TIJUANA, Mexico — Kenia Enriquez grew up throwing punches on the streets of Tijuana. From a young age, she liked to fight, often instigating skirmishes with other kids. At 12, she was thrown out of school for her aggressive behavior.
“I had a lot of problems in school because I wanted to fight, and my dad saw only one option for me,” Enriquez explains on a recent afternoon, in between visits to two different boxing gyms in Tijuana. “He said, ‘You’re going to have to do better or you’re going to become worse. I’m taking you to box, and we’ll see what that can do.’”
Enriquez’s father had been a boxer when he was young, so he began basic training with both Kenia and her younger sister, Tania, in their home. After 10 days, he asked Enriquez if she wanted to try her hand at a real fight. She said yes, thinking that after all the fights she’d been in at school, it would be easy to beat another girl her size.
“The first time I fought, it was against a girl who was already a national champion, who had a bronze medal and an amateur record,” Enriquez explains. “I didn’t know any of this, and I got in the ring and I only lasted 20, 30 seconds. When I stepped out of the ring, I was crying from anger and helplessness, because I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t even touch the other girl.”
This was the fight that sparked Enriquez’s long path towards a career as a professional boxer — she’s now a two-time world champion. After losing that initial fight at 12, she started to train: running, practicing punches, building up her strength. Her father told her that what she needed most was discipline, so they trained together every day. Soon she was fighting against other young women on the weekends. “It got to the point where every Sunday I wanted to go fight — and win,” she says.
When Enriquez first got into boxing, the only well-known woman fighting professionally in Tijuana was Jackie “Aztec Princess” Nava, a famous Mexican female boxer. She is often considered the woman who opened the door for the next generation, including for Enriquez, now 25, and fellow professional boxers Sandra Robles and Brenda Flores.
In large part because of her own success, Enriquez has inspired a new generation of boxers — she even created her own tournament for young women and girls, most of whom are in middle and high school. She wanted the girls to have an opportunity to fight before they went professional, and to build a sense of camaraderie. For her first tournament, in February 2015, Enriquez organized fights for 30 girls. She gave them the first of many trophies that she hopes they’ll eventually take home.
One of the women to participate in Enriquez’s first tournament was Crisa Alvarez, who is now competing for a place on the Mexican women’s boxing team to attend the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
“My heart feels so full to say that this girl fought in my tournament,” Enriquez says.
And Myrka Aguayo, 20, who competed in Enriquez’s tournament in 2016, went professional last year. She says Enriquez’s tournament was one of the factors that inspired her to go pro.
“I would like to be a world boxing champion, but it’s little by little,” Aguayo says.
Indeed, things have come a long way for Mexico’s women boxers. Enriquez’s journey shows just how hard it was to get here for someone like her — and what it’ll take to inspire the next generation.
Tijuana has a long history of boxing. In the days of U.S. Prohibition, people would drive down from Hollywood to drink, bet on horses, gamble and watch boxing matches on the other side of the border. The city is also conveniently located about six and three hours, respectively, from Las Vegas and Los Angeles, two of the most well-known boxing centers in the United States. Fighters from all over Mexico have moved to Tijuana to launch or further their careers, such as Julio César Chávez, one of the country’s most decorated boxers.
“In Tijuana, it’s like taco stands: There is a boxing gym on every corner,” Enriquez explains. “Boxing is part of the culture.”
However, it is a culture that has largely excluded women. Professional female fights were illegal in Tijuana until 1998; a commonly held belief was that women would damage their reproductive organs taking part in the sport. Even at the highest levels, women are still paid far less than men, according to various people in the boxing world. They are less sought out and less promoted by managers, and they are given fewer opportunities to fight and train.
Rómulo Quirarte has been a coach in Tijuana’s boxing scene for over four decades. He’s famous for having trained Chávez, as well as many others. At his gym in the Zona Río district of Tijuana, dozens of amateur and professional boxers come to learn from him every day.
Enriquez grew up knowing Quirarte’s sons. When she was in high school, she began to pester Quirarte to allow her to train in his gym. He turned her down. He said that he didn’t train women — he didn’t have changing rooms or bathrooms for them, and he thought they would distract the boys. It just wasn’t possible, he said.
“I had never worked with girls before, and I just didn’t know how,” Quirarte recalls.
But Enriquez continued to badger him. Finally, after three or four years, she got a call from one of his sons, who said his father wanted her to come by the gym the next day.
Enriquez entered the gym in her school uniform and backpack, she says. “Everyone stopped and looked at me as I walked through the first floor. I went upstairs and they were all like, ‘What is happening? Why is there a girl here?’”
Quirarte says he’d never really considered women’s boxing. But once Enriquez walked into the gym, he took her in as any other boxer. “I worked very well with her, we worked well together,” he explains. After he began training Enriquez, other girls started asking him to train them, too. He now has seven or eight girls training in his gym.
With Quirarte’s training, Enriquez went on to win her first world championship title as a flyweight at age 21.
In February 2015, Enriquez was scheduled to defend her first women’s world flyweight champion title. The fight was set in Baja California, Mexico, against U.S. fighter Melissa McMorrow. Enriquez lost that night for the first time in her professional career.
After the defeat, Enriquez says she “didn’t know what to do.” She remembers thinking:
After the fight, as she left the ring, Enriquez learned one of the greatest lessons of her life: that your true supporters are those who stick by you even when you don’t win. One of those supporters was Quirarte.
“Don Rómulo was the only one who hugged me and he said to me if you want to cry, cry,” Enriquez remembers. “You would have seen me crying like a little girl who’d had something stolen from her. I cried and I cried and I cried.”
Enriquez says she fell into a months-long depression, not wanting to leave her house. It took her six months to fight again. She began to train hard; now, looking back, she says she never wants to feel the depths of a loss like that again.
In 2017, two years after losing, Enriquez became a world champion for the second time in the light flyweight division. She credits her triumph to the dedication that resulted from losing her title, and the shift in attitude that came with it.
“The person I am now is someone who is stronger, with more character, and someone who is trying to support those who are coming behind me, to achieve my dreams but also to help others to achieve their dreams,” Enriquez says.
In Mexico, boys can compete in the national Youth Olympics from the age of 15, whereas girls can only join after 17. From 12 years old, boys are also invited to train in Cuba, a country known for producing very good boxers; girls are not invited, according to Enriquez. The lack of space for girls to compete bothered her. So Enriquez created her own boxing tournament.
“There wasn’t one, so I made one,” she explains.
This year, Enriquez will host her tournament in Tijuana for its fifth iteration. According to Enriquez, young women and girls now come from outside of the city, some from as far as Mexicali, San Diego and other parts of Southern California, to compete.
Enriquez’s own days are filled with visits to multiple gyms, weight training, agility training and mixed martial arts (MMA) training with her boyfriend, MMA fighter Alejandro “Pato” Martinez. She also makes a point of sparring regularly with young women at the gyms where they train. She will often warm up with them and then spar with each of them, back-to-back. Afterward, they’ll unwind together on a bench or on the floor, making jokes about boxing and being women in the sport — talking careers and soliciting advice.
“Before, I thought boxing was discriminatory,” says Dayanna Gonzalez, 18, also of Tijuana, who went professional last year. “When I saw Kenia’s first fight, and she was from Tijuana … I said if she can do it, I can be in her place. She inspired me.”
“There is a lot of high-level boxing going on in Tijuana, and we want to be part of this,” says Leyvi Castellon, 21, of Tijuana. “I do it for the fun of the sport, because I like it. It is something that I’m passionate about.”
Enriquez says this is only the beginning — that many other changes that need to be made, such as paying women the same amount as men who fight at the same level. But ultimately, she is proud to be part of the movement in Tijuana to support women in boxing, and to witness how far it has come.
“I think that is the most important thing,” she says. “To leave a footprint, to leave something in each person’s heart. As women we are not going to make as much money right now, but we will mark history. We are going to be pioneers in this sport.”