She’s clobbered the competition; now Watsonville’s Carina Moreno is the No. 1 Amateur Female Boxer in the world
Your name is Betty Boxer and you’ve just been punched in the face by a 106-pound, 18-year-old gal from Watsonville sporting a long black braid and a surprising amount of confidence. You duck, you bounce, you’re on your toes in the ring at the Women’s National Boxing Championship in Texas. Who the hell does she think she is? you might be thinking. And you should. After all, you are the No. 1 amateur female boxer in the country. You’ve got style, you’ve got grace, you’ve got awards, you … just got smacked again.
Your name is Betty Boxer and you’ve just lost your title to some 106-pound, 18-year-old chick from Watsonville. Get to know her. Her name is Carina Moreno.
Welcome to the boxing world Watsonville native, Carina Moreno, has been orbiting around since March of 2000 when, with very little competitive female boxing experience under her belt, she went into her first match and clobbered the competition at the San Francisco Golden Gloves tournament. It was a precursor of the surprising events to come for this young Latina. The following month, she became the Gold Medal winner at the Everlast Women’s National Championships in Midland, Texas. A month after that, she was selected to compete in the U.S.A. Women’s Boxing Team, which found her jet setting to the world’s largest women’s boxing tournament in Finland — a far cry from Watsonville. At 106 pounds, she took the Gold Medal there and was selected as the best fighter of the entire event, which more than eight countries, including Turkey, participated in. There seemed to be no stopping the boxing wave she was surfing on. Later, in August, 2000, she won the National Golden Gloves in Augusta, Ga. September was sweet — National Blue and Gold winner in L.A. Last December, she won the National Police Activities League title in New Orleans. This fall, she held her National Golden Gloves honors and is now ranked the No. 1 amateur female boxer in the world in her weight group. Last month, she was selected as Woman of the Year by Watsonville’s YWCA, an honor which she shares with three other women. Moreno, though, was the only Latina and, at 20, the youngest of the group.
SHE’LL KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF
A thick, soupy fog slams the coast on a chilly Tuesday afternoon. Fiftysomething Rick Noble, Moreno’s trainer, greets me and a Good Times photographer inside an old firehouse that’s been coverted into a makeshift gym. Noble —dark-haired, olive-skinned, wide-grinned —leads us into a building where he occasionally trains Moreno, and standing next to a brown punching bag is the 5-foot, 2-inch tall athlete, her obsidian hair tightly braided and resting over her right shoulder.
Clad in a pair of shimmering black boxer shorts, a tank top that reveals her very well defined shoulders, back and arms, and a pair of red boxing shoes, Moreno appears diminutive. When we shake hands—a firm grip—she grins ear to ear, but remains relatively reserved. A shy boxer? A few minutes later, Noble wraps Moreno’s hands and forearms with elastic strips in preparation for sparring practice. Suddenly her entire presence shifts — there’s an electrical current and it’s looking for an outlet. Underneath her headgear, with a furrowed brow, Moreno’s eyes zoom in on one of two red pads that Noble has attached to his hands. Moreno jabs. Noble lifts the pad. She hits higher. Noble swings the pad out to the side. Moreno catches it. In between, he throws me a look and reveals a few trivia facts about this female boxer.
“It doesn’t happen a lot, but sometimes her mother gets upset if she happens to get a bloody nose,” Noble says. A few seconds later, he’s repositioned himself and as Moreno follows him, he says, “Sparring work is important — you have to select different targets.”
At one point, Moreno’s physical intensity is distinctly evident by the amount of perspiration forming on her body if not by how far Noble’s arm is thrown back after some jabs. Noble smiles and says, “People think she’s a guy.”
But she’s girl — one of the few who have been making women’s boxing a true sport these days. The decision is still undetermined about whether female boxing will be included in the 2004 Olympics in Athens, something Moreno is definitely pumped up about — she wants to go; she wants to win. If the category becomes an official entry, it will undoubtedly be one of the more impressive evolutions of a sport considering, that, back in 1876, a boxing match between female fighters Nell Sanders and Rose Harland at Hills Theater in New York was supposedly fought to win a silver butter dish. The rewards for Moreno, however, don’t seem driven by all things monetary. The youngest daughter of four children by Estevan and Maria Moreno—the family business is the popular 19-year-old Tacos Moreno in Santa Cruz—Carina was always intrigued bythe male-dominated sports her three older brothers played. She often wondered why she, as a girl, couldn’t participate.
The boy-girl thing didn’t stop her. When she was 8, she says her cousin put her in front of a punching bag in his house and the two jammed away. She loved it. Ten years later, she joined Spa Fitness in Watsonville and fell for cardio kickboxing, crediting Nick Asidro’s kick-butt class. She reveled in kickboxing and in 1999, when she met Noble, a sports trainer who owned a gym in Seaside, he trained Moreno and her friend Danielle to compete in several kickboxing competitions. In less than a year, she became California’s top competitive kickboxer (4-1) and one day, Noble asked Moreno if she wanted to take things further; if she wanted to box. Like he had to ask. They trained for nearly eight months, finding a distinct balance between daily cardio work, which consisted of jogging 2-5 miles, weightlifting 3 times a week, practicing movements and sparring. She weighed in at 106 pounds for the San Francisco Golden Gloves. Ironically, there was nobody else competing in that weight group (light-flyweight). In such cases, the award would normally go the sole athlete, whether she performed or not. But Noble didn’t want Moreno to win that way. He bumped her up a division. She had to box a woman five inches taller than her and, at 112 pounds, heavier. It was Moreno’s first win.
What is classic is how quickly she has been scaling the ladder ever since. Another oddity Moreno has flat feet, whic makes her job as boxer unusually tougher. “She’s a natural athlete,” Noble tells me as Moreno attacks the pads. “I taught Carina in one year, what it normally takes somebody to learn in three. It’s really a thinking sport —that’s why they call it a science.”
A half an hour later, it’s time for practice rounds. Alejandro Vargas, Moreno’s young male boxing partner for the night, is prepped and ready to go. Boxing gloves on, face gear secured, he leans against a wall and watches as Noble assists Moreno in fitting into her bulky hip piece, and then her blue and white gloves. Then Noble adjusts a small rectangular clock nearby—in amateur rounds, there are three, two-minute rounds compared to four-to- 12, two-minute rounds in the pros, while male rounds are three minutes long. A horn-like sound rings out and Moreno and Vargas go at it. Her facial expression is focused and fierce. She jabs. The force behind her glove hits the side of Vargas’ arm. He pops one back. She ducks. The boxing dance has begun. When he jabs again, she quickly avoids him and then swiftly swinging her from underneath—upper cut. Her glove finds his face gear, then his finds hers—it’s a boxing party.
From the side, Noble gives Moreno a few pointers, then he looks at me and says, “The most valuable thing is defense. You can teach anybody to punch, but there’s nothing like making somebody miss.”
TALK TO THE GLOVE
A few days later, Moreno and I are sitting in the back patio of Lulu Carpenters in downtown Santa Cruz, drinking mochas with whipped cream. We talk about her meteoric rise to the top and what really makes the powerful pugilist pack a punch? More importantly, what’s the intrigue and why does she box? Does she just love to fight?
The answer? Yes.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to box, but I couldn’t — there wasn’t a place for girls to box,” Moreno says, her chocolate brown eyes widening to hold a certain mesmerized glow. “When I found a place I just set out to achieve my goal. I believe if you have a goal, you can always achieve it if you just try.”
It’s beautiful to listen to—the energetic words of a young person who has not allowed life to knock her out emotionally. Moreno’s talk, the “just-try-hard-and-it-will-happen-for-you” approach to life may sound overly simplistic to those with too much doubt, or for folks who’ve not recognized their full potential; people unaware that they themselves are just humans fighting themselves so that they can become themselves—the dreamers of the world who may have drifted off track.
“I like to fight,” she adds. “I like the way you go in there and nobody can stop you. I like the contact of the sport.” The fact that Moreno has annihilated any misconceptions that boxing is just a sport for the Ali and Tyson wannabes out there—that it’s just a man’s sport—is handled very matter-of- factly.
“If a guy can do it, so can a woman,” she says with a shrug. When she’s asked about her winnings, she downplays its significance and appears a bit bashful. She does say, however, that during the first tournament (in March, 2000), that, “They stopped the fight; the girl I was fighting wasn’t punching any more. I was all over her. When I saw that she wasn’t punching back, I thought, I have to stop her. It felt pretty good.”
Bashful yet truthful, she adds, “When you’re in the ring, the whole game is about not getting hit. When I’m inside the ring, all I’m thinking is that that person is trying to hurt me. So I go in there and make them fight my fight, so I’m in control.” She admits that before each match, she is a bit nervous but ultimately, she is not intimidated by anybody. “Once I’m inside the ring, it all goes away,” she says of the jitters. “The first thing that goes through my mind is that I have to see how they fight. I’ll throw a couple of punches to see what the opponent has and I’ll try to figure them out. In about 15 seconds, I kind of know what they are going to do.”
The strategy paid off and Moreno has made heads turn in the boxing world. U.S.A. Boxing, which is the national governing body of the sport of amateur boxing and is designated by the Olympic committee to select and train athletes, has watched her stellar growth.
“She is without a doubt the top boxer in her weight class,” says Bill Kellick, media director of U.S.A. Boxing. “Just the fact that, in two years, she has won everything, is impressive. Some of what makes it happen has to be natural athletic ability, which Moreno has. On top of that, she has determination, a really good work ethic and drive.”
Moreno’s parents can’t argue that.
“It looks like a lot of hard work, but every time, she just kept winning,” says Estevan Moreno, Carina’s father, of the matches his daughter has aced in the past year and half. “I’m very happy because my daughter likes it and I want to help her—all the family tries to help. It’s really hard for women. But she’s put in a lot in work.”
On top of hard work also came the realization that traveling to boxing tournaments all around the country was going to cost big bucks. That’s why Noble extended himself beyond his training savvy and sought help from corporate sponsors who generously helped fund Carina’s passion.
Businesses like Bay Federal, Granite Construction, and even Noble’s own money, plus many others. It is something Jean Bourbeau, executive director for the YWCA, says makes Moreno’s story so fascinating, a virtual “small-town girl makes it big.” After witnessing Moreno’s accomplishments, Bourbeau and others from the YWCA, decided to name her woman of the year along with school teacher Marcia Hashimoto, retired pediatrician Janet Bell and Patricia Donohue of Watsonville Parks & Rec.
“She’s such a role model for young women,” Bourbeau says. “She’s so focused and she has a goal and to me, that’s really inspiring.”
Jeaneene Hildebrandt, U.S.A Boxing Team Leader and coordinator for the upcoming and first-ever Women’s World Boxing Championship, which is slated for Nov. 26 through Dec. 2 in Scranton, Pa., has been watching Moreno’s boxing evolution over the past 18 months.
“She’s an outstanding little boxer; this 106-pounder,” Hildebrandt says on the phone from her home in Indiana. “Carina has the determination and tremendous skills. I mean this young lady—she pivots, she moves and does everything she needs to do. She sees her opponent and sees what she can gain advantage on, and she goes for it.”
The upcoming tournament in Scranton, which Moreno is psyched to participate in, is significant for several reasons. For starters, it’s the first step in making women’s boxing an official sport in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. Hildebrandt says that Olympic consideration stems on a whether a sport has a world championship. It may also be a turning point in Moreno’s career. With 31 countries and 200 competitors participating, she will have to know her game. Unlike traditional boxing matches—those aired on television from Ceasar’s Palace and the like where strength tends to outshine anything—the judging in the amateur circuit narrows in on tests of skill.
“It’s a point system,” Hildebrandt explains. “It’s not about the toughest girl, but who can score the most. There are three to five judges who see you and you have to score with three of them within a second of each other (to collect points).”
This means that Moreno will have to situate herself in the middle of the ring, in perfect view of at least three judges at all times in order to rack up the most points, which is manned by electronic hand control. Hildebrandt believes Moreno has what it takes to get top honors in the upcoming event and she is thrilled that the popularity women’s boxing has surged over the past few years. About all the men who have, until now, shared the sport among themselves?
“I think the men are our biggest cheerleaders,” Hildebrandt says, chuckling. “Most of the young male athletes representing here are very much in favor of women participating in the sport and will cheer them on as much as anybody.”
A breeze finds Lulu Carpenter’s patio and Moreno leans forward. She takes a sip of her mocha and says, “In the ring, I give 110 percent my best. I give all I have. I don’t finish a fight and say I should have done this or that. This way, I feel happy about what I did.”
YOU WANT A PIECE OF ME?
It’s time to see what Moreno’s made of. I’m going to play Billy Boxer. My opponent—Moreno. It’s 8:15 a.m. on a sunny Sunday when I enter the Police Activities League (PAL), a small gym on Rodriguez Street in Watsonville where Moreno and Noble often train. Noble, the ever-encouraging trainer, smiles and assists Moreno in gearing up to “fight” two, three minute rounds with me. The journalist in me just has to know what it feels like to be in the ring with this worldwide top performer. At least 10 inches taller and 70 pounds heavier than Moreno, a mental tornado rips off the roof of illusion and has me thinking: She’s gonna wipe the floor with you; there better be a First-Aid kit handy; wonder what it feels like to have a black eye?
After helping me slip on some headgear and into the boxing gloves, Noble tells me to warm up at the punching bag. That’s what you’re gonna be, I tell myself and he’s soon teaching me about jabbing and footwork and that if I am a right-handed boxer, I’d throw the first punch with my left arm.
I look up. Moreno is the ring with Noble. As he talks to her, she nods. There’s an obvious connection, a rare and often hard to understand union between a dedicated athlete and an inspiring coach. Many times, Moreno has told me that she could not have come this far without Noble’s belief in her. As the punching bag swings in front of me, I recall Noble’s comments about Moreno.
“When she took the national championship and she kept flourishing from there, I made sure that her dreams were going to come true,” he had told me. At one point, he said, “Part of the thing with PAL is that if you can keep a kid busy and interested (in their dreams), you can save them from being on the streets. We’re teaching them discipline and that they can do everything they dream of, if they work at it. A lot of kids out there have something in them but never get the opportunity to do it. I always tell Carina, “Believe in yourself.”
Those words do very little for now as I climb between the ropes and into the center of the ring with Moreno. Noble’s off to the side. And the bell sounds. Here we go. BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM — POW! Immediately, Moreno’s gloves pound into my headgear. Then she gives me one right in the kisser. I try to jab back, but Moreno’s too damn quick. The second my gloves leave my face. I feel her force on my nose. I follow her clockwise. She hits and hits and hits and hits. I feel something by my ribs—all her. I’m breathing heavy. I look her in the eyes.
No mercy there.
So, this is what it’s like, I conclude, perhaps foolishly. Moreno’s on top of me, her amazing force like a jackhammer on my headgear.
The sound of a horn rings out indicating only 30-seconds left. Moreno’s just warming up. But I’m … down for the count.
Catch the 2009 rematch at GTv.