'Dad, can I box?': How a wish as a kid became Seniesa Estrada's life -- and saved her father's
By Michael Rothstein,2023-03-24
LOS ANGELES -- They couldn't have understood in the moment what one declaration from an 8-year-old child could mean for both the father and the daughter. How one decision, essentially out of the blue, could be the fulcrum of change for both of them.
One night, while they were watching fights on TV together, Seniesa Estrada told her father, Joe, that she wanted to box. Her father told her, "Sure." She's a kid, Joe thought. She'll forget and move on to something else.
Joe didn't want his daughter to fight. Not at 8. Not at 18. Not ever. It just wasn't something he thought women did -- and at the time, they were rarely doing it.
But the next time Seniesa and her father watched fights, the same question came. "Dad, can I box?" Again and again, the request persisted. Finally, Joe gave in and they went to a local gym in Alhambra, California, and asked the coach if they trained kids. The coach gave a "kind of" answer. Then he saw Seniesa and said, "No." Not that young. Not a girl.
The two walked outside and Joe thought that would be the end of it. It wasn't. Seniesa started crying, and it broke Joe's heart.
Joe knew of another place, one that would accept his boxing-obsessed daughter. He took her to Hollenbeck Youth Center in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles -- an area he knew well because of his own life, a past he was trying to escape.
Hollenbeck is where Joe had gone as a kid -- "it was all we had, and it was free" -- so he knew the programs and the coaches. It was a place Joe trusted and where he would have taken her from the beginning, except he didn't want her to box. He knew they'd let Seniesa try. And Joe hoped again that after this experience, well, that would be the end of it.
That end never came. After training came amateur bouts and then a professional career. Today, Estrada is one of the best in the world as the WBA strawweight champion. On Saturday, she defends her title in a unification fight against WBC title holder Tina Rupprecht (ESPN/ESPN+, 7 p.m. ET). It's the latest fight in a career that already has brought fame to the daughter and, in some ways, much more to the father.
"She basically saved my life," Joe said. "I could have been in prison or dead."
The little girl whom he didn't want to box, whom he hoped would get beat up by a boy in the ring bad enough in her first training session that she would quit, ended up being Joe's salvation.
Now 30, Seniesa looks back at all the years with her father in her corner and sees their relationship with more clarity. What her boxing passion did for both her and her father.
"People would say that all the time when they heard my story," Seniesa said. "But now, as an adult, I'm like, 'Wow. Boxing saved his life.' I feel like it is something that was destiny."
THE FIRST TIME Joe Estrada tried heroin, he was 11 years old. It was 1969 and he was living in Aliso Village, surrounded by the Primera Flats, a street criminal gang in Los Angeles. By the time he was a teenager, he said, he was addicted.
Joe said he joined Primera Flats at that age, going by the nickname "Puppet." He went down a path from which people don't always escape. For years, he said he would try to get clean only to relapse again. He ended up going to prison in 1979 for strong-arm robbery and was released in 1982.
He cleaned up, got married and began to work with his father. In 1986, they opened Sign Crafters, the sign shop that later became his family business. He had three kids, including Seniesa, but in 1993, he said he relapsed and started drinking, doing cocaine and heroin. That year, his then-wife, Maryann Chavez, divorced him and the spiral continued.
"I've gone through the juvenile system, I've gone through county, I've gone through the state prison, I've gone through everything..." Joe said. "I cleaned up and then I went right back to it."
When Seniesa insisted on boxing, Joe arranged for her to be put in the ring with a boy at Hollenbeck. The boy hit Seniesa with a liver shot that stunned her, and Joe thought that shot would make Seniesa stop her pursuit of the sport.
Instead, she raged. Threw punch after punch after punch and made the boy quit instead. That was the moment when Joe knew -- and when Seniesa might have known, too -- there was a possibility of something great.
About six months after 9-year-old Seniesa started boxing, Joe finally did something about his own life. Cold turkey, he quit drugs and alcohol. He found religion and peace in scripture. The reasoning was simple: He said he felt he needed to be there for his daughter -- to guide her, train her. Most importantly, he wanted to just be there .
"I knew that I had to help her. It was something that got put in my heart: You gotta stop this stuff, because look [at] your daughter," Joe said. "I had to keep feeling. God kept telling me in my heart, 'Stop, not for yourself but for your daughter.'"
Seniesa's boxing gave him a different purpose. Back then, there weren't many girls fighting. Coaching wasn't consistent. Between his daughter boxing and a renewed faith, Joe knew that "I needed to be with her, by her side."
"From that day forward, he dedicated his life, time, money, really everything into getting me where I am today," Seniesa said. "Boxing really saved his life."
WHEN SENIESA WAS 10, the Los Angeles Times started following her and Joe for 2½ years, chronicling their lives and her journey as a young boxer in a sport in which, at the time, women's boxing was not very popular.
The reporter, Kurt Streeter, wrote that he set out to find the next great boxer from East Los Angeles -- the next Oscar De La Hoya (who was born in East L.A. and went to win an Olympic gold medal for the U.S. and won professional titles in six divisions). Streeter didn't expect to find that in a 10-year-old girl. Seniesa was the only girl training in Hollenbeck, and often the only girl on the road trips she would eventually take in Joe's Ford minivan with a team of boxers her dad started coaching. This became their lives.
They drove to different states to fight. Early on, Seniesa weighed so little, she stepped on the scale with keys, cell phones, anything in her pockets to help her weigh enough to be allowed to box. She kept going. Fight after fight, amateur title after amateur title.
Seniesa wanted to make boxing a career, but she wasn't sure how. She graduated high school and went to Pasadena City College with a goal to become a meteorologist or a news anchor.
Looking back, Seniesa laughs at that short-term ambition. She was trying to balance school, a job as a personal trainer at Box 'N Burn in Santa Monica and training herself. It was getting to be too much. She'd already turned pro in 2011, and while finding fights in the amateurs had been tough, doing so in the pros was an even more challenging scenario -- especially while trying to balance her life with school and work.
"But I was trying to do that," Seniesa said. "Cannot do that. Im-freaking-possible. My whole focus and energy needs to be on fighting only."
This was also when she heard the words of her mom in her head. Maryann questioned boxing at the beginning and wanted her daughter to focus on her education. The money wasn't coming in for women fighters at that point, and Maryann thought her daughter should pursue a career in television.
Nah. Seniesa was too invested in boxing, in what her and her father had done. So she continued to fight.
SENIESA STARTED FIGHTING with regularity in 2014, and her fourth pro fight came on the Gennadiy Golovkin-Willie Monroe Jr. undercard at the Forum in Inglewood in 2015, not far from where she grew up. She fought a six-round bout against Carley Batey, winning by unanimous decision. It was one of those early fights on a card, when few in the venue were really paying attention. Except one person unwittingly did notice.
Former champion and Hall of Famer Roy Jones Jr. was there to call the Golovkin-Monroe fight later that night for HBO. He was doing his prep at ringside, and he ended up being completely distracted by the young woman he saw in the ring.
Jones watched the entire fight. Two days later, at a news conference to promote the Timothy Bradley Jr.-Jessie Vargas fight, Jones went off on an aside. In the crowd, he saw the 22-year-old woman who had fought in the ring the Saturday before.
"Stand up, stand up," Jones said. "I don't know her daggone name, but that little girl can fight."
Jones asked for her name. "Everything was in slow motion, like, who is he talking about?" Seniesa recalled. "I was looking back, like, is someone sitting behind me?"
Jones, one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of his generation, had been one of her heroes. She had no idea he had watched her fight two days earlier, and now, in front of a crowd promoting a big-time fight led by her far-in-the-future promoter, Bob Arum and Top Rank, she was getting unexpected and very welcomed attention. Joe, sitting next to her that day, is still in awe today.
"That was so amazing," Joe said. "Like, wow, he called her out. Just like that. It was amazing."
The next year, she fought on undercards of Golovkin and Roman "Chocolatito" Gonzalez main events. In 2018, she signed with Golden Boy Promotions. The woman who was once the face of a newspaper series looking for the next Oscar De La Hoya was now being promoted by De La Hoya himself.
Along the way, she picked up the "Superbad" nickname -- devised by her trainer and from an old nickname for Sugar Ray Leonard that she read in a biography. She started wearing a cape because her trainer wanted her to stand out, be different and come out to the ring in something other than the typical boxing robe.
"I'm like, 'I love the sound of that,'" Seniesa said. "The whole Superbad thing, I love it."
In 2019, she won her first title, beating Marlen Esparza for the WBA interim flyweight title in the first women's title fight to have three-minute rounds. The next year, Seniesa recorded one of the fastest knockouts in boxing history, stopping Miranda Adkins in seven seconds.
What Jones had predicted at a news conference when no one knew who Seniesa Estrada was became true. She turned into one of the top and most exciting fighters in the world.
ALMOST TWO DECADES after she first walked into Hollenbeck, Seniesa was sitting in her yellow Jeep across the street from the place that helped shape her youth. She doesn't live in East L.A. now, having moved to Chino, California, in a house she purchased with money earned as one of the best woman fighters in the world.
But the memories are still there. Of her early days fighting. Of eating tacos at Al & Bea's Mexican Food next door. That girl then would be in awe of the woman she is now. Last year, driving around her old neighborhood in East Los Angeles, she pointed out the places where she lived as a child.
Seniesa saw a McDonald's on the main intersection of every place she lived, bringing back memories. She and her brothers would take the food stamps her mother had given them, buy something small at a local convenience store, using the change to pick up Happy Meals or cheeseburgers.
This was their treat, their contentment as kids. Joe said all three of his children couldn't get enough of the fast food chain. Seniesa realizes now how fortunate she was to have a mother who stressed academics and a dad who gave up the lifestyle he was ingrained in to push for better things for his children, in particular his daughter. She looks back now and sees how far she's come from being the kid in school who didn't want to tell her teachers she boxed, or from the embarrassments when her parents were summoned to the school when Seniesa got in trouble for beating up a bully.
Growing up, Seniesa saw her father's decisions as just what her dad did. She saw her boxing results -- and those of the team Joe coached -- simply as wins and losses, a means to the place she wanted to eventually get to. Now, it's different. As an adult, Seniesa grasps exactly what Joe accomplished. Not just for her, but for others, too. Over the years, as Seniesa has asked questions about Joe's past, they've had candid discussions about how that past led to the present.
"Now I definitely see it," Seniesa said. "I see it because my dad was that father figure [not just for me] but for all the other boys that we had on the team who didn't have their dads in their lives or their dads weren't supportive.
"... I think they stood disciplined for many years and stood dedicated because of my dad. If it wasn't for him, what would they be doing? I realize now how important my dad was not to just me but to a whole group of kids."
Joe has worked her corner for every fight, and he will again on Saturday. He's the one who removes his daughter's cape before the bell rings, and as he does, he leans into his daughter's ear and says the same words, a version of Romans 8:31 that he's said to her before every amateur and professional fight they've been in together: Remember, baby, when God is for you, no one can stand against you.
It's the same message that Joe said helped him find his way out of addiction. A message that helped change both of their lives. "Now it's for her," Joe said. "It used to be for the both of us."
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