SAN ANTONIO – Marlen Esparza dug deep when she believed it mattered most.
It turned out that she didn’t need the late rally, thanks to some very strange scoring.
A terrific two-way action fight saw Esparza unify the WBC and WBA flyweight titles with a ten-round, unanimous decision over Japan’s legendary Naoko Fujioka. Judges Jesse Reyes (100-90), Wilfredo Esperon (100-90) and Lisa Giampa (97-93) all scored in favor of Esparza, a 2012 Olympic Bronze medalist who can now add unified titlist to her resume after an inspiring performance Saturday evening at Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas.
“She was tough, we expected that,” Esparza told BoxingScene.com after her win, which she felt was never in doubt. “We believed that we were winning most of the rounds except for maybe one or two in the middle. But my trainer corrected me, and said it wasn’t looking good. It looked like Fujioka was doing more, so I changed that up. I felt good in the end because it played out clearly as we expected it to.”
Despite their modest knockout percentages, both titlists came to fight rather than box. Esparza took the fight directly to the 46-year-old Fujioka, connecting with clean right hands when able to keep the five-division titlist at a distance. Fujioka snapped back the head of Esparza—a 2012 Olympic Bronze medalist for the U.S—with a counter right hand in the first minute, with Esparza returning the favor later in the frame.
Esparza grew increasingly accurate in round two, fighting to her scouting report as she’s known for her timing. Fujioka—Japan’s only-ever five-division titlist—was game and ready to trade, though was slow going back to her corner in between rounds.
An exchange late in round three resulted in Esparza falling on top of Fujioka as they spilled to the canvas. Both escaped unscathed but momentum was with Esparza, who set the tone and was beating Fujioka to the punch.
Fujioka hit the deck in round four, though correctly ruled a trip by referee Rafael Ramos. Esparza landed a right hand, but Fujioka had already moved forward before tripping over Esparza’s lead foot which caused the fall.
Esparza used more in and out movement in round five, disallowing Fujioka to develop a sustained offensive rhythm, Even when Fujioka closed the gap, Esparza relied on infighting skills to avoid Fujioka’s power shots.
Fujioka went on the attack in round six, sensing she was behind though also confident she could overpower Esparza. Fujioka avoided an overhand right by Esparza, responding with a counter down the middle. Esparza managed to clip Fujioka with a left hook near the end of the round, which Fujioka took well.
Round seven saw Esparza go on the defensive, though nearly costing her as Fujioka wobbled her with a right hand in the chin. Esparza quickly steadied herself, wisely clinching but unable to return fire. Fujioka targeted the body later in the round as she enjoyed a clear momentum shift.
The partisan crowd was clearly disturbed by the trend, oohing in concern as Fujioka controlled the tempo in round eight. A right hand behind a double left jab froze Esparza in her tracks, though showing a world class chin in remaining upright.
Esparza connected with a right hand at the start of round nine, enjoying a much-needed change of pace. Fujioka shook off the blow but was clipped by a pair of long left hands from Esparza. Time was called as a push caused Fujioka to wince in pain while rubbing her nose.
Both fighters landed right hands to begin the tenth and final round, sensing the fight was very much on the table. Fujioka was the more relentless of the two but Esparza more accurate—in fact landing more punches than any other Fujioka opponent over the course of her historic career. It ends the five-year flyweight title reign for Fujioka, who falls to 19-3-1 (7KOs) and claimed before the fight that she would call it a career if she lost.
If this was her final fight, Fujioka is a lock for the Hall of Fame—having won titles at strawweight, junior flyweight, flyweight, junior bantamweight and bantamweight—though she deserved far better than a shutout loss on the scorecard of local judges Reyes and Esperon.
Esparza advances to 12-1 (1KO) with the win, her fifth in a row since a technical decision defeat to Seniesa Estrada in their November 2019 interim WBC flyweight title fight. Esparza got the job done by outworking Fujioka over the long haul, landing 120-of-436 punches (28%) compared to 107-of-418 (26%) for Fujioka according to Compubox.
Esparza won the full WBC belt in a ten-round decision over Ibeth Zamora last June, having now made her second successful title defense. Saturday’s feat comes nearly ten years after she claimed Olympic Bronze.
“This was definitely the greatest moment of my boxing career so far,” Esparza told BoxingScene.com.
Esparza-Fujioka served as part of a four-fight DAZN telecast topped by the ring return of Victorville, California’s Ryan Garcia (21-0, 18KOs) who faces Ghana’s Emmanuel Tagoe (32-1, 15KO) in a scheduled 12-round battle of lightweight contenders.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox