Flyweight boxer Marlen Esparza does not like to be kept waiting.
She had to bide her time for nearly three years to get a rematch with Cancan Ren, the Chinese fighter who defeated her in a close semifinal bout at the London 2012 Olympic Games.
Esparza took away the bronze medal — becoming the first U.S. woman to stand on an Olympic boxing podium — while Ren went on to win the silver medal behind Nicola Adams of Great Britain.
Impatient to avenge her loss, Esparza finally got the chance Saturday when they met in Atlanta at USA Boxing’s Elite Women’s International Clash of Champions.
Esparza had Ren on the ropes several times and was so confident she even let slip a smile during the third of four 2-minute rounds.
“I was like, ‘This is mine,’” she said.
All Esparza needed was to hear confirmation that she’d won. However, when the boxers stood in the middle of the ring, the announcer decided to draw out the suspense, talking and talking. Esparza turned her head to glare at him. If looks could TKO, he would have been on the canvas.
“I was so ready to feel good, but that dude wouldn’t say my name,” Esparza said. “I was on the verge of crying because I was like, ‘He has to say it.’ But he kept going and he killed it.
“Come on, dude, this is real life for me. I’m been waiting for this. It’s not funny.”
Finally, the announcer said Esparza’s name. She had won by unanimous decision, 3-0.
Esparza was also named Outstanding Boxer of the Duel, which pitted nine U.S. fighters against their Chinese counterparts. The U.S. defeated China 5-4 with Olympic gold medalist Claressa Shields, Maureeca Lambert, Mikaela Mayer and Franchon Crews posting wins. Christina Cruz, Ashleigh Moore, Nakarri Jones and Samantha Kinchen took losses.
At the London Games, Esparza said she was retiring from boxing, a sport she began in 2001. Her retirement lasted only a couple of months. Something was missing from her life and her trophy case.
“I need my gold medal so I can breathe a little bit,” said Esparza.
And the Houston native missed boxing more than she ever imagined.
“I got really depressed and I didn’t know,” Esparza said. “I just was not myself. Everybody in my family was like, ‘What’s wrong with you?’”
She found herself arguing with her sister, who said, “I’m tired of you. Why don’t you go run or something? Go to the gym. You need to go hit something.”
Esparza went to her room and realized she needed to be a boxer again. “And I started boxing and then I was normal again,” she said.
The Houston native moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, in July 2013 to live at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
Although Esparza was one of the highest-profile U.S. athletes leading up to the London Games, even scoring a CoverGirl contract, she said she is not in the sport for the sponsorships.
“I box for the actual boxing,” said Esparza, who fights in the 51 kilogram/112-pound division. “I got a lot of stuff that a lot of girls box for — to get money and endorsements. They love their sport, but they want more. I don’t. I don’t at all. I just want to fight.”
She still has a deal with Nike and is now part of Deloitte’s Team USA Road Show, which visits college campuses where she and other athletes share their stories.
“I appreciate I’m blessed,” Esparza said, “but the bottom line is I need my gold medal.”
She does have the other coveted gold in her sport. Esparza won the 2014 AIBA Women’s World Boxing Championship, achieving a lifelong goal.
“That was dope,” said Esparza, 25. “I think in my bio when I was 16 I wrote for boxing goals, “To go to the Olympics and be a world champion.’ If my 16-year-old self said it, that’s as good as it’s going to get, right?”
But she did not get to face Ren, who had won the three previous world titles, because the Chinese fighter was out with an injury. Esparza suffered a similar injury at worlds, a SLAP tear in her left shoulder next to her Olympic rings tattoo. She also had a torn ligament in her elbow and a sprained wrist.
Esparza figures all of the injuries stemmed from the same punch.
“I used to do really wild hooks and I’ve been trying to tighten them up,” she said.
She fought through worlds with the injury and also U.S. nationals in mid-January, then couldn’t throw a punch. While recovering, Esparza concentrated on strength and conditioning on her legs because they weren’t as fast as her hands.
She did not get back in a ring until two weeks ago.
“She worked and worked and worked,” said USA Boxing coach Everette Elliston, who was in her corner Saturday. “And then when she was supposed to rest, she worked.”
He said she brought that attitude into the ring at Buckhead Fight Club, a suburban Atlanta boxing gym at the bottom of a steep flight of stairs.
“She’s not going to take a loss,” Elliston said. “She did what she practiced.”
Although Esparza wore her Stars and Stripes socks and her usual U.S. bandana under her protective headgear, Ren and the Chinese coaching staff saw a different fighter in the ring.
“I’m not the same fighter at all,” Esparza said. “Even my stablemates tell me the same thing. I’m way better.”
Esparza was more aggressive than Ren, “because I’m stronger,” she said. “Last time it was more about being fast and quick on your feet and she beat me on that. I lost 10-8 (the Olympics used a different scoring system than Saturday’s bout) on something that wasn’t my game. And this is my game: Being strong, being aggressive, being fast, being powerful at the same time.”
Though Esparza was not supposed to throw hooks because of her injury, she did “when I needed to. I’m a quick healer and I took a lot of care of it.”
The injury had also forced her to work on her jab.
“I think she landed stuff, but I was always the aggressor, I was always landing more,” Esparza said. “I was being more tactical. She was just trying to go with her straight right. I don’t think she expected me to be as different as I am.
“I caught her with some good body shots and I could just tell that I was better. I won every round. I’m proud of myself.”
Esparza is now 1-2 against Ren. The two boxers fought for the first time in the quarterfinals of the 2012 World Championships. The competition served as the qualifier for the London Olympic Games and was held May 9-22, 2012, in Qinhuangdao, China.
Ren won 16-8, but Esparza said that she was not as focused because she had already punched her ticket to London in the previous fight.
The same three weight classes for women will be in the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. By the time Esparza gets to Brazil, she plans to have a bachelor’s degree in business management from DeVry University and to have moved on to entrepreneurship.
She has dreams of starting a non-profit foundation for mental health. Esparza’s best friend from high school committed suicide and she said, “I’ve had my own ups and downs.”
Esparza also wants to eventually work for USA Boxing.
Another item on her to-do list is “Boxing Barbie,” a Mattel project that was in the works three years ago.
“It’s still coming,” Esparza said. “It’s another life goal. If there was a Boxing Barbie when I was little, I would have played with Barbies.”
Even now, she can’t wait.