Either Amanda Serrano is impossibly nice, particularly for a woman who throws her fists at her opponents with greater regularity per round than any other in the sport, or she knew that Erika Cruz was going to give her a tougher test than many people were expecting. 

A week before Serrano and Cruz faced off in the ring, as part of the pre-fight press availability, the two stood face to face at Edge NYC, the highest outdoor sky deck in the western hemisphere. While they overlooked the big city, the implication in the line of questioning was often suggestive of Serrano’s ability to overlook Cruz. Far more attention was paid to the potential of an upcoming rematch with Katie Taylor than Serrano’s quest to become undisputed champion at featherweight, or the barrier Cruz represented in achieving it. Whether Cruz was offended by these implications or not, they didn’t seem to sit well with Serrano, who took to Twitter and immediately quote tweeted the publicity photo of the two of them with her thoughts. 

“I want to apologize to (Erika Cruz) for making her feel like we are overlooking her by all the talks of a (Katie Taylor) rematch. We DEFINITELY aren’t, She deserves respect. Hopefully the professionals will step up & know how important THIS unification is to us and focus on this fight,” said Serrano. She followed up moments later with a reply to Hall of Fame broadcaster Al Bernstein’s praise of the tweet, adding: “You know how important it is to me to pay attention to details. I didn’t want to bypass the fact that the media seems to be more focused on the (Taylor) rematch than this one. Erika is a warrior and I will never overlook or underestimate her or anyone I fight.”

Women in boxing have provided some of the spiciest rivalries of the last few years—see: Alyvia Baumgardner-Mikaela Mayer, Claressa Shields-Savannah Marshall, Ebanie Bridges-Shannon O’Connell—but generally, there is a level of camaraderie and kinship in the women’s ranks that doesn’t often exist amongst men. The community is smaller, the plight for increased exposure and pay is shared, and there’s a general feeling that every good fight that winds up aired is a win for every woman who boxes. When Serrano fought Katie Taylor the first time, they shared a moment of wonder together during the pre-fight instructions. After Cruz defended her world title against Jelena Mrdjenovich last year, they shared a ride to the airport, exchanging long hugs on their way in and out of the vehicle before flying home to different countries. 

That level of understanding is matched only by the level of desperation born of the circumstances fighters like Cruz came from. When Cruz began her fighting career in carnival tents in Mexico City, taking part in unsanctioned brawls with passers-by as voluntary referees, the thought of fighting at Madison Square Garden mustn’t have ever seemed like a possibility. All that mattered in that moment is what she said she learned from those fights: T]that she could never stop moving forward. At that time it was out of necessity: don’t entertain, don’t get paid, but also, winning a street fight moving backwards without ring dimensions and barriers to manipulate is pretty difficult. Once she entered the pro ranks, moving forward meant the difference between creating a better life for her and her young child or not. These days, moving forward is the way she can overcome her deficit in formal ring schooling. It’s the only way she can get closer to her once unfathomable dreams. 

Cruz had been focused on this particular fight for quite some time. In a pre-fight interview for a DAZN feature, Cruz said that she had visualized beating Serrano for an undisputed title for quite some time. Nineteen weeks ago, Cruz posted a photo of herself on Instagram in ripped jeans and a green Buffalo plaid shirt, sitting inches from a grainy TV showing Serrano’s most recent bout against Sarah Mahfoud. To the left of the screen was a bookshelf, filled with her books she’d studied in working towards her law degree, her Plan B. Her Plan A was in the foreground. “Happy to see who will be the next opponent to give me my belts to unify (at) 126 pounds,” she wrote. 

Cruz walked to the ring on Saturday night in a blue terry cloth robe. Its absorbent qualities could have come in handy shortly thereafter. 

Serrano and Cruz engaged in a violent phonebooth battle, trading combinations nearly without pause for ten two-minute rounds. Neither fighter has ever been particularly fond of backing up and jabbing, and found an opponent with an identical approach in front of them on this night. The difference was merely in punch delivery. Serrano, a technically proficient volume puncher, delivers sound fundamental shots in droves. Cruz’s punches are a little wider, but on this night more plentiful, coming from odd angles and at times Serrano thought—or maybe hoped—she’d stopped punching. 

When fighters meet “like two rams,” as commentator Todd Grisham described, head clashes are bound to occur. In the third round, Serrano and Cruz’s skulls collided, opening up a faucet of blood from atop Cruz’s head. As the blood cascaded down Cruz’s face it pooled in her eyes, creating a startling visual as she both dished out and absorbed hellacious punishment. 

A few days before the fight, acclaimed cutman and trainer Russ Anber told me that the key to treating a cut mid-fight was “dry it and apply pressure.” As Cruz’s gash on her hairline gushed blood, her corner did the exact opposite. They poured water atop her head to such an extreme degree that the commission had to warn them by saying “no more agua,” and as trainer Kevin Cunningham pointed out on Twitter during the bout, Cruz’s trainers did not seem to have adrenaline in the corner, a key tool that when combined with cold compress and not diluted with water, can halt a stream of blood. The best luck Cruz’s corner had in giving her an even temporary reprieve from the crimson flow was through slathering so much petroleum jelly on the top of her head that it resembled saran wrap. 

The bleeding became so excessive that Cruz was forced into an unfortunate but cinematic pattern of throwing two punches, wiping her face when her hands returned to the defensive position, absorbing another punch or two as she regained her vision, rise (or wipe) and repeat. Cruz’s momentum in the early rounds was slowed by her impairment. Her punch output didn’t dip, but her ability to see Serrano’s left hands was noticeably compromised. Serrano ultimately was awarded a unanimous decision by scores of 97-93 and 98-92 twice, scores that were not reflective of the bout’s greatness, and in Cruz’s mind, not reflective of the fight at all. She later said she felt she deserved a draw. 

The combination of Cruz’s ability to absorb punishment with her inexhaustible punch output made for a breathtaking scene. Every once in a while, a fighter on the losing end of a fight becomes its main character because of their awe-inspiring courage in the face of grotesque visual injury and insistence upon forcing the fight even at their own peril. Chuck Wepner had his life fictionalized and dramatized many times over for those reasons. Tex Cobb was so durable against Larry Holmes that it set off a series of dominoes that included Howard Cosell’s resignation and a string of late-night talk show appearances that led Cobb to a career in cinema. In more recent years, fighters like Vitali Klitschko, Paulie Malignaggi and Gabe Rosado changed their public narratives entirely on the basis of their willingness to fight through hideous facial damage. Sometimes, the loser is the story because the valor it took for them to even hear the final bell while on their feet is more impressive than the feat of beating them. 

After the fight, Serrano was bashful even when pressed to celebrate and also promote her forthcoming rematch with Taylor. When DAZN’s Chris Mannix asked her “what’s next?”, Serrano hummed and hawed, perhaps once again not wanting to disrespect Cruz. Serrano’s manager jumped in to say “we’re going to Ireland,” knowing that a pre-packaged announcement of Taylor-Serrano in May was ready to air on the broadcast and within the venue, but that Serrano wasn’t going to hit her cue. 

As Taylor got into the ring to “confront” Serrano and do a promotional staredown, the two could barely look at one another, smiling sheepishly and looking past one another. They wore the looks of two women who appreciated and maybe loved one another for what they’d done both to and for one another. Serrano’s face wore the effects of having been dragged through hell, and the knowledge that she’d have to do it again in three months. That is to say, the face of a woman undeterred. 

Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, ON, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman