by David P. Greisman
This was no place for a woman, he thought. They couldn’t do what men can do. They shouldn’t do what men can do. They weren’t as able. They weren’t as tough. This was no place for a woman, he thought, and definitely no place for his preteen daughter.
But she asked, and he relented. She trained, and he trained her. She sparred and fought and won and lost and turned pro and won a world title, and he had long since come to believe, not just in her, but also in others.
There were many like her, many who are more warrior than princess, who are competitive and courageous and skilled in battle.
Kaliesha West has Juan West in her corner, as does the nascent sport of women’s boxing. And all of this came to be because a 10-year-old ultimately showed herself to be far from daddy’s little girl.
Juan West was a Navy boxer first, a teenager who started with smokers and local bouts and fighting for his fleet. He left the service but continued to fight, though the knees of a former high school track athlete weren’t made for moving around a boxing ring. He retired after six months and six fights in the pro ranks, winning four and losing two. Unable to do but still able to teach, West began to train fighters in the talent-rich Southern California of the 1990s.
Kaliesha watched and admired and wanted to be a part of it.
“He didn’t take me serious,” said Kaliesha, now 24.
He had his reasons.
“I knew what I was like being in that ring, and I knew the toughness that she had to have,” he says. “I didn’t think women had that toughness.”
Either she convinced him or he gave in. Either way, Juan West’s 10-year-old child laced up the gloves and went through the drills. Within weeks, she was sparring another little boy, chasing him around the ring relentlessly.
She had her first fight at 11. Juan was in her corner, but he wasn’t fully behind her.
“I kind of set my daughter up for failure,” Juan says. “I really didn’t prepare her and I wanted her to take a beating pretty much and just give it up. She got in there with a girl, Cindy Ramos, who was like a little heavier, a year older, and I’m sitting back chuckling like we’re going to see what happens, see if she still wants to box after this.”
Everyone else at the amateur card had already been paired up when a man had approached Juan to say there was another girl the same size as Kaliesha who could fight her.
“And we’re standing back to back,” Kaliesha says. “She’s taller than me. She’s thicker than me. She’s fatter than me. And my dad was like ‘Okay, we can do it.’ We didn’t even go on the scale. It was one of those rough match-ups. Supposedly she was six pounds heavier than me. Two weeks later, she was three weight divisions heavier than me. I was at 90, 95, and she was at 106.”
Ramos knocked Kaliesha around the ring.
“Cindy Ramos — I’ll never forget that name,” Kaliesha says. She was knocking me around the ring and my balance was so horrible. I was flying across the ring, I was so frail and small. As soon as I got knocked over, the referee would jump in my face and give me an eight count.
Kaliesha, in turn, would argue that she wasn’t hurt.
“After that, Kaliesha was over there saying something to the girl, and the girl is laughing,” Juan says. “I’m like, ‘What were you saying to the girl, Kaliesha?’ She said, ‘I want a rematch, of course.’ And I said ‘What?!’
“Then I knew Kaliesha was the real deal, because that’s what’s exactly in my heart when I was a fighter. I didn’t feel no human in the same ring with me could beat me. If I ever lost, I immediately wanted a rematch, and that’s how Kaliesha is.”
Juan West had set his daughter up for failure in her first fight. Now he’d spend years preparing her to succeed.
Kaliesha West never pictured herself as successful as she is now — not while she was still an amateur, at least.
“I never really got the decisions,” she says. “The judges will tell you the same thing: ‘Kaliesha was always hanging tough and it was always a close fight, but she never squeaked out the decision in the end.’ Being in junior high and high school and losing decisions, you get discouraged. I felt like ‘Man, I suck. I’m never winning. Why am I boxing? I’m not good.’ But there’s always something deep down inside of me saying ‘Just keep doing it. Next time you’ll win.’
“I never envisioned being a world champion or even going as far as I did as a pro. All I envisioned was being a better fighter the next time I fought.”
Juan believes the judges tended to favor the more amateur style of winning on points, rather than the professional style he preferred to impart.Kaliesha won 68 amateur bouts and lost 10. One of those victories was a rematch over Cindy Ramos, six years after they first fought.
“I had stayed active and she had stopped for about a year,” Kaliesha says. “She disappeared. She came back. I think she had some time in juvenile hall. She had tattoos. She was still a roughneck. And we still happened to be the same weight again. In this fight, I had her in the corner and I was beating her down, and they gave her an eight count, and then I gave her another eight count.”
Juan puts it much more simply: “Oh, boy, she destroyed that girl.”
Kaliesha turned pro in 2006 at the age of 18, going undefeated in her first two years in the sport, winning her first 10 fights. Then she got in the ring in November 2008 with Ava Knight, who was 4-0-2 at the time. Knight won the unanimous decision, five rounds to three, and would go on to challenge for a super flyweight title in her next bout and now holds a belt at 112 pounds.
Kaliesha, meanwhile, wouldn’t return until about nine months later, scoring a six-round win over Rolanda Andrews and then, in January 2010, fighting to a draw with Ada Velez. She then went on the road, going to Denmark in March 2010 to challenge Anita Christensen in what ended as another draw. Three months later, she traveled to Peru and stopped Vannessa Guimaraes.
That run, going 3-0-2 in the year and a half after her first pro defeat, landed Kaliesha a shot at the World Boxing Organization’s vacant bantamweight belt. In September 2010, Kaliesha, fighting at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on the non-televised undercard of Shane Mosley vs. Sergio Mora, knocked out Angel Gladney to win her first title.
“My goal and dream was to develop a world champion,” Juan says. “And my daughter became a world champion.”
“I wasn’t satisfied,” Kaliesha says. “It wasn’t exactly where I want to be. A world title was just like one stepping stone out of the way.”
But then she nearly lost everything.
The shots that hurt the most are the ones you don’t see coming. It is as true in life as it is in boxing.
Kaliesha was driving on a highway in January 2011. Her vehicle was in another driver’s blind spot. That person switched lanes, causing Kaliesha to jerk her steering wheel to avoid a collision. She lost control, however, and crashed.
“I’ve endured a lot of pain in boxing, but I’ve never had as much pain as in that accident,” Kaliesha says. “For the first time in my career, I lied to my dad. I told him I was going to be all right. All I was thinking was I ruined his career, too. I had just won the world title. I was on my way to a meeting with a photographer to work on a promo video.”
She recovered from her injuries but remained in excruciating pain. But she had to defend her title or it would be taken away from her.
“I not only defended my world title in a small arena near my hometown, but it was against the only girl who ever defeated me. For no money. I fought for free,” Kaliesha says. “It wasn’t the purse that I was fighting for. It was just because I knew it was what I had to do if I wanted to remain the world titlist. No other female wanted to fight me.”
Kaliesha and Ava Knight had their rematch in June 2011. Once again, Kaliesha didn’t come out with the win. But neither did Knight — the judges had a split draw, the scores reading 96-94 for Kaliesha, 96-94 for Knight, and an even 95-95.
Kaliesha retained the belt against a woman who is a rival in the ring but also a friend outside of it. The possibility of a third bout is unlikely, though. After the draw, Knight dropped two weight classes, from 118 pounds to 112, and won a world title. Kaliesha defended her belt in August of last year against Jessica Villafranca, will face Claudia Andrea Lopez tonight, and is considering a move to the junior featherweight division.
Never mind that women’s boxing once had Laila Ali. Kaliesha West wants to be like Ali — Muhammad Ali.
“I want to be known as one of the greatest female fighters who ever lived,” she says. “I want little girls to go to the library and look at my autobiography and say ‘I want to be a boxer.’ That’s what I did when I was little. I looked up Muhammad Ali. There were no women. I want little girls to be able to see a book about a female boxer and say ‘She was great. She was just as great as Ali was.’ ”
Juan West long ago learned that women are just as tough and just as able as men can be in the ring. The sport still needs much more recognition, particularly in the United States, where Kaliesha still needs much more exposure before she can become a household name. Her fight tonight is in Mexico, making it four out of her last six bouts to occur outside of her home country.
Kaliesha and Juan talk about how to increase both her popularity and that of women’s boxing as a whole. They talk about why promoters and networks need to give female fighters a chance. They see popular female boxers in other countries, and they see the attention given to women in mixed martial arts promotions in America.
This is a sport for women, too. Kaliesha has trained and sparred and fought and won and lost. Juan has been there with her throughout. More than a decade after seeing if he could get his daughter to give up on boxing with her first fight, he is now trying to guide her to what he thinks will be the next phase of her career — and he is trying get her and other women the acclaim that goes along with their ability.
“I’m very proud of her, and we’re on a new mission: to be pound-for-pound in the world and to go down in history as one of the greatest female boxers in history. I’ve been trying to prepare her for those great fights that she has to win to become great,” he said.
“She’s been televised in South America, and everybody over there knows her. She’s been televised in Europe. Everyone over there knows her. She’s been televised in Mexico, and everybody knows her. But the United States, nobody knows Kaliesha West. That’s a shame.”
David P. Greisman is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. Follow David on Twitter at twitter.com/fightingwords2 or on Facebook at facebook.com/fightingwordsboxing, or send questions and comments to [email protected]