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THE GIRL | Chapter One of Five

A Surprise in the Ring

Searching gritty gyms for the next Oscar De La Hoya, a reporter finds a 10-year-old girl, coached by her father. They hunger for a championship. Even more, they need each other. Can her fists save them both?

July 10, 2005|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

About This Story

Quotations in this story are designated in two ways: Those heard by the writer are enclosed in quotation marks. Those recalled by others in interviews are designated by italics.

In this archived version, all italics are designated by single quotation marks. Only a page view can actually reproduce the italics as they were originally published.

*

'Do girls box?' she asked, turning to her father one evening. 'Is it OK for girls to box?'

'Well, yeah, mija, they do,' he answered. 'Sure, it's OK for girls to box.'

They were sitting on the bed in his cramped apartment, faces lit by a flickering TV, eating pizza, watching a pro boxing match. Seniesa loved to watch fights with him, loved the way boxers settled their differences, using fists to express what was inside. She was just a kid, a girl enthralled with a man's sport, but she wanted to express herself like that.

'Dad? Can I box? Can I learn how to box?'

Joe Estrada was shocked, he would remember afterward, but he didn't want to let his daughter down, not with what they had been through. 'Yeah,' he said, eyes still on the TV. 'Sure, mija, you can do that, if you really want to. I'll take you to a gym in a couple of days. I promise.'

He didn't mean it. Boxing wasn't for girls. Not for his girl, a pretty one with thin bones, a delicate nose and rosy lips. He had lived by his fists, both on the streets and in prison. All he wanted was to protect her. For weeks, he did nothing to make his promise real.

But she grew adamant. She read a book about Muhammad Ali, got a poster of him and tacked it to her wall. She admired his confidence, the way he would not back down, just like her father, she would proudly say, and the way Ali had grown up, just as she had -- an outsider looking in. She wanted to become a champion boxer, bold and strong, just like Ali.

Besides, if her father trained her, he would be with her, no matter what. Both needed that, desperately. They needed it to save each other.

The more he put off boxing, the more she pressed.

Finally, guilt got him. One Monday afternoon, he drove her to a gym on a busy street in East L.A. When he parked, she sprinted from the van to the entrance. They walked inside, unsure what was next.

'Do you train kids here?' Joe asked.

The manager looked down at Seniesa, leaning against her father's side. 'How old is she?' he asked.

'Eight,' Joe said. 'Almost 9.'

'She's too small,' the manager said. 'We'll train her, when she's 13.'

She walked from the gym with her head down. Joe tried to console her, but actually he couldn't have been happier. Good, he thought, that's the end of this boxing thing. Then, inside his van, he looked at her and saw her staring out the window.

'What's wrong, mama?' he asked.

She couldn't speak. Tears filled her eyes.

It hit him then how much this meant, how badly she just wanted the chance to step inside a ring and put gloves on and let go.

A few days later, deciding to try once more, he took her to a gym near her home where a group of boy boxers trained.

One of their coaches had grown up with Joe. Two decades before, they were in the same gang. Then Joe Estrada and Paul Gonzales took different paths. Joe scuffled along the gutter. Now 42, he had climbed out, but he could easily tumble back, leave Seniesa, even go back to prison. Gonzales, for his part, had risen from the gang and the projects and become a famous boxer.

Joe and Seniesa approached him, near the ring.

'Puppet? Is that you?' Gonzales asked, calling Joe by his gang name. He had long figured Joe was in jail -- or dead. When he remembered Puppet, he thought of a young man with hair below the shoulders, roving eyes and a tattoo reading "Maryann" burned into his right forearm.

Before him now stood another man: just plain Joe, hair closely cropped, eyes firm, the "Maryann" X-ed out and his gang tattoo covered by a flower, heart and cross. And then there was the surprise, peeking from behind him, a small girl with smooth, light brown skin and hopeful eyes.

'Paul, this is about my daughter,' Joe said. 'She wants to box. She practically dragged me down here.'

Seniesa was too shy to look him in the eye.

Gonzales was stunned. He would never forget it. 'She wants to be a boxer?' he asked. 'She's a beautiful little girl. Why on earth would you want her to box?' In his heart, though, Gonzales knew he could not say no. Figuring he owed Joe, he swallowed his doubts.

'Sure,' he said, 'there's a place for your girl here.'

The trainers found Seniesa (pronounced Seh-NEE-sa) an old pair of gloves, showed her a few simple defensive moves and a basic punch. It was but a few days later when she stepped into the ring to box for the first time. Joe felt relief; he was certain she would be hit and then give up. After all, her opponent was a boy.

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