U.S. boxers Claressa Shields, Marlen Esparza to help make history

LAS VEGAS — Claressa Shields and Marlen Esparza are standing in a hotel suite 12 floors above the Las Vegas Strip, posing for publicity shots for USA Boxing, when a photographer asks the two Olympians to face each other and try to look mean.

Bad idea. Because before anyone can say “cheese,” the fighters are laughing uncontrollably, bringing the photo shoot to an end.

Yet that laugh is one of the few things the two women share. Well, that and a footnote in history since Shields and Esparza — along with middleweight Queen Underwood of Seattle — will make up the first U.S. Olympic boxing team for women this summer in London.

By just about every other measure, they’re as different as a right jab and a left hook.

Shields learned to fight by beating up boys. Esparza learned to box by watching boys beat up each other.

Shields rarely backs down from a challenge; Esparza hates confrontation. And when it comes time to enter the ring, Shields, the U.S. Olympic trials champion at 165 pounds, has to be forced to fix her hair, but Esparza, a six-time national champion at 106 and 112 pounds, primps as if it’s prom night.

“When I get ready for a fight, it’s kind of like I’m getting ready for a date,” Esparza says. “I take a shower. Perfume. I shave. I fix my hair. I pray.”

Esparza, ranked sixth in the world at 112 pounds, is a serious medal contender in London in what she promises will be the last major tournament of her career.

“Right now it’s 100% boxing,” says the Houston native, who took a break from her hometown college to train for the Olympics. “As soon as I step off the airplane it’s going to be 100% school.”

Esparza, who will turn 23 two days after the opening ceremony in London, has been boxing more than half her life. Her Mexican-born father, David, who traveled frequently when Esparza was growing up, is a huge fan of the sport, so his daughter quickly became one as well, sitting beside her father for hours watching tapes of former world champion Julio Cesar Chavez.

“I loved boxing,” remembers Esparza, the third of four children of divorced parents. “When he was home … we would watch together. And that’s what my childhood memories are.”

And though David pushed his two sons into boxing, Marlen had to beg her father to let her try — and at first it looked like a bad match.

“It’s funny, I don’t really like to fight,” says Esparza, who has lost only once to an American in the last decade. “I don’t like confrontation.”

She has other traits some may consider rare for a fighter. At her high school in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, Texas, she was the student body president and graduated in the top 2% of her class. And despite a dozen years of stopping punches with her face, Esparza’s deep brown eyes, high cheekbones and wide smile have made her the first U.S. amateur boxer to sign an endorsement deal with CoverGirl.

“We don’t have to look like men to fight like men,” Esparza says.

Esparza said she realized none of the bouts she watched growing up featured women — but she never thought that meant she was excluded.

“I didn’t see it as an only-guys sport,” she remembers. “I saw it was only guys, but it didn’t click like that. I was young.”

Because of her size — the 5-foot-3 Esparza’s natural weight is 106 pounds, but in London she’ll compete at 112, the smallest of the three divisions for women in their Olympic boxing debut — Esparza has spent much of her career sparring against men. And that has helped her coach, Rudy Silva, mold a ring style that allows Esparza to batter opponents aggressively in one bout, then outpoint them in a chess match the next time.

Shields’ story is a little different because growing up in Flint, Mich., she didn’t need to find a gym if she wanted a fight.

“I got into a lot of street fights,” she says. “Once after school I beat a guy up. My big brother was always getting into fights. So I’d jump in and help him.”

For part of that childhood, Shields’ father, Clarence, who boxed as an amateur under the nickname “Cannonball,” was in prison. And since that ended his boxing career, Shields says she was determined to take his place in the ring.

But it wasn’t until she was 11 that her father let her try, taking her to Flint’s historic Berston Field House, where he was sure his daughter would be beaten up, then quit.

Six years later, the 17-year-old high school junior is the youngest boxer to make a U.S. Olympic team since Davey Lee Armstrong fought as a 16-year-old in Munich 40 years ago.

“I always stress to her, just be yourself,” says Rau’shee Warren, a three-time Olympian and mentor to Shields who also boxed in the Games as a 17-year-old. “Don’t let anybody tell you want you can’t do, what you should do.”

A two-time junior Olympic champion, Shields was too young to compete in a senior tournament until last fall, when she entered — and won — the national Police Athletic League championship, the final Olympic trials qualifier. Four months later she rolled unbeaten through February’s trials and then to prove that was no fluke she demolished reigning world champion Roseli Feitosa of Brazil and Canada’s Mary Spencer, a three-time world champion, in her international debut at the Continental Championships in Canada.

But she nearly missed the trip to London after suffering her first loss, to Britain’s Savannah Marshall, in the second round of last month’s world championships in China. The International Amateur Boxing Assn.'s byzantine qualification rules forced Shields to sweat out the rest of the tournament before rewarding her with an Olympic berth when Marshall advanced to the middleweight final.

(Underwood, 28, who lost a prelim bout in China by a point, had to wait even longer, learning just a few days ago that she had been awarded the 12th and final Olympic berth at 132 pounds.)

Once the panic had passed, Shields came to see the loss as a learning experience.

“I had never fought against a girl whose plan was just to survive,” says Shields, a punishing puncher like her father. “I was asking myself, how come those girls just walk straight up to me in the middle of the ring and fight? And she didn’t do that. She moved around the ring. Whenever I got in close she held me.

“It’s not like she beat me. I just used the wrong tactics.”

She vows to be ready in London.

“I know I’m going,” she says. “I get a little bit more excited every day.”