By Ryan Maquiñana
This Sunday, CNN’s Soledad O’Brien shines the mainstream spotlight on boxing when she profiles Olympic hopeful Marlen Esparza in the latest installment of her recurring series Latino in America entitled In Her Corner.
Given the network’s relationship with HBO as members of the Time Warner stable, one would expect an increase in the sport’s visibility in their programming, but not that of the amateur women’s variety.
Credit O’Brien, who has become enamored with Esparza’s story enough to place it front and center as the subject of her latest foray into the ever-evolving identity of the Latino demographic in this country.
“The way I came across Marlen’s story was reading an airline magazine about Olympic boxing being offered to women for the first time in 2012,” the award-winning anchor tells BoxingScene. “I was stunned that all these Latinas were Olympic hopefuls, and as we started researching it, two names kept coming up—Marlen Esparza and Cristina Cruz.”
Having earned gold medals at each of the last five USA Boxing National Championships, Esparza was targeting her sixth in February when O’Brien decided to cover the 22-year-old flyweight from Houston.
“Before a story can become a good documentary, a couple of things need to happen,” states the 2010 NABJ Journalist of the Year. “One, people need to agree that you’ll follow them around for months and months with the camera.
“At first they really weren’t interested because she’s a serious athlete, and her coach, Rudy Silva, didn’t want her focus derailed by having a CNN crew follow her around. I flew to Houston and met with her, and I think we had a good reputation for having done things well in the past, so we were able to get them to agree.”
Of course, as O’Brien notes, it helps to have a good backstory and arc for one’s journey to develop before the viewer’s eyes.
“You want to have a story to have many layers. [Marlen] was going for her sixth national title, and then, the drama increased because her spot in the Olympics wasn’t set,” she recalls. “What I love about this story in the bigger picture is not the story of Marlen Esparza being the boxer.
“It’s a story about a Latina. It’s a story about what it means to be a role model. It’s about tackling the impossible. It’s a story about whether America could change if a Mexican-American woman wins the Olympics.”
As for the title, O’Brien has found inspiration in the various people who help make Esparza’s dream a reality.
“Marlen said, ‘Even if thousands of people are screaming my name, I can always hear Rudy’s voice cut through because he’s in my corner,’ ” O’Brien says. “And I thought that was a tremendous metaphor for young Latinos in general or anybody, as in who’s in your corner?
“For Marlen, it’s her family, her siblings, her dad who works 12 hours a day [and] seven days a week, her mom who begs her co-workers for cash so Marlen can fund her boxing trips, her coach whose given up his life to coach young people and help them be successful, and the community which really, really wants an Olympic star. All these people are propelling her to success. They’re all in her corner.”
The one-hour special chronicles Esparza’s disciplined—some would say borderline maniacal—physical preparation leading up to the tournament under Silva’s vigilant eye, as several of her peers at the Elite Boxing Gym rarely survive long enough to hammer a nail.
In addition, among the guilty pleasures she has eschewed over the years include boyfriends, partying, and even an excess of chocolate to keep her at the 112-pound division limit.
“To me, you realize how important the mentality of a winner is to competitive sports,” says O’Brien, who has covered high-profiled stars like LeBron James in the past. “The winning and losing comes well before you get to the game or to the ring.
She also briefly canvasses Esparza’s opposition, namely chief rival Cruz of New York, whose mother was formerly incarcerated and whose trainer has come across financial difficulties in terms of traveling with her to amateur tournaments.
“Marlen says, ‘There are girls who are better than me who I’ve beaten because they’ve already lost. They don’t believe in themselves.’ So I think women’s boxing is like any other sport in that you have to work out and be physically strong, but it’s also about having a tough mind,” O’Brien discerns.
Beneath the surface of wins and losses is the constant tug-of-war Esparza plays outside the ring with her job as a dentist’s assistant and her parents’ desire for her to complete college—all the while addressing the stereotypes that plague both female fighters and Latinas as a whole.
“When you think boxer, you think someone who’s rough and tough, and Marlen is very sweet,” O’Brien observes. “She’s very quiet.
“If I brought her out to a crowd and said that this woman is an Olympic-quality athlete. What sport do you think she’s trying to medal in? I don’t think anybody would get boxing, because there are stereotypes and some of them, frankly, are these caricatures of female boxers.”
The debate about boxing and femininity is discussed during the documentary, especially when Esparza breaks out a hair straightener and lipstick for a Coca-Cola ad campaign. (O’Brien also reports that Esparza has garnered deals with CoverGirl and Nike.)
“I think that for Marlen, her goal is to kill a lot of stereotypes on many levels, about Mexican-Americans and about women,” O’Brien opines. “She’s a pretty girl, and she knows she’s a pretty girl. She also is well-read. She’s a student athlete. She wants to be a doctor. She likes making people think, ‘Oh you’re a boxer?’ I think she gets a certain joy from that.”
As with most minority families in America, the pressure to assimilate emerges at some point, whether subliminal or overt. Growing up with two parents of Mexican descent, Esparza never mastered the Spanish language.
O’Brien can relate, having faced the very same issue in her childhood Long Island neighborhood, being Afro-Cuban in addition to her Irish-Scottish roots.
“Her Spanish is sort of like my Spanish,” the anchor deducts. “It’s Spanglish. But I don’t think Marlen Esparza needs to prove she’s Mexican by speaking Spanish fluently. She’s from Houston, her father came across the border from Mexico, and I don’t think she needs to speak Spanish to prove that. This is not a girl who doesn’t identify with her culture.”
Aside from baseball or soccer, boxing enjoys a decidedly Latino influence in America, especially in the lower weight classes. O’Brien weighed in on the effect Esparza could potentially have on the American fans’ consciousness in general.
“I think Marlen realizes if she medals in the Olympics, it will bring people so far about the negative perceptions about Mexican-Americans that Marlen talks about,” O’Brien waxes. “But also, just because she wants to win for America. She’s a tremendous representative for the nation.”
O’Brien already has Esparza’s next move as a crossover star in mind.
“Imagine her on a box of Wheaties. I get 10 percent,” she jokes.
A couple roadblocks remain before Esparza can get a shot at a cereal deal. She still needs to win next February’s Olympic Trials and then finish in the top eight in the AIBA World Championships in May to even qualify for London 2012.
The path to the Olympics is often a cruel one. In the pros, a title fight can be postponed a couple months ahead; one slip-up in the amateurs means that almost four years of tireless toil can go for naught.
“Whatever happens to Marlen is what we will continue to support and continue to cover,” O’Brien vows. “I actually worry when Marlen and Cristina both get hit in the ring. Sometimes, I can’t watch it. I’m personally rooting for both of them to succeed the best they can.”
Perhaps it is this ultimate courage in the midst of vulnerability that has drawn O’Brien to this particular persuasion of boxing, and the CNN anchor cannot wait to share it with the world.
“I’m not a huge sports fan, and CNN is a news organization, not a sports organization, but it’s a good story,” she declares. “It has characters you care about and you root for.
“I think to me, what will make this story resonate is not to pitch it as, ‘This is a story about Marlen Esparza. Have you been following her boxing career?’ It’s a story about a Latina who wants to fulfill her dream to go to the Olympics and all the people who are in her corner because she can make it.”
CNN presents In Her Corner: Latino in America on Sunday, Sept. 25 at 8:00 ET/PT, with a replay on Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8:00 ET/PT.
Ryan Maquiñana is the boxing correspondent at Comcast SportsNet Bay Area. He’s a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and Ring Magazine’s Ratings Advisory Panel. E-mail him at email@example.com, check out his blog at www.maqdown.com or follow him on Twitter: @RMaq28.