Fresh Faces: Sulem Urbina
(Editor’s note: Sulem Urbina’s fight set for Saturday was canceled)
Like my many female fighters before her and surely after her, Sulem Urbina, 26, of Phoenix, AZ, has dedicated her life to the sport she loves. Her whole life revolves around her strapping on the gloves.
Urbina (3-0) has sacrificed not only her time, effort and money to the sport but also because of it, has found her partner, husband and trainer Andrew Soto.
The story of how Urbina, whose fight scheduled for Saturday, January 28th at the Fantasy Springs Casino was postponed, is like many young ladies who fell in love with the sport early and decided to make a run in it.
“Ever since I was a young little girl I was into sports. I was never the little girl that played with dolls or anything like that,” Urbina said after a hard day of training. “I was always playing basketball, soccer, baseball and my older brothers started attending a local boxing club. I was ten years old at the time. I tried to go but of course they said no. They said, ‘you are my little sister, why would we take you?’ They didn’t want to and I begged my dad to make them take me. I got my way; my father forced them to take me to the gym with them. I fell in love with the sport.”
Like many Mexican families chasing the American dream in the United States, boxing was a reason to get together to cook, enjoy each other’s company and connect with the country they left behind.
“Boxing was something that was born between us brothers because nobody in our family has ever boxed. My dad sings and he plays instruments but nothing with boxing. We would watch boxing on TV but it wasn’t like anybody in our family ever did it. We grew up watching (Julio Cesar) Chavez fight, (Erik) Morales, everybody, every time there was a big fight my parents would have a barbeque on Saturday and we would watch it with the family. Everybody was a boxing fan.”
The difficulty of the sport is what first drew Urbina to it added on with the physical torture each fighter endures to get in fighting shape. It is what challenged the young 10 year-old little to practice for a year before having her first amateur fight at the age of 11 in the nearby city of Tucson, AZ.
“It was away from home so my parents didn’t go watch me or my brother. I was on my own with my teammates. I remember not knowing what to do since it was my first fight,” Urbina remembers fondly. “I ate pizza right before I fought. I remember starting to warm-up and I was still full because I had eaten so much. Once I stepped into the ring I remember throughout the whole fight there wasn’t much technique. It was just non-stop throwing for three one-minute rounds. It was very exciting. I won. It is a very good memory that I have.”
Phoenix Knockout Club
It wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows early on for Urbina whose mother, typical of a Mexican household, didn’t believe her daughter should be exchanging blows and getting hit in the head.
“My mom didn’t really like me boxing. She would rather have me at home cooking and helping her out with the chores so it was always a constant struggle for her wanting to let me box.”
Her father, a welder, was the one that supported his only daughter; Sulem is the middle child of a total five, to continue her dream.
“My dad was the one from day one that supported me,” she explained. “He made my brothers take me to the gym; he would tell my mom if I wanted to go to the gym, to let me go. He was always busy working long hours and on weekends to provide for us so he couldn’t be with me all the time but he was always supporting me. He was the one that told me always to go for it.”
After a handful of amateur fights early on, her mother got what she wanted and made Sulem leave boxing for a time. Not to be deterred Urbina went back to the gym six years later but this time found her way to Phoenix’s Knockout Boxing Club where the head trainer was Andrew Soto.
“He had the best boxers in the state, they never lost. That is where I actually felt I was going to learn. It was very hard because he didn’t want me at the gym at first, he would do everything he could to make me quit.”
Urbina and Soto have been working together as trainer and boxer for 10 years but as man as wife for seven. “I would lie if I would say it is not difficult, it is. I know he only wants the best for me. He pushes me so much because he wants me to be the best. He organizes his day around me, around my training, my schedule. I truly appreciate him. Sometimes I have bad days in the gym, he is pushing and I don’t even want to talk to him afterwards. When we are at home I have to turn off the switch and what happened in the gym, stays in the gym. It’s like having two different personalities. He is my husband outside and inside he is my coach. I already knew the way that he coached and that is something we set before we got married, before we started our relationship we said that boxing was not going to interfere at all with our relationship and I think that is why it has worked out. We set the rules before it started.”
Mexican Boxing Team
Together they set sail on a successful amateur career amassing around 100 amateur bouts. She captured Arizona’s Golden Gloves title in ’07 and ’09 while placing third in the U.S. National tournament also in 2009. She represented Mexico in numerous international competitions while placing her herself as the best in her weight class in that country. She participated in the Central American Games, Pan-American Games but fell short of the Olympics. Through boxing she has competed in such faraway lands as Brazil, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic and throughout the United States.
After falling short at the Olympic trials in Argentina, where she had to fund her way since the Mexican boxing federation was not supporting their athletes, Urbina made a petition to the president which eventually forced her out of the team.
Being part of the Mexican boxing team requires a huge sacrifice. Despite not having a pending competition, every athlete must commit themselves in staying at the training center located near Mexico City. Urbina felt since she wasn’t able to work with her trainer and husband her skills were diminishing. Since she was paying her own way she felt it was only fair she should be able to train with whom she felt would better her chances at medaling at the next Olympic trails. After making her thoughts known to the president of the federation and days later denied of her request, Urbina was then forced to resign from the team.
More surprisingly, when the Olympic qualifier happened some time later, a female boxer who had never competed in the weight class Urbina had dominated in Mexico for years was allowed to compete directly from her home training camp, a luxury Urbina was denied.
Urbina felt betrayed and heartbroken.
“If I had won so many medals for Mexico, why her and not me? Why did they do that to me? I was heartbroken, I felt they had did me wrong.”
That decision was the catalyst for Urbina to go from amateur to professional. She signed with Zanfer Promotions, long considered the biggest promotional group in Latin America, last summer.
“I had other offers from other companies but I knew Zanfer was the one I wanted to go with. I loved how they work with Box Azteca so that was a plus. I felt the other companies already had too many female boxers so why would I be one of their priorities? I felt Zanfer was the way to go. Once we decided I was ready to take the next step my husband started contacting them, started having conversations. I just worried about my training that is it, they set everything up.”
Before all that Urbina found herself in the headlines but not in any way anybody would. Urbina’s younger brother, Alexis, was beaten three years ago in the family home. Alexis, an amateur standout in his own right a 2013 US National champ, died days later from his injuries. First the reason and his assailants were a mystery but nearly two years later his assailant was caught and convicted for his murder and sentenced to 25 years.
The night of her pro debut in Tijuana, Mexico, last July 30th, Alexis was present in Sulem’s mind.
“That night I wasn’t even myself, it is a completely different feeling. I’ve fought on big stages before in international competition but it’s completely different, the emotion is completely different,” Urbina remembers. “For me it was very emotional because three years ago I lost my brother, Alexis Urbina, who was also a boxer. He always talked about my professional debut so I had that in the back of my head the whole night. The whole week practically, the whole time I was getting ready for that I was remembering him. He would say, ‘I can’t wait for you to turn pro, I want to see you turn pro.’ I was emotional, that whole day I was emotional.”
“Zanfer really did an outstanding job promoting me for that fight. There were commercials for it everywhere left and right all over Mexico. I was the co-main event and it was a packed card,” she continued. “The arena was packed, tickets were sold out. I remember when I was warming up my legs felt like they were gone, I was so nervous. I’m standing there in front of all these cameras ready to do my walk-out and I saw all these people, I really couldn’t believe it. I get in there and everything goes by so fast. Everything goes so fast and of course I have these commentators who are legends and had Julio Cesar Chavez Sr commentating my fight which was absolutely made me even more nervous. I pulled through, I didn’t look great but I pulled it through and I grew a lot from it, learned a lot from it. It is a different ballgame. The power is different, the speed is different, the style is completely different and I learned there are a lot of adjustments I have to make to my game plan.”
Urbina has fought two more times in obtaining unanimous decision wins over Alma Rosa Gonzalez and Jacqueline Coutino.
With 2017 gearing up to be an important year for women’s boxing with more televised fights and bigger exposure for it in the U.S., Urbina sees herself as part of that wave.
“I definitely see a big change coming in female boxing in general, not only in the U.S., but everywhere around. This is the first time that female boxers from the international competitions are turning pro. Claressa Shields, myself, Marlen Esparza, I know there are other boxers that went to the Olympics that are planning on turning pro. I think this is going to be a big turning point for us. Seeing (Yazmin) ‘Rusita” Rivas and (Amanda) Serrano, the way they fought on Showtime this past weekend, it really opened the audience eyes and got people excited about women’s boxing. I truly believe that now not only in the U.S. but everywhere women’s boxing is starting a new era.”
A fight that many might want to see in the future would be an all-Mexican war between the aforementioned Esparza and Urbina. They met in the amateurs with Esparza getting the better of her but she feels it would be a great fight in the pros.
“I think it is something both of us can sell. I think we shouldn’t sell ourselves short, we should demand something good,” Urbina said. “We are boxers with a lot of skill. I know we can sell a lot of tickets and we deserve for a big audience so if it is televised, a good ten rounder and for something good and it will open the doors for women’s boxing, I definitely see this in the future. I think it would definitely open some eyes.”
As far as what Urbina sees for her future, she says the lesson of the tragic loss of her brother has changed the way she thinks.
“Honestly I don’t plan too much ahead. I am the type of person, I’ve had a bumpy road, when my brother passed away I learned I can’t sit there and make plans because you never know what is going to happen. What I do know is day-by-day I do my best in whatever I am doing. I am giving it my all. Boxing right now I am giving it my all, this is all I am focused on. I am taking it day-by-day, fight by fight. Of course I want to be a world champion, I dream of being a world champion, but I don’t know what is going to happen and all I have is to give it my best every single day.”