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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

I gave up on boxing, not on this boxer

Seniesa Estrada and Leonela Yudica exchange punches during a title card fight in Las Vegas, July 28, 2023. Estrada started out strong but Yúdica never backed down, avoiding a dreaded knockout.

By Kurt Streeter

I flinched when Seniesa Estrada took a shot. When she twisted to evade a jab, I found myself twisting, too. When she plowed a left hook into the jaw of her Argentine challenger, Leonela Yúdica, I hoped such aggression would lead to a knockout.

As Estrada defended her World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council mini flyweight titles on July 28 in front of nearly 2,500 fans at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas, I watched her fight from the stands for the first time in 18 years.

In the early 2000s, when I was a city reporter for the Los Angeles Times, I’d been impressed by the long list of champions from East LA. Oscar De La Hoya was the greatest of them, and I searched for the next teenage boy who could follow his path out of the tough, impoverished, predominantly Latino neighborhood.

Instead, I found Estrada and spent the next three years chronicling her quest to prove herself in the rugged, male-dominated world of junior boxing. The result was “The Girl” — a five-part, front-page series that drew widespread attention.

Estrada’s story was about more than boxing. It was a glimpse into what it was like to be young and Latina, growing up amid the beauty and trouble of East LA. It was also a powerful father-daughter tale. Estrada was guided in life and boxing by her dad, Joe, who was trying to put his troubles with drugs, crime and gangs behind him. By shepherding her, Joe could show he was capable of doing good. By fighting, Seniesa helped him stay straight.

The Estradas shared a dream that seemed impossible in an era when female fighters existed on the far margins of the sport. The series was published seven years before women’s boxing was introduced at the London Olympics in 2012 and well before Ronda Rousey became a sensation in mixed martial arts, opening our eyes to the star power of female fighters.

Despite the odds, Estrada and her father vowed she would one day be a world champion and headline marquee fights in boxing hot spots like Las Vegas.

She is 31 now, a sinewy 5 feet 2 inches, and still full of the sharp wit and self-assurance she has always possessed. Remarkably, perhaps miraculously, nearly everything she and her father imagined has come true.

With the money she has earned in boxing, Estrada has been able to buy a condominium in downtown Los Angeles, a comfortable home in a suburb and new cars for both of her parents. Her bouts are now bringing in paydays in the middle six figures. For the Yúdica fight, Estrada headlined a card that included eight matches between men.

Entering last week’s bout, Estrada, known in boxing circles by the name Superbad, had fought 24 times since turning professional in 2011. She had won each time, nine by knockout.

“I just always knew it would happen like this,” she said, reflecting on her journey. “I would always think about it, dream about it, talk about it. And now all those things I wanted are happening.”

Estrada’s career has had its twists. An injured foot kept her out of the 2012 Olympics. Around that time, she quit boxing for a year or so, took community college classes and worked a string of low-paying jobs, including as a server at an ice cream shop.

Then boxing drew her back. Her drive to take the women’s fight game to new heights, opening doors for future generations of women and girls, was a mission worth sticking with. Three more years, she told me last week, and she’ll be ready to retire.

Still, she noted boxing’s grinding toll. The ugly business side that few see. The years she spent unable to get fights, training intensely but with no real competition.

“It’s been a roller coaster,” she said, adding: “Right now I’m just getting to the peak of my career, finally making good money with a great promoter. I’m still eager to learn and get better and be great. I’m still passionate about it, the most passionate I’ve ever been. But if somebody were to ask, ‘Do you love it?’ No, I don’t love it. Not like I used to.”

I understand the feeling.

After “The Girl” was published, I interviewed at least a dozen former champions for another boxing feature, this one about an aging timekeeper and his memories. I’ll never forget my sadness, interviewing middle-aged and older fighters I had admired, as they stammered and slurred their words. I described one, Bobby Chacon, as being “so shellshocked he must constantly write notes to himself, reminders so he does not forget where he was, where he should be, or who should be around him.”

Soon, advances in medical research caught my attention, particularly new understanding about the effects of repeated blows to the head, which can lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, a progressive brain disease.

I found it harder to separate my love for the sport from its costs. I’d once watched avidly and sparred for fun. These days, I don’t spar anymore, and when I watch a fight, I feel such a gnawing feeling of unease, fearing for the fighters and their well-being, that I can usually take in only a few rounds.

While observing Estrada’s career unfold from afar, I worried about her. Whenever I wondered if she should quit, I reminded myself that she does not fight with the take-it-on-the-chin style of boxers like Chacon. She has quick feet and a catlike nimbleness, which allow her to slip, deflect and evade attack.

When she fought, I found a way to walk back my worries. She seemed ever in control, always on the attack, capable of winning with precision and accuracy or by bloodying opponents into submission. Her 2020 bout against Miranda Adkins lasted seven seconds. Estrada landed seven blows, four to the head. Adkins crumpled in the ring.

I asked her about that fight and whether she worries about the perils of her sport. Estrada answered quickly. “As a fighter, that’s like the last thing to think about,” she said. “Because if you are in there thinking about getting caught by punches and getting hurt, you’re not going to focus on what you need to do to win. So I never really think about the danger.”

But I was caught in an all-too-familiar contradiction: simultaneously revolted and enthralled by boxing. I like to think of myself as a peaceful person who cares deeply about others. But how peaceful was I, really?

Last week in Las Vegas, I was once again entangled.

“Kurt, you are family,” Estrada had reminded me after the weigh-in the day before the bout. I felt pride, plenty of goose bumps — and aching doubt. Why, I wondered, did I want to see her dole out pummeling, painful punishment to Yúdica?

Soon the opening bell rang. Estrada gained the early advantage. She wove in and out like a buzzing bumblebee in her red trunks and top. She switched stances, tossed jabs and uppercuts and roundhouse hooks.

The Argentine never backed down. She used her long arms to penetrate Estrada’s defense. I grimaced and flinched as Estrada absorbed heavy shots that twisted her neck and tore against her face, causing the flesh around her left eye to swell and bruise.

I could not remember seeing her in this kind of trouble. Just then, Estrada responded as she had all those years ago — by commencing an assault. Whap-whop, whap-whop, whap-whop. Her fists flew, and the crowd roared.

The final round ended in a storm of punches, but there would be no knockout. Estrada awaited the judges’ decision under strobe lights in the darkened, noisy theater, her father feet away. Then the announcer’s voice cracked through the air.

“Your winner, by unanimous decision, and still WBC and WBA champion of the world, Seniesa ‘Superbad’ Estrada!”

A tear ran down my cheek. I thought of how lucky I had been to have seen her dreams come true. For her, for her father, I cast my doubts about boxing aside. For them, I always will.

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