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Interview: Shattering stereotypes - CNN’s Soledad O’Brien on women boxing in the Olympics
CNN Anchor and Special Correspondent Soledad O'Brien says that in 2012—as women's boxing officially goes into the Olympics—stereotypes will be shattered. "Female fighters can be polite, kind, sweet and tough—as in, you don't want to get in the ring with me because I'll kill you" tough.
Corporate sponsor, Cover Girl Cosmetics knows boxers wear makeup too.
Soledad's latest documentary, "In Her Corner: Latino in America" features two female boxers vying for the 112-pound female boxing spot on Team USA for the Olympics in London in 2012. Introducing Marlen Esparza (six time USA Boxing Champion) and Cristina Cruz, who is Marlen's strongest competitor for the single spot on the team.
O'Brien has another hit on her hands. "I love this story," she told me in our phone interview (video created with full version of audio only - unedited). "It has a lot of appeal for a lot of different people. Female boxers, especially, are sort of a caricature. Marlen Esparza and Cristina Cruz are hardcore athletes."
Soledad made a comparison to male athletes: "I remember one week when I did an interview with Marlen and an interview with LeBron James. They're both focused athletes. With Marlen, there's that line. It's mental. Games are won and lost in your head. She reflects what a lot of male athletes have said over the years. The victory is in your head. I love at the end when Marlen says that 'there are some girls who don't know that they're better than me—and I beat them. They're better than me, but they don't know it.'"
How are audiences reacting?
"Boxing fanatics love it. My 10 year old daughter loves it. She loves the story. Why? Because it's the story of a girl who—when she has a big defeat—turns around and is up and running the next day because she is intending to go to the Olympics. Period."
Does a story about women boxing appeal to women or mostly to men?
"A well-told story is for everyone. You fall in love with people. And it has nothing to do with their circumstances. You just love the story. Marlen is a compelling human being who has a lot of contradiction in her. She is a complicated and interesting person. And that's what's going to make people like it. The people are fascinating.
"It's not a story about boxing. It's a story about people. It's a story about persevering. It's a story about being committed. It's not for a certain demographic. I think a lot of people are going to find it really compelling."
"I have friends who love it for the boxing, but, ultimately, it's not about boxing. It's tangential to the story of a human being who's trying to overcome something or trying to succeed in some way."
Why female boxers?
"It was really a matter of curiosity. I was on a plane and picked up the inflight magazine and opened it up. It said something about Olympics 2012 and I started looking through it. They were talking about women's boxing being in the Olympics for the first time for 2012. They showed some pictures and everybody was Latina!
"There were all these young women. I don't know what I was expecting, but it wasn't that. We started researching because I just found it fascinating. I wasn't a fan of boxing. I just wondered why are all these Latinas boxers?
"I went out to meet with Marlen. The next step becomes, is this person worth doing a documentary on? Are they going to allow cameras to follow them? Are they an interesting character? Will they talk? Are they compelling? For all these things, Marlen was amazing. We knew immediately that it was going to be a great story.
"Doing a documentary, we need a story that's going to fill up a whole hour—which to me means you start off with an interesting idea, but everything else has to fall into place too. For women's boxing, it really did. But for me, it's not really about the boxing. It was about what it takes to reach your dreams. What are you willing to give up? What are you willing to sacrifice? What are you willing to do to win?
"For In Her Corner, Marlen talks about what it's like to have a boxing coach in your corner. Your coach's voice is what you hear in your head while you're boxing. Marlen described it almost like being blind. You can hear your coach's voice. It will cut through.
"To me, that's an incredible metaphor for Latinas. It's really important to know who that person is, who's going to help you navigate through the rough spots in life."
Why did you call the show "In Her Corner?"
Cheryl: When I interviewed Cristina Cruz, she told me that she can hear her coach's voice above the noise of the crowd. In the ring, she reacts as if he is her remote control.
Soledad: Marlen said the exact same thing. Having never fought, I don't really know that feeling. Just being able to instantly respond, even if you can't see, because she can hear her name above the din of people screaming. That image got to me—I've never had that experience.
Cheryl: That kind of trust isn't available to most people.
Soledad: When you look at statistics for Latinas, they are often derailed by dropping out, pregnancy—there's a handful of troubling statistics. Marlen could have been 'that' girl. Her family is not a well-off family. They live in modest circumstances. Her dad works 12 hours a day, seven days a week. But, Marlen has all these people in her corner. Number one, her coach, certainly. Her parents. Her brothers and sisters. Her community. All there saying, 'We expect great things from you, Marlen Esparza. We expect you to go to the Olympics.' And I think that's a great metaphor for life.
In return, she performs. So, it's not just 'we believe you're going to the Olympics because we want it bad for you.' She, too, has something to fulfill because they've given her all this trust.
I thought it was not insignificant that Cristina had to travel by herself to a very important event because of money; she couldn't afford to bring her coach. So, she didn't have (the right) someone in her corner at a really important moment.
Cristina said she felt out of sorts, that's (because of) someone not being in her corner.
Cheryl: Watching the story unfold, I was shocked that her coach wasn't there. Cristina had someone cornering her for the fight, but that person couldn't possibly have the same connection with her, the same trust level and certainly not the same shorthand ways of directing her action with a single word or phrase.
Soledad: At the screening in L.A. a friend said that she didn't realize how little women's boxing is supported. They really go into this with nothing. Someone has to help fund these trips to Venezuela. Cristina has a funder who helps underwrite, a police officer in NYC who is a big supporter of boxing. But, he often can't send (both) her and her coach.
Cheryl: Marlen has attracted some lucrative sponsors: Coke, Nike and Cover Girl. I'm surprised that a company that promotes an all-American girl next door image is interested in sponsoring a Latina who boxes. Why do you think Cover Girl chose to sponsor Marlen?
Soledad: Because I think that they understand that in 2012—as women's boxing officially goes into the Olympics—when it becomes an Olympic sport stereotypes will be shattered. They want to be on the front end of that. Things are changing.
Marlen talks about it. She says, 'Some boxers aren't particularly feminine, but I'm not one of them.' She says she can be all things in one package. And she can also wear makeup. That shatters stereotypes. It's another great metaphor.
Tyriesha Douglas (another boxer in the film), whom I love, cried more than any other. She broke someone's jaw (before adopting boxing as a sport). She's this hardcore little girl, and yet no one sobbed more. At the drop of a pin, she's crying. She's a very emotional, lovely young woman. I never thought that female boxers would cry all the time.
What I love about these women—Marlen, especially—is that she's absolutely focused and dedicated and willing to do whatever it takes to be an Olympic champion. For any athlete, male or female, that is a very consistent story.
In Her Corner debuts on Sunday, Sept. 25 at 8:00 p.m. EST/PST and replays Saturday, Oct. 1 at 8:00 p.m. EST/PST on CNN.
More from this contributor:
Cheryl Ragsdale, BJJ blue belt, trains in MMA with UFC Fighter Kenny Florian and Keith Florian at Florian Martial Arts - follow @thatgirlisfunny.
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