Undefeated boxing champion Seniesa Estrada is now the role model she never had

Tribune Content Agency

LOS ANGELES — It was a Tuesday, another sparring day for Seniesa Estrada. Her next fight, a title unification bout, was less than a month away.

The lights brightened at 4:29 p.m. The flags for 12 nations hung above. Inspirational quotes were plastered on the walls. A canvas of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston adorned the wall behind the ring. This is Estrada’s sanctuary, a space she has owned for four years, an accomplishment even she didn’t imagine possible.

Estrada was a confident girl when she first stepped into a boxing gym at 8 years old, and she maintained that confidence as she entered the spotlight over the next few years. She already kept a list of lofty goals. Fight on television. Sign with the biggest promoter. Become world champion. It did not matter that women’s professional boxing was dormant. It was going to happen.

Owning a gym wasn’t on her wish list, but it might best illustrate Estrada’s rise. She was the only girl when she showed up at a gym in East L.A. to box for the first time. She was determined. Everyone else thought she was delusional.

“Once I started,” Estrada said, “I was like, ‘I know I’m not crazy. It’s doable.’ “

Now she has her own gym in Bell Gardens. She enjoys training alone before performing for others. Her next scheduled fight is Saturday against Tina Rupprecht in Fresno where she’ll put her 23-0 record (nine knockouts) on the line. She knows who will be watching.

Estrada, 30, has become the role model for aspiring champions she never had. Girls attend her fights wearing capes — her ring walk staple. They mob her for pictures. They cry. Her favorite fighters growing up were Roy Jones Jr., Sugar Ray Leonard and Roberto Duran. Fast forward two decades and she’s a favorite fighter for so many girls.

Two of them arrived at the gym that Tuesday afternoon to spar her. They were Latina amateur boxers, picked for this session because Estrada’s upcoming opponent is shorter than her and they checked the height box. They switched every two rounds until Estrada went the full 12.

Afterward, the aspiring fighters hugged the champion. They left with smiles. Estrada finished her day running on the treadmill in the corner for 10 minutes wearing a weighted vest while her father, Joe, cleaned equipment before closing the gym.

Joe Estrada was his daughter’s first trainer. He was the one who took her to a boxing gym for the first time. He thought she was just going through a phase so he devised a plan, arranging for a boy to beat the craving out of her in the ring. The scheme failed.

The boy pounded Estrada in the stomach, backing her up and forcing her to keel over in pain. She quickly rebounded with a flurry and knocked him down.

“As soon as I saw that, I thought this girl has it,” Estrada said. “Look where she’s at now. Three-division world champion.”

Estrada insists he’d be in prison or dead if his daughter hadn’t dragged him to that gym so many years ago. He was trapped in a world with gangs and drugs. Training her consumed him. But health issues, beginning with pneumonia over a decade ago, initiated breathing difficulties that remain. He was eventually forced to take a step back from the physical activity. She needed a trainer. So he approached someone he admired.

Dean Campos didn’t want to train a girl. Not because he was against or too busy or too good for female boxing. Because he thought it was a waste of time.

“I just don’t want to see somebody training for nothing,” said Campos, whose most famous pupil was former world champion Sergio Mora.

That was about 15 years ago. Promoters didn’t believe in the potential of women’s boxing. Even if women can box well, do people really want to watch them pummel each other? The disinterest trickled to the gyms, where careers are hatched.

Seniesa Estrada trained at Campos’ gyms in East L.A., then Montebello. Campos never worked with her, but he saw the girl around. She was quiet. One day, out of nowhere, Joe Estrada asked if he would work with her. He insisted she had potential and would work hard. He was sincere. He gave Campos some DVDs of her fights, hoping to convince him.

The first one Campos watched was her first fight in a ring, the one with the boy who punched her in the stomach and paid the consequences.

“I said, ‘Wait a minute, little girls don’t do that,’ ” Campos recalled thinking. ” ‘That’s not normal.’ “

He later studied a video of her first amateur fight. He surmised that she needed work, but the base for success was there. He loved her mentality. He noticed she possessed the right instincts. She lost, but it didn’t matter. She picked up tips fast.

Campos recalled one example early in their time together. He was watching one of the videos Joe Estrada had given him. In it, she pummeled the opponent but failed to cut off the ring to score the knockout. He rewound the video and brought the father and daughter over. He asked if they could identify the problem. They couldn’t. That day, he started teaching her how to cut off the ring.

“She ended up sparring that same girl that Friday,” Campos said. “And that girl was done within two rounds.”

Estrada lost her first three amateur fights. She lost again a few years later by decision, but she and her father were convinced she won the fight only to be cheated by the officials.

When she saw that the girl was fighting in a tournament in her hometown in Arizona, she convinced her father to take her for a rematch. She avenged the loss to start a streak of more than 60 straight wins. She won national tournaments and became the top-ranked boxer in the United States by age 16. She finished her amateur career 97-4.

Prosperity wasn’t waiting. Estrada fought for little money because there wasn’t much money to make a decade ago. Women’s boxing debuted at the 2012 London Olympics. The exposure created stars and some momentum, but Campos and Joe Estrada said they believe the tide really didn’t start turning until Ronda Rousey became a UFC star a few years later.

“I told her, ‘You know what, believe it or not, this is going to open the door for women in boxing,’ ” Campos said. “She goes, ‘You think so? It’s MMA.’ I told her it doesn’t matter. They’re going to start seeing that a girl can headline, and they’re going to at least start putting girls on the undercards.”

For Estrada to benefit, she had to keep winning. And she did. In 2018, she won her first title as a flyweight in Mexico. A year later, she won another. She won a minimum weight title in 2021 and a junior flyweight title less than three months after that.

In one of her title defenses in 2020, she knocked out 42-year-old Miranda Adkins — a late replacement for Estrada’s original opponent — in seven seconds. Adkins didn’t throw a punch. Critics lambasted the matchmaking while the clip went viral. Estrada said the seven seconds changed her life.

In an interview after the knockout, she noted she was in a contract dispute with Golden Boy Promotions. Top Rank saw it and reached out asking whether it was true. The ESPN platform appealed to her, and she soon switched promoters.

“It brought so much attention to women’s boxing,” Estrada said of the record knockout. “So, yeah, it was good.”

It was around this time, Estrada said, that her mother, Maryann Chavez, finally came around to her profession. Chavez was always against her daughter pursuing boxing, going back to the first days in training in East L.A. Estrada said she was a supportive mother, but she never got behind her boxing ambitions.

“She didn’t want me to spend my time doing something that she saw would always hurt me,” said Estrada, whose parents divorced in 1996. “So, I understand why she wasn’t supportive for so long. But, now, she’s like my biggest fan. Front row every fight. Screaming.”

Joe Estrada’s role has changed, but his devotion hasn’t. He chauffeurs her around. He picks up things she needs for the gym. He arranges her sparring partners.

On that recent Tuesday, Joe Estrada tied a groin protector around his daughter before her sparring session. He watched from her corner, occasionally stressing Campos’ instructions. After the 12 rounds, he paid the two amateur fighters.

“Whatever I need to do, I do it for her and I’m happy to do it,” he said. “That’s my part and I love it.”

Seniesa smiled as she watched him help her niece with her gloves. She was once that girl. Now she’s a world champion and a gym owner. She’s an example for the next generation of girls to follow. She’s everything she aspired to be and more.