JOCKBEAT

Amanda Serrano: Portrait of a Female Fighter

The Brooklyn-based boxer is breaking new ground at Madison Square Garden, and it didn’t happen overnight

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Amanda Serrano bought a car.

Call it a down payment on a new life that begins on April 30 at Madison Square Garden, when the Brooklynite joins Katie Taylor as the first women to headline a boxing match in a venue long referred to as “The Mecca” of the sweet science. The pair, who are scheduled to fight 10 two-minute rounds for Taylor’s undisputed lightweight (135 pounds) title, will each secure a seven-figure payday for their efforts, another first for the ladies. “It was like a sigh of relief and the weight was off my shoulders,” Serrano, 33, tells the Voice about signing the historic contract. “Finally, it paid off. I honestly didn’t believe that I was gonna see it.”

Wait a second. Elite professional athletes garnering seven-figure paydays for competing in iconic New York venues—what’s the big deal? Isn’t this commonplace? Didn’t the Yankees’ Aaron Judge recently turn down a $213.5 million contract extension? Wasn’t $130 million the price tag to secure Mets pitcher Max Scherzer?

But this is women’s boxing, a sport in which Serrano, then a world champion in five weight classes, earned $17,500 for a January 2017 victory over Yazmin Rivas that was televised on Showtime. For comparison’s sake, on the male side of the ring, Floyd Mayweather Jr., also a five-division world champion, picked up a guaranteed $100 million payday for his win over Conor McGregor seven months later.

Serrano has added two more divisional titles since the Rivas bout, giving her championship belts in every weight class from 115 to 140 pounds, a feat that landed her in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most boxing world championships won in different weight divisions by a female. But the money didn’t follow the accolades—and it long hasn’t for the ladies of boxing, who have been trying to gain equal footing with their male counterparts since Barbara Buttrick won the first women’s boxing title, in 1957. In the years following that seminal victory, the sport was largely underground, with fights sporadically showing up once a State Athletic Commission would allow it. And even when women did get to fight in sanctioned events, there was nothing close to parity when the checks were written out. There have been a few outliers who did well for themselves: Christy Martin was featured on Mike Tyson undercards presented on pay-per-view by Don King, and on the cover of Sports Illustrated (the only female boxer to get the cover); Playboy model Mia St. John had the same undercard spotlight on high-profile matches promoted by Bob Arum; and Laila Ali reportedly made a purse of $600,000 for a single fight, a product not only of her place as one of the best female fighters in the world but also her bloodline as the daughter of Muhammad Ali. But as far as those trying to build a sport on a grassroots level, they were greeted with apathy or outright disgust, with promoters either begrudgingly burying the fighters in opening bouts in front of empty rooms or paying them the bare minimum to risk their health in the ring.

Heather Hardy, from Gerritsen Beach, Brooklyn, a former Serrano opponent, remembers the early days of a pro career that began in 2012. “Nobody really knew that we were around fighting,” she tells the Voice in an interview. “You had women like Alicia Ashley and Jackie Nava, Melissa Hernandez and Belinda Laracuente. Those were girls who were fighting under the radar, putting on epic fights and epic shows that we only heard about from the coaches that were there.”

But those women were pounding it out everywhere from Mexico City to Venezuela and in small club shows in the U.S. Hardy was fighting in her hometown, and New York’s hardcore fight crowd simply loved watching her action-packed, take-one-punch-to-give-two-back style in the ring. Subsequently, “The Heat” could sell tickets. Literally. “Hand to consumer,” says Hardy of her method of getting fans to show up to her fights at venues around the area. “Not, go to my website link. Hand to consumer, running to the venue, getting a handful, leaving a check, selling them, getting a handful, leaving a check, selling them.”

Hardy estimates that her biggest ticket haul was $35,000 for a 2017 fight at Barclays Center, one in which her purse paled in comparison to that of some of the male fighters on the card, even though she was making a defense of her WBC international featherweight title and bringing in more than her share of fans. “I made $7,500 for that fight [for the purse] and it was a WBC defense,” she says. “I also got a percentage of ticket sales, don’t get me wrong, but [selling tickets] was the incentive. Not only that they’d have me back, but it would add to my purse.”

As Hardy was turning pro, Bushwick’s Serrano was coming off the first (and only) loss of her pro career, a unanimous decision defeat at the hands of Frida Wallberg, in Sweden, that left her with a 14-1-1 record. It was a career that began, like those of all her peers at that time, quietly.

A native of Carolina, Puerto Rico, who moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was eight months old, Serrano was a self-described “active girl” growing up, but she wasn’t someone with any designs on becoming a boxer until long after her older sister, Cindy, began visiting a local gym owned by her boyfriend and future husband, Jordan Maldonado, to lose weight. The 12-year-old Amanda followed. “Cindy started boxing after my niece was born, and then I became the babysitter in the gym.”

By 2003, Cindy Serrano’s weight-loss journey had turned into a boxing career, and she turned pro at the age of 21 with a four-round decision win over Kathy Rodriguez. Fourteen-year-old Amanda was still three years away from deciding to participate in the sport, and when she did, she was met with resistance from Cindy, Maldonado, and her mother. Serrano’s father was the lone supporter at first, but eventually all came aboard. A natural in the sport, Amanda won the New York Golden Gloves in 2008, and less than a year later she made her professional debut, though it was an unexpected one, and a fight without much fanfare, at least for the 20-year-old.

“I was definitely the opponent,” Serrano says, knowing that she was brought in for her debut not to win but to be the B-side to the hometown favorite. “Someone called us from Gleason’s Gym and said, ‘There’s this fight with this girl, Jackie Trivilino, would you take it?’ I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ I won the Golden Gloves in 2008, and I was like, what am I gonna do? I’m not gonna do the Golden Gloves another hundred times. So I said, let’s just do it and make a little bit of money.” Serrano traveled upstate to the Washington Avenue Armory, in Albany, for the fight, and returned to Brooklyn with a majority decision win and a career path, one that was not paved with gold. “Amanda was fighting world title fights for $2,000. If that’s not for the love of the sport, then what is?” asks Maldonado, trainer and manager of both Serrano sisters.

But the world title fights were two years in the future. In the meantime, Amanda had to come up the hard way, fighting for little money against opponents with deceiving records, like Ela Nunez. “We hated her,” Maldonado says of Nunez, who entered their first fight in 2009 with a 9-5 slate. “She wouldn’t stop coming. We hit her with everything and the kitchen sink and that, to me, was the hardest fight Amanda had.” Nunez held Serrano to a four-round draw in 2009. They would fight three more times, Serrano winning all three. “We fought Ela Nunez four times because we had to prove to ourselves that we owned her, that we were better than her,” Maldonado explains. It’s the trial by fire that makes boxers into fighters. Some never make that transition, and it’s evident the first time they encounter an opponent who isn’t content with just picking up a paycheck. Serrano faced those challenges and won, and those on the local fight scene noticed it.

“I knew she was good,” Gary Stark Jr., a former junior featherweight contender and son of Serrano’s co-trainer for the upcoming Taylor fight, Gary Stark Sr., tells the Voice. “I knew she was going to be something.” Stark Jr., who sparred with both sisters, knew, and those in the business knew, but the major promoters and networks, the ones with the deep pockets and the pull to make a good fighter a star, didn’t care. In their eyes, women’s boxing didn’t sell and the talent pool was too shallow. For a long time, the latter was true; as for the former, major promoters and networks did occasionally have women on their shows and airwaves, and fight fans responded positively, though women were never a consistent part of the programming. There was even a bout scheduled in 2005 between future Hall-of-Famers Christy Martin and Lucia Rijker, dubbed “Million Dollar Lady.” It was a spin on the hit film Million Dollar Baby, and in the real fight, the winner would receive a million dollars. That contest never happened, due to a Rijker injury, and was never rescheduled—and seven-figure paydays for the ladies weren’t seriously discussed for another 15 years.

Soon enough, Serrano realized that winning fights and titles and building a local fanbase weren’t going to buy her a mansion. “At first, it was all fun and games,” she says. “I wasn’t in the sport to become a world champion. I just did it for the fun. I knew the struggles that my sister went through, being put on shows and the money she wasn’t getting, so I knew it was hard work and that’s why Jordan really didn’t want me to fight, because he was going through it with Cindy. Once I became a multiple-division world champion and I was still getting paid shit, you start to notice: Wow, the men are making this and I’m making this and then you realize that there’s a big gap.”

That gap still hasn’t closed, but in 2012, the scene began to shift in women’s combat sports. A 2008 Olympic bronze medalist in judo for the United States, Ronda Rousey, had taken the world of mixed martial arts by storm, and, late in 2012, she was the first woman signed to compete in the UFC, the sport’s premier promotion. Meanwhile, at the London Olympics, women were allowed to box for the first time. One of the gold medal winners was Ireland’s Katie Taylor. Another was the United States’ Claressa Shields. Shields went on to win another gold in 2016, turn pro, and become a multi-division world champion. Taylor missed out on a medal in the 2016 Games, but in the midst of women earning a living on a level playing field in mixed martial arts, she believed the same could—and should—happen in women’s boxing, with her and her Olympic peers leading the way. So she texted Europe’s top promoter, Eddie Hearn, of Matchroom Boxing, and told him what she believed could be done.

“What was quite unique about that situation was she was kind of selling the idea to me,” Hearn tells the Voice. “Normally, I’ll sit down with a fighter and put out a blueprint and give them the big sell. But she told me what she felt was possible and she believed that this day would come. Now, if you would have told me back then that one day Katie Taylor would be headlining a sold-out Madison Square Garden, I would have said that’s adventurous, even by my standards.”

Hearn rolled the dice with Taylor, and as she began to collect unprecedented media attention and crowds to her fights, the ball started rolling and gathering speed, not only for Taylor but for her peers. Soon, Hearn was all in, detractors be damned. “I just started becoming a believer in it,” he says. “And I’m stubborn, as well. When people kept telling me it can’t be done or that this isn’t actually going anywhere, I started to just dig my heels in and say, no, it can.”

American promoters began to follow suit … slowly. So slowly that Serrano began wondering whether she was going to continue in the sport. “Yeah, every other day,” chuckles Serrano, who, along with Hardy, went to the other side of the combat sports street to fight in mixed martial arts bouts, where she compiled a 2-0-1 record. “Women had more recognition over there and they were getting paid what they deserved. So I switched over to MMA to see if I could do something there and make noise there. And I did. But I love boxing, so when I made noise over there, [former promoter Lou] DiBella saw something and he was like, we need this girl back in boxing, and that’s when I was getting better paydays.”

Along with the better paydays came more notoriety and more media attention. Who was this knockout artist from Brooklyn who never had a cell phone or a boyfriend, a multi-division titleholder who earned her first Guinness World Record with Cindy for being the first sisters to become world boxing champions? She was just a kid from Bushwick who was married to the game and who still laughs over the interest in her not having a boyfriend or a cell phone, especially the cell phone. “I think they’re more fascinated with the no cell phone,” Serrano says. “Nowadays, everybody’s stuck on their phones, everybody’s looking down, they’re never looking up, and it’s a headache. It’s a hassle having to answer back to so many people. And there are no distractions. I have my family that keeps me on my Ps and Qs, that makes me happy, and that’s all I need.”

As for her rapidly changing neighborhood, Serrano plans on it always being home, even though she expects to buy property in Puerto Rico and Florida after April 30. “That’s always been my home,” she says. “It was my grandparents’ home, then my dad bought it from my grandparents, so that’s definitely one of my final destinations. Bushwick is my home for life. I’m still a little girl at heart. I’m a mama’s girl and a daddy’s girl, so they’re really gonna have to throw my ass out.” It’s a rare loyalty, but Bushwick has given it back to Serrano. There was the mural of Amanda and Cindy painted on a wall on Knickerbocker Avenue in 2017; Tony’s Pizzeria, where the pizza is always free for the champ; and the remaining neighbors who still know her name. “Bushwick is changing now,” Serrano admits. “Through all this gentrification, we have new neighbors, but the people who stuck around, they’re so proud of us. They’ve seen me since I was a little girl riding my bike up and down the block, playing outside with my rollerblades, and I was always an active girl, so they know exactly who I am and they always supported me.”

Yet it also took a young lady from County Wicklow, Ireland, to get boxing to support Serrano. Katie Taylor, who defeated Cindy Serrano by decision in 2018 in what was the elder Serrano’s final pro bout, was dominating the 135-pound weight class, winning titles at a breakneck pace, and while she was on a collision course with Amanda to determine the best female boxer in the world, in boxing, getting such a match together isn’t as cut and dried as the two best football teams meeting in the Super Bowl each year. On the men’s side of the sport, it’s even worse, because often the best doesn’t want to fight the best. At least with Serrano and Taylor, the desire from both sides to get the deal done was there. Reaching that finish line was another story, and with Maldonado tenaciously refusing to let his sister-in-law fight for anything less than what she was worth, negotiations often got testy, both behind closed doors and in the media. “One thing I wasn’t gonna allow was having my family taken advantage of,” says Maldonado. Eventually, a May 2020 bout in Manchester, England, was announced. Then the Covid-19 pandemic scrapped the bout and put all of boxing on hold. It was tentatively rescheduled for the summer, but when Serrano’s purse was going to be reduced because there would be no fans allowed to attend due to pandemic restrictions, the fight was off once more.

Enter Jake Paul.

The social media influencer and budding pro boxer began making waves in the sport in 2020 with wins over fellow YouTubers, ex-NBA players, and mixed martial artists, and surprisingly—or maybe not so surprisingly, considering his high-profile and controversial partying ethos—he amassed a larger platform than anyone in boxing could have imagined. And in his Showtime event last August, he wanted a female fight on the card.

“One of his priorities was to bring attention to women’s boxing,” says Nakisa Bidarian, cofounder of Paul’s company Most Valuable Promotions. “And Amanda Serrano was a name that was brought up by Stephen Espinoza from Showtime, and we jumped on it. She joined our card and made a record payday for herself at that point on that card.” For her 10-round win over Yamileth Mercado, Serrano made a reported $400,000. A month later, she signed a promotional deal with MVP. In January, the Katie Taylor–Amanda Serrano SuperFight was officially announced.

“He played a big role in getting me the pay, that’s for sure,” says Serrano of Paul. “We were capped at one amount, which was great, but once he decided to come on board and promote as well, the price skyrocketed for both of us, and it’s great. He’s definitely a great guy, he wants equal pay for all of us, so I’m happy to be part of their team. They’re working hard to get me sponsors and getting me paid once I retire from boxing.” Bidarian points out that Serrano will make more in sponsorship for this fight than she has made in purse and sponsorship from any fight she ever had before appearing on Paul’s card in 2021. So that’s a victory in and of itself. All that’s left is winning the biggest fight of her career on April 30. And to many boxing insiders and pundits, taking Serrano to win is a safe bet. But the one who will have the gloves on at the end of the month isn’t listening to any pre-fight hype.

“I definitely don’t pay attention to that,” claims Serrano. “And I don’t read into that stuff because everything changes once we go in that ring. I believe this is a 50-50 fight and whoever wants it more is gonna win that night. Katie is a strong champion—she’s undefeated and undisputed for a reason—so I’m not looking past her.” Maldonado echoes those sentiments. “Upsets happen when people think they’re gonna win,” he says. “Nobody believed that Buster Douglas was gonna knock Mike Tyson out and he knocked him out. So Amanda is still grounded. Do not believe for a second that Katie Taylor lost when she signed the contract. I believe Amanda has the tools to beat her, but boxing is the theater of the unexpected.”

Apparently, the stars are finally aligning for the 33-year-old with seven divisional world titles and a 42-1-1 (30 knockouts) record. Does that mean this is the start of something for Serrano and women’s boxing, or just a one-and-done? “I think it’s upon Katie and Amanda to put on a spectacular show, and that will only continue this evolution of interest in the sport as it relates to women,” predicts Bidarian.

Hearn, who is co-promoting the bout with MVP, believes the demand will be there—in time. “I don’t think you’re gonna see this every few months, but I do think that the norm has kept on changing,” he says. “Will two females filling up Madison Square Garden become the norm? We’ve got a long way to go. But certainly, the bar is continuously being raised in terms of the norm, and we’ve come a long, long way.”

Serrano laughs. “No pressure.”  ❖

Thomas Gerbasi is currently senior editor for BoxingScene.com, Women’s Boxing columnist for The Ring magazine, a contributor to Boxing News (UK) magazine, and soon to be inducted into the International Women’s Boxing Hall of Fame’s Class of 2022 in the non-participant wing. An award-winning member of the Boxing Writers Association of America, Gerbasi is also the author of five books. His amateur boxing record was 0-1.

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