afraid of nothing. NAH-THING."
At school that day, a girl had slapped Seniesa. "They were playing," Joe said, "and the little girl started getting rough and hit my girl. Seniesa, what did you do?"
"Smacked her back. Smacked her in the jaw."
He patted her shoulder.
"That was the end of it," she added.
I reminded Joe that he frequently spoke of his Christianity. At school, wouldn't Jesus counsel Seniesa to turn the other cheek?
"Kurt, there's a time and a place for that," he said. "Sometimes you have to hit back. That's in the Bible too."
He turned to Seniesa. "Honey," he said, "you're ready for this weekend."
They left the afternoon before the tournament, everyone in Joe's maroon van: Seniesa and boy boxers from her gym, who trained with her every day and were becoming her surrogate brothers.
They were boisterous and cocky. She was guarded, trying to figure out her place, still too unsure to look them in the eye. They were thick and powerful, with meaty hands, callused skin and ropes of muscle that snaked around their shoulders. She was soft-skinned and bony. What muscles she had were still not visible.
The boys looked tough, with shaved heads or stubby crew cuts. She looked pretty, hair done up in a trademark ponytail, bunched together and tied with a colored band. They wore rumpled black shorts and smelly shirts. She wore blue shorts and pressed T-shirts, white and pink, adorned with cartoon kittens, smiley faces and sweet sayings: FBI — Forever Beautiful and Innocent. They had fight names, such as El Terror, embroidered on their shorts. She had no fight name, just the nicknames her family had given her: NeeNee and Pookie. At ringside, onlookers sometimes called her, simply, the girl.
The van pulled up at La Familia High School. Two beige canvas rings had been set up in a baseball field. Joe and Seniesa checked in with tournament officials. Dozens of boxers, their families and trainers milled around. They came from as far away as Utah. Most were Latino, but only a few were girls.
An official told Joe that his daughter would fight someone named Kelly, from Arizona. Walking in the grass not far from the ring, Seniesa spotted a girl her size, wearing boxing shorts. Are you Kelly from Arizona? she asked.
The girl nodded.
Seniesa sized her up.
Later, at the hotel where she, her father and the boys were staying, she told me: "I'm gonna beat that girl, Kelly from Arizona. Beat her up."
She looked in her bag. "Gloves, headgear, pads. Good," she said, quietly. She sat down. Then she got back up and went through the bag again. "Gloves, headgear, pads. Got it."
"Nervous?" I asked.
"No," she said. Her voice rose. "I trained so hard for this." She swore she had no butterflies, but her face betrayed her. It was gray.
Noon came and sent the temperature to 100 degrees. At the school, mariachi music blared, and the air filled with the aroma of grilled pork, beef and corn. Two teenage boys fought. The crowd moaned with each stiff punch, every quick hook. Men hollered, jumped and high-fived. "He got 'em good!" "That boy got skills." "That boy got straight cojones!"
Near the ring, Seniesa sat in a chair as a trainer wrapped her hands tightly with gauze and white tape. Then she rose and walked among the boxers and officials.
"Did you see Kelly from Arizona?" she asked.
To another, she said, "I'm fighting Kelly from Arizona. Have you seen her?"
She spotted Joe. "Dad, do you see her? Do you see Kelly from Arizona?"
She shadow-boxed. Her taped fists hammered the air. "I've been waiting for this one," she said. She turned away. I could see her talking to herself as she punched. "I'm not nervous. I'm not nervous."
Joe walked toward us, head down. "Bad news, baby."
Seniesa stopped. She looked up.
"She's not here," Joe said. "Kelly from Arizona is not here. They don't know what happened. She left."
"What does that mean? Kelly from Arizona isn't here?"
"Well, it looks like she went home. You don't have a fight. There's no one for you to fight."
"Oh," she mumbled, voice sagging. She looked away, toward a thicket of nearby palm trees, mouth open slightly, as if she wanted to say something. "Oh."
Slowly, gingerly, she took her puffy boxing gloves and stuffed them into her bag.
They walked back to the van, his arm around her, the only sound coming from the crunch of their feet on parking lot gravel. Both stared at the ground. She began to unwrap the tape from her firsts.
"I can't believe this," Joe said, angrily. They were leaving without a fight. He wanted to swear, but he tried not to around his angel. "Just a bunch of garbage," he said. "Just a real bunch of bull."
On the freeway back to Los Angeles, he told her not to worry. She would get more fights. She just had to hang in there. But his words could not make the devastation go away. He glanced at her.
She was crying, using the tape to dab away the tears.
A Mother's Misgivings If it wasn't an opponent fleeing, or her father brawling, then it was her mother. Maryann could ambush Seniesa's dreams just as surely as any other challenge outside the ring. Seniesa didn't get home from the tournament until nearly midnight. It was a school night, and her mother was waiting up. She was upset.
Maryann wasn't keen on boxing. If Seniesa wanted to box, she'd let her, but she worried that her little girl was going to suffer a brain clot, worried that she would break her nose and lose her prettiness. She wanted her daughter to become a cheerleader and hoped that she would soon discover boys. Then, maybe, she wouldn't care so much about boxing.
Barely in the door, Seniesa looked into her black bag and realized that she had left her math book at her father's house. Maryann's unhappiness doubled. Maybe the forgotten book was a sign, she said: It's not good to spend so much time boxing. With that, Seniesa picked up the phone. She would recall choking back tears. Dad, she blurted. Help.
Maryann took the phone away and told Joe to meet her downtown, at a midpoint between El Sereno and where he lived. Bring the math book.
Joe couldn't have cared less about the math book. He feared that Maryann would make Seniesa quit fighting.
You bitch, he would recall shouting into his cellphone. Don't tell her she can't box. Bitch? Don't you call me a bitch!
They raged at each other. Maryann had a new boyfriend. He took the phone, hoping to make peace.
Joe told him not to butt in.
The boyfriend said he had every right to butt in.
I'm coming over right now! Joe said. You wait. Seniesa looked up. Her mother's boyfriend paced near the door. Seniesa was shocked at how fast a forgotten book had turned into chaos. She braced herself. Oh, man, she would remember thinking, I bet it's gonna end up in a fight. I bet. Her father had been ready for bed, in his long white boxer shorts with his white tube socks pulled snugly to his knees. He started to put on his jeans, but then he began having doubts: Don't be stupid, man. You don't need to be going over there. You're gonna get there, and Maryann is gonna call the cops, and it's gonna be nothing but bad. And if you do fight, what's your little girl gonna think? This will scare her. This won't be good for her to see. He took off the jeans and slipped them back into a drawer. The math book was forgotten.
Seniesa was glad nothing happened. Cops could mean prison, and prison could take him away from her for a long time. Besides, she was fond of her mother's new boyfriend, who had a past like her father's. She did not want them to fight.
But one evening soon afterward, when her father drove her home, her mother and the boyfriend pulled up at the same time. Seniesa walked to the porch and turned to see the two men get out of their cars and walk toward each other.
What's up, dog? her father said. You were talking a lot of s---. You still want to get down, or what?' Seniesa watched her mother's boyfriend take off his shirt. The two men began throwing punches. Her mother's boyfriend rushed at her father, bending, clutching, not letting go. Her father hit him in the head, got him in a headlock and twisted him to the ground. They cursed, swore and jabbed.
Finally, the boyfriend got loose and stalked off, yelling.
Seniesa claimed later that she had felt no fear. She had seen street fights before, she said, and even had fallen to the floor one time at the sound of gunshots outside her mother's apartment. This wasn't about to faze her. "My dad had control," she told me, describing his dominance of the fight. We were eating lunch. She sat next to her father and chomped away on a French fry, not a care in the world. "It wasn't even like a real fight."
To Joe and Maryann, the fight was very real. Maryann got a restraining order, on the grounds that Seniesa's father was a menace.
Joe felt awful. Here he was, supposedly turning his life around, supposedly a God-fearing man, and his street instincts were still getting the better of him. He was still fighting, still letting his anger loose, right in front of the kids and the neighbors and Maryann.
"Hopefully, one day," he told me, "I will learn not to get involved in stuff like that. Hopefully, one day, I will see it isn't worth it."
It took weeks before Maryann let him pick up Seniesa at her apartment again. When he did, he was forced to stay half a block away. He parked his van down the street and called on his cellphone to say she should come out.
In the next few months, Seniesa entered four tournaments. Each time, she couldn't get a match. She got trophies and belts by default. They meant nothing. She didn't earn them by hitting anyone.
Maybe her mother was right. Maybe boxing shouldn't be such a big deal. Maybe boxing wasn't for her. Maybe boxing was just not for girls.
She knew her dreams were her father's dreams, and she knew that if she quit, he would be without his redeeming angel.
But his brawling and the restraining order were keeping them apart.
They were in Joe's van, leaving the gym one afternoon, when Seniesa began to tell him what she was thinking. She was tired of training so much and not getting any fights, tired of seeing boy boxers get plenty of them, while she got so few.
Dad, she said, I think I should quit.
Notes on Chapter Two
Sparring with Frankie: Observed by Streeter, who stood ringside at the Hollenbeck Youth Center. Words are as he heard them.
The divorce: From Joe and Maryann. Corroborated by civil court records showing that Maryann's petition for dissolution of marriage was granted Nov. 12, 1996.
Joe's brawl with Maryann's boyfriend: From Joe and Seniesa. Confirmed in civil court complaint filed by Maryann, showing the fight happened April 24, 1998. The boyfriend's return to Maryann's apartment and the grandfather's warning about Joe's violent streak are from Seniesa and Maryann. That Seniesa was proud of her father for supporting her but aware of the consequences is from Seniesa. Words spoken are as Joe, Seniesa and Maryann recall them.
Seniesa's early victories and her growing reputation: From Seniesa's, Joe's and Streeter's observations at youth boxing tournaments in the Los Angeles area. References to her reputation and skill also come from Streeter's interviews with parents; boxing officials, including Krysti Rosario, an athlete representative on the board of directors of USA Boxing; coaches, including Manuel Jimenez, formerly of the 1st Street Boxing Gym; and other young boxers, including Victor Mata, Adelaide Ruiz and Gabriel Cruz. "The best little girl fighter in East Los Angeles" is a description from Danny Hernandez, director of the Hollenbeck Youth Center.
Joe's dreams and Seniesa's awareness that her boxing helps her father stay straight: From Streeter's interviews with Joe and Seniesa in October 2002, with Joe in March 2003 and throughout May and June 2004, and with Seniesa in January 2005.
Training for the Desert Showdown: Observed by Streeter at ringside. Words spoken are as he heard them. The contrasts between Seniesa and the boy boxers are as Streeter observed them.
The Desert Showdown, including Seniesa's search for Kelly: Observed by Streeter. Words are as he heard them.
Seniesa cries on the way home: From interviews with Joe and Seniesa.
Fighting words over Seniesa, her math book and boxing: From interviews with Seniesa and Joe in June and July 2003, with Joe and Maryann in June 2004 and with Maryann's boyfriend, who spoke on condition of anonymity, in July 2004. Their words are as they remember them. Seniesa's thoughts are as she remembers them.
Joe resists the urge to brawl: From an interview with Joe in May 2004. His thoughts are as he remembers them. Seniesa's relief is as she expressed it to Streeter.
Joe brawls with Maryann's boyfriend after all: From interviews with Joe and Maryann in May 2003, and with Seniesa, Joe, Maryann, her boyfriend and Seniesa's brothers in May and June 2004. Words spoken are as they remember them. Seniesa's feelings are as she described them to Streeter.
Maryann gets a restraining order: From interviews with Maryann and Joe in May and June 2004. Corroborated by court records filed Oct. 11, 2002, by Maryann in Los Angeles County Superior Court. The records specify that Joe must stay 100 yards away from Maryann, her residence, place of work and vehicle. Streeter accompanied Joe on several occasions when Joe had to park his car away from the house and call on his cellphone for Seniesa to come meet him. It was on these occasions that Joe spoke to Streeter about how he wanted to stop fighting.
Seniesa's thoughts about her mother and father and boxing: From interviews with Seniesa and Joe in May, June and July 2004.
A frustrated Seniesa tells her father that she should quit: From interviews with Seniesa in December 2003 and with Seniesa and Joe in July and August 2004 and May 2005. Her words are as they remember them.