MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Marlen Esparza woke up Friday morning and thought, “I’m not supposed to be here.”
She never imagined she’d be in the challenger’s bracket at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Women’s Boxing, fighting just to get into the flyweight final against Virginia Fuchs, who'd beaten her for the first time on Wednesday.
“I made it back to where I'm supposed to be,” Esparza said. “I feel better.”
On Friday night, the Olympic bronze medalist defeated Christina Cruz for the second time in the tournament to advance to Saturday’s final against Fuchs.
If Fuchs wins, she’ll make the team and attempt to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the continental or world championships next year. If Esparza emerges victorious, they’ll face off again on Sunday.
Esparza had defeated Fuchs five straight times before the loss. “I think last time I was so worried about Christina that I forgot to focus on Virginia,” Esparza said. “I knew Virginia was my hardest opponent, but I thought I would just get through it like I always do and it showed in the bout.
“I didn't have new ideas and I wasn't adjusting so next time when I fight her I'm going to concentrate all day on what to do and it won't be like it was again. She had a really good day and I had a really bad one and I just think I need to go in there and change it. That's what boxing's for."
Fuchs is hoping the outcome won’t change. She said defeating Esparza “was the best feeling ever. It was like the biggest achievement, almost in my life, because I’ve been working so hard for this – ever since the first time I fought her (at the 2013 national championships), which I thought I had won.
“I knew I deserved this.”
And Fuchs said that despite the disappointment of losing to Esparza in the last three national championship finals, “This is actually what counts when you need to win and beat her, in the Super Bowl – the Olympic Trials.”
But after beating the Seattle Seahawks in the last Super Bowl, the New England Patriots didn’t have to turn around and do it again within a week.
Beating Esparza again is the challenge for Fuchs.
She said she plans to use the same strategy she used Wednesday. “My jab is the key, using that to keep my distance from her and not letting her get in to throw those little flurry punches that she throws,” Fuchs said. “That worked very well for me.”
The lightweight division final features another rematch with Mikaela Mayer taking on Jajaira Gonzalez for the second time. Gonzalez defeated Tiara Brown on Friday night to advance, although her older brother Jousce saw his Olympic aspirations end with a loss to Bruce Carrington in the men’s 132-pound division of the men’s Olympic trials qualifier.
Gonzalez is still bristling over her split-decision loss to Mayer earlier this week. “It was totally uncalled for,” she said. “I thought I dominated the fight.”
Mayer, who suffered a cut on the bridge of her nose in her opening fight against Stalacia Leggett, appreciated the two days off she had as a reward for being undefeated.
“Going into this championship bout, the other girls haven’t had those two days to recover, so they’re tired,” she said.
Mayer expects Gonzalez, the Youth Olympic Games gold medalist and a former youth and junior world champion, to put the pressure on Saturday. “That’s her style,” Mayer said. “She does it well. She comes forward and she keeps punching. So I think my best asset is my movement and my classic boxing skills.”
While Mayer’s approach will be similar to their first bout, she said, “I want to ‘up’ it a little bit more, more punches, more combinations, just make it a little bit better than it was the first time around.”
Gonzalez also doesn’t plan any big changes. “I'm going to throw more punches in my rematch,” she said. “I let her breathe a little bit in the last two rounds maybe and the first round definitely. I just know I need to go out and kill it from the first round."
With 2012 Olympian Queen Underwood not competing at the Olympic Trials, a new lightweight division winner is guaranteed.
Mayer was the runner-up in 2012.
“I immediately knew that I was going for 2016,” she said. “My dream was still completely, fully alive. I don’t feel like I was anywhere near my peak. I still had so much to learn. Yeah, I was bummed out, but I knew immediately 2016 was going to be my year.”