Marlen Esparza vs Naoko Fujioka

Marlen Esparza Ready for Naoko Fujioka in Texas

By Raymundo Dioses

(Photo by Al Applerose)

Marlen Esparza is set to face Naoko Fujioka in a unification bout for the World Boxing Council, World Boxing Association and Ring Magazine fly weight titles in a special attraction feature on the undercard of the Ryan Garcia-Emmanuel Tagoe fight this weekend in San Antonio Texas.

A product of Houston, Esparza gained attention as a stand out amateur which led to an Olympic bid in London in 2012. Esparza became the first woman qualified to participate in the first year that women's boxing was included at the Olympics. For her efforts, Esparza earned Bronze and later signed with Golden Boy Promotions.

The Southern California based promotional outfit has been proactive with Esparza’s career, featuring the female fighter on mega-fight cards and leading her to a title-bid against promotional stablemate Seniesa Estrada in November 2019 on the Canelo Alvarez-Sergey Kovalev undercard.

The excellent bout against Estrada was unfortunately stopped in round nine due to what was ruled in accidental head but which caused a bad cut to Esparza, in a fight that featured action from bell to bell with the crowd reacting with oohs and ahs after landed punches. Scorecards went in Estrada’s favor.

Since the Estrada fight, Esparza (11-1, 1KO) has strung together a collection of wins including a unanimous decision over Ibeth Zamora Silva in June 2021 for the WBC flyweight title and a year-end title defense in December 2021, a unanimous decision win over Anabel Ortiz.

In facing Fujioka, Esparza is presented with no easy task. Fujioka, (19-2-1, 7KO) wears the distinction as Japan’s first five-division champion and has found a major title throughout the majority of her career. Fujioka gained the green belt (WBC) in her sixth career fight in May 2011. The only blemishes on Fujioka’s resume are decision losses in 2014 and 2016, respectively.

“I watched her fight Sulem (Urbina). I knew about her previously because she is a big name and she hits hard,” said Esparza, who served as commentator on the DAZN broadcast for the bout on the undercard of the Gilberto Ramirez-Sullivan Barrera fight in July 2021. Esparza also owns a win over Sulem Urbina, as she handed the Mexican fighter her first professional loss in October 2020. “I thought that was a good fight. She is a good fighter. She is a world champion for reason.”

Esparza is expecting a large turnout of support for her third flight in the Lone Star state. “This will be the first time it is going to be a big deal… I’m from Texas! It is going to be great this time around, and I am proud and happy about it.”

So what does the well-conditioned, year-round athlete do for downtime from the sport she is so dedicated to? Well, more conditioning that is. Esparza, a Nike sponsored athlete who last week was re-signed to the worldwide company, enjoys running as a head clearing activity, which also serves to further her commitment and success in her sport.

“I run because I box, but I love running. I am actually talking about being a runner for sport, to compete, because my times are so good.” Esparza spoke of the Nike contract and noted that women's boxing is picking up so much that she hopes the Nike involvement serves to help her both in the ring, as well as on a race track.

With a win over Fujioka, which would represent dominance in the flyweight division, Esparza could turn her attention to women's boxing's most prominent division, the junior lightweight division. Champion Mikaela Mayer defends her titles against Jennifer Han this weekend in Costa Mesa California, and Amanda Serrano challenges champion Katie Taylor on April 30, 2022.

Would Esparza, who keeps track of her fellow female fighters, be interested in moving up in weight to meet the stars in a higher division?

“Abso-freaking-lutely. I do think I can move up. I think that Mayer and Han are big names. I think Mayer is too young and too experienced, too brilliant of a fighter to have any questions against Han. I love Jennifer, I believe she has done more than she is given credit for in the sport of women's boxing. I feel she should get more credit for what she has done… I would love to fight Mikaela… Taylor and Serrano will be a lot of fun to watch… It’s going to be a beautiful boxing match.”

Esparza does not have a prediction for the night’s main event featuring stablemate Ryan Garcia, facing Ghanaian Emmanuel Tagoe, yet does see a lot of growth in Garcia, which she believes will lead the young star into becoming a better person both inside and outside of the ring. Garcia has been out of the ring for fifteen months due to personal issues and injuries.

“He is learning a lot about himself as a fighter. I think he is doing well with the amount of pressure he is under. He is becoming himself, which is going to lead him to becoming a better fighter. When you know yourself outside of the ring, you know yourself in the ring.”

Words of wisdom from one fighter to another.