No Man’s Land – How Argentina became a haven for female boxing
By Diego Morilla
Imagine a basketball player making his debut in an NBA game against MJ’s Bulls. Or a big league hitter wannabe making his first trip to the plate to face a Cy Young winner in a World Series game. Or a rookie driver fresh out of his license test taking the pole position at Daytona.
That’s exactly what happened to Marcela Acuña 15 years ago.
“My idol back then was Christy Martin,” recalls Acuña, proud owner of her native Argentina’s first-ever female boxing license and former multiple champion, during a break at a ceremony in the Buenos Aires legislature to honor her achievement as well as those of her fellow female fighters.
“When I saw her fight, I said ‘I want to be like her, and I want to be recognized and become a champion.’ And without even really trying, my very first fight was against her!,” adds Acuña, remembering her debut as a fighter on a special license granted by the Argentine Boxing Federation that allowed her to travel to Florida and face Martin in December of 1997.
Granted, there is a parallelism in her story and that of the first Argentine fighter to ever challenge for a world title: Luis Angel Firpo, who traveled to New York to face the formidable Jack Dempsey back in 1923 in front of a record live gate. But unlike Firpo, Acuña had very little previous experience in a country in which female boxing was not yet regulated, but back then it took another 40 years for the country to produce its first champion in Pascual Perez.
Fast forward to the present day.
Today, merely 15 years after Acuña got her license card with the number “0001” on it, Argentina boasts a huge number of female champions that include consummate stars like Yesica Bopp, Erica Farias and Carolina Duer, and a group of young, up-and-coming fighters like Yesica Marcos, Celeste Peralta, Daniela Bermudez and many others.
And Acuña’s stock as the founder and main catalyst of this movement grows exponentially by the day.
“I believe this is the result of what we do every time we get in the ring, and because we had Marcela Acuña as our example”, said Erica Farias, one of today’s most prominent fighters and a current titlist in her own right. “She is an example of dedication and commitment, and now we are a world power with over 25 world champions thanks to her. That’s no small task.”
Another fellow pioneer agrees with her.
“Even though we are ladies and we are feminine and all that, we get up there and leave everything in the ring, and that is what really attracts people to us,” says Yesica Bopp, the country’s first winner of a female amateur fight back in 2001 when she defeated her gym mate Alejandra Romero over four rounds. “We demonstrated that we are not only fighters who can throw punches, but we are also moms, managers, wives, and much more. We cover a lot of ground and people respect us for that.”
Acuña’s trail-blazing effort, however, did not come without sacrifices. After getting a special permit to fight Martin abroad in 1997, she got another one to face another all-time great in Lucia Rijker in 1998, in a terribly risky fight that many other fighters would save for the final days of their careers, but which Acuña took without hesitation.
But not even that courageous attitude towards her career brought her the respect she wanted.
After two years of toiling the Argentine legal system in search of a way to have her new profession recognized and properly regulated, Acuña found no other way to call attention upon her struggle than to chain herself to the door of the Argentine Boxing Federation and remain there until they granted her the license she wanted.
“Getting my license took many years of work and sacrifice to achieve,” understates Acuña. “Back then, I was hesitant at first, but then I said ‘here I go, because it’s not only the legalization of female boxing what is at stake, it’s also the Argentine flag and my very name what’s at stake. If I fail I will forever be considered a crazy lady who wants to fight even though boxing is not a proper sport for women.”
“But after that, people started calling me ‘Lady Firpo’”, says the fighter, as she points out at some of the obvious parallelisms between her career and that of the legendary Wild Bull of the Pampas.
Firpo was also granted the very first boxing license in Argentina only after traveling abroad to face a seemingly insurmountable challenge in Dempsey, and the anniversary of that fight was latter established as the Day of the Boxer in Argentina (September 14th). And now, the Day of the Female Boxer was established on March 24th, the date in which Acuña’s license was granted.
Many years later, another inspiring figure would give new life to Argentine boxing, and the ladies would be the first ones to feel the impact of the new era.
THE MARVELOUS YEARS
“In the neighborhood clubs and gyms, there was almost no boxing, but now every club has a boxing gym”, says Bopp, about the growing interest in the sport spawned by the emergence of one particular fighter in the national consciousness. “And it became popular because ‘Maravilla’ brought a lot of attention to boxing. It was a before and after him.”
Oddly enough, Sergio Martinez became an overnight sensation only after his dramatic fight against Julio Cesar Chavez Jr., even in spite of his stellar career before that bout.
After the Chavez fight, Martinez became so popular that weddings, birthday parties and other social events were routinely rescheduled after the dates of his fights were announced, in fear that most of the invitees would fail to show up and chose to watch the fight instead. That’s how popular he became, and he caused a lot of people to turn to boxing for the first time.
“’Maravilla’ was a breath of fresh air in Argentine boxing,” says Farias. “Either in the ring or outside of it, his presence as charismatic person brought a lot of attention to boxing, and we need to acknowledge that”, says Farias, who took her acknowledgement to the highest level by tattooing Martinez’s name on her right shoulder.
Farias’ tattoo, however, is not just an empty compliment or a symbolic way to summon Martinez’s mojo into her own career. Sergio’s raise to fame helped pave the way to many female athletes from the most impoverished regions of the country, girls who would otherwise not have access to sports that are usually reserved for middle-high class girls such as field hockey (a sport in which Argentine ladies have excelled), tennis and many others.
Farias is fully aware of the male stereotypes that female fighters had to overcome during their trip to the top.
“It is a cultural thing, isn’t it? When a boy is born in Argentina, he gets a soccer ball or a pair of gloves. And they have issues trying to accept female boxing. It is a macho culture, but we continue opening doors. I believe everything will change in time, and that women will have more opportunities in sports in the future”.
The cultural changes may also bring new ideas for Christmas gifts for boys and girls alike.
“Of course I can imagine it!,” says Farias, when asked about the day in which girls would find pink boxing gloves under their Christmas tree. “In a few years, it can totally happen! It would be a great achievement for us, and it would mean that we have opened a new space for Argentine girls. A few years from now, our achievements will be a part of history, and the effects will surely be felt for many years.”
With almost 30 champions already in the books and at least a half-dozen top contenders on deck, Argentina seems to have a bright future in female boxing, and Acuña hopes that the 25th anniversary of her achievement, a mere ten years from now, will see the number of current champions grow exponentially – and then some.
“One thousand”, she quips, without hesitation, when asked about how many champions Argentina will have in the next ten years. “If we had 27 in only 15 years, we can easily have one thousand! And I will never take less than that!” says Acuña, who instantly regrets her prediction to adjust the number to a still unrealistic “one hundred.”
“Seriously, with the current stable of great amateur fighters, we can get at least five more champs in the next few years,” says Acuña lowering her own prediction one last time, and Farias agrees.
“I am not sure about having ‘one thousand champs,’”, she laughs, “but I definitely believe that Argentine fighters are capable of reaching the best level in the world”, says Farias. “The Argentine fighter, when properly trained, is very dangerous. And we are not only going to keep up our current level, we’re going to grow and expand and continue winning more titles. This tribute to female boxing by the legislature is going to help Argentine female boxing to grow even more, because it brings even more respect towards our work”.
Having become a mother recently, Bopp is even more connected to the realities of juggling between several different tasks, and has even more realistic expectations about the future of female boxing.
“We’re going to continue growing in the future, because even though we have a lot of champions we need to strive for more quality than quantity”, says Bopp, one of the most refined and technically proficient fighters the country has ever produced.
“By having more quality, the bar will be raised higher for the up-and-comers, and they will have to take more risks and improve more if they want to succeed. This will benefit the entire sport,” says Bopp, and while she excuses herself to leave the party early she gives further proof of the camaraderie and the mutual support that binds them and that drives this group of fighters to give their best while they represent each other, winner or loser, in the ring.
“My nanny is Alejandra and she has to go to bed early to train tomorrow”, she says, in reference to her very first opponent and current au pair. “I got to get home to take care of my baby”.
When she gets there, she may find the next great female champion leaving the house, and her successor sleeping in a cradle, dreaming and waiting for the chance to wear her mom’s crown one day.