Sports

Promising middleweight Maricela Cornejo hopes to push the popularity of women’s boxing

Maricela Cornejo
Maricela Cornejo trains on Sept. 30 for her upcoming bout with Eliza Olson.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

As women’s boxing has found increased support this year from promoters and sanctioning bodies, the cause of lifting the sport’s popularity turns to fighters like Los Angeles middleweight Maricela Cornejo.

Cornejo is the same age – 29 — as the UFC’s best-known female fighter, Ronda Rousey, and her promise has caught the attention of World Boxing Council President Mauricio Sulaiman, Golden Boy Promotions Chairman Oscar De La Hoya and a Mexican promoter who’s promised her three bouts a year.

“There’s a reason she’s fighting. She’s exciting, she brings the heat, and 2017 can be a good year for women’s boxing,” De La Hoya said. “We’ll test her out and take it from there.”

On Friday night, Cornejo (4-2, two knockouts) meets former WBC lightweight champion Eliza Olson in the co-main event of Golden Boy’s card at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles.

Training at the Azteca Boxing Club in Bell, the bilingual Cornejo said she’s eager to display the strides she’s shown under trainer Mario “Yuka” Morales, who previously trained the late two-division world champion Edwin Valero.

“I believe I have the talent, the personality and heart to be a face of boxing. I’m just getting to my peak,” Cornejo said. “It just takes a promoter with big [guts] to give us an opportunity. We need to ask the promoters: ‘Why are you afraid?’ [UFC President] Dana White was brilliant for packaging Ronda the way he did. Now, boxing promoters should give women’s fighting the same tender, loving care they give to Canelo [Alvarez].”

Norway’s Cecilia Braekhus is an unbeaten unified welterweight champion. Two-time U.S. Olympic gold-medalist Claressa Shields is expected to turn pro soon. New York promoter Lou DiBella is pushing for a featherweight unification bout next year between his fighter, Amanda Serrano, and talented Canadian Jelena Mrdjenovich, as a Showtime main event.

Cornejo packs a punch and a powerful message.

She found boxing as a sanctuary from the torment she suffered after being molested by a family friend when she was 5. She bottled up the abuse for years, attempting suicide several times.

“I pointed a butcher knife to my stomach [at age 12], saying to myself, ‘Do it, do it,’” she said. “I was battling my own mind, because I never shared that story with anyone.”

She also battled an addiction to methamphetamine and served some jail time, before, in a moment of redemption, she fell to her knees to pray, staring at a family picture, and resolved, “My mother didn’t raise me to be this way.”

Cornejo turned to fitness and acting work. She decided a fighting career “could help other people, to show them everything is possible and to not stand in darkness.”

Her ascent has been quick.

She suffered a split-decision loss in April to WBC middleweight champion Kali Reis in New Zealand, but is counting on Friday’s fight to lead to another bout in November as her notoriety expands.

She makes no apologies that her looks have likely accelerated her opportunities.

“Do what you’ve got to do, but don’t sell your soul,” she said. “Use [beauty] to get attention, and then showcase skill.

“I can play my cards well, just like others play theirs with me. The world is just a game. As long as women understand it and hold themselves up accordingly — surpass what they expect of you … .

“So I go in the ring to give my heart, to give everything, to stick to my plan, and if Plan A and B don’t work, Viva Mexico!, let’s go at it.”

lance.pugmire@latimes.com

Twitter: @latimespugmire