By Paul Geneson
Jennifer Han currently holds the IBF women’s world featherweight championship.
At 33, it’s incredible to think that she’s been fighting for 17 of those years.
Throughout her boxing career, Han has picked up the title of “El Paso’s Sweetheart.” While Han appreciates that title, she acknowledges it’s only partly true. She admits to being “sweet and nice” when she’s not boxing, but she refers to herself as “a beast in the ring” when they ring that bell.
So what gives here? Who is the real Jennifer Han?
The fact is that Han has not let the hoopla and hype built up by the media go to her head. She’s still the same down-to-earth Irvin High School grad who humbly admits, when talking about her career in the ring, that “It’s very much a family thing.”
The family’s business, Han’s Oriental Martial Arts, is located in a strip mall on Dyer Street. In the parking lot you don’t get the indication that there’s boxing royalty here. Inside the studio, seated in her father’s office, Jennifer greets a visitor with a smile and warm handshake. It needs a swivel-headed person to take in the medals and trophies, the pictures, stories and certificates that fill virtually all available space in this office. Jennifer composes herself like the girl next door.
Inside the studio, a crowd of mainly younger kids dressed in the garb of martial arts students—called a “Gi” in Japanese—milled around on the large blue mat. When they were called together to begin the lesson, they began to make some serious noise.
That kind of pure energy must be what Jennifer meant when she said she feeds off the “positive energy” of her students, who like to show up at her fights.
“It’s just awesome,” she says. “They come to see me fight—and they cheer their heads off!”
She talks respectfully of her father, Master Han, the source, where pride in the family begins. Jennifer mentions how her two brothers and two sisters have all worked in the family business as instructors in the martial arts. She talks about her brother, Abie, who is also a professional boxer, and how she worries about his progress as a fighter. She confesses that the siblings compete and challenge each other. But most of all, she insists, they are there to support each other and push each other to do better at whatever project they’re working on.
“We’re each other’s best cheerleaders,” Jennifer said.
What stands out about Jennifer, as boxer and as champion, is her commitment to the sport, and her professionalism. Before she would ever consider entering the ring with a new opponent, Jennifer does her homework. She said watches all the film she can to learn about the lady she will face. “I have to be prepared,” Han confesses.
Her everyday life follows a pattern: When she’s not working in the studio, she’s working in Las Cruces, sparring under the careful eye of her trainer, Louie Burke. Burke has tutored Austin Trout, the Las Cruces battler, and helped him to win a title as a junior welterweight.
After a sparkling career as an amateur, in which she logged over 100 fights and posting 86 victories and six national championships, Jennifer Han turned pro. She credits Burke with making her the world champion she’s become. “He chews me out every day,” she said. But she said she knows his words are meant to make her a better fighter.
If boxing is like a chess match, as she claims, Jennifer relies on her trainer to figure out the moves. “He always develops a great strategy,” Jennifer said.
While some people might see boxing as a glamorous kind of life, Jennifer Han is quick to dispute that idea. “There’s nothing easy about pro boxing,” she said, citing the expenses of a boxer on the way up that include medical costs, supplies, travel, etc. “You have to love it,” she said, cautioning those who would just become boxers for the money: “You can make more money at McDonald’s.”
Jennifer Han points out the fact that women boxers have not yet arrived at the top echelon of the sport, where the men command the big bucks. She names Ronda Rousey as one woman who brought world-wide attention to women fighters. And she claims she sees female talent both here and outside El Paso. “The women need exposure,” Jennifer said.
After her victory in February at the Haskins Center, the last of three successful battles in defense of her title, Jennifer heard some good news: The possibility of a fight program to take place in El Paso involving two-time Olympic gold medalist Clarissa Shields. Jennifer would share the evening with Shields as part of the undercard.
Jennifer admits she’s “knocking on wood”, hard, in hopes that this bout will take place—perhaps as early as this summer. Shields will bring the Big Spotlight—a national Showtime audience—while Jennifer would bring out the El Paso audience. “I think that show is gonna be awesome,” Jennifer said with anticipation.
Though Jennifer Han has had the opportunity to train and fight elsewhere—she was a part of Evander Holyfield’s fight card in Las Vegas—she says she feels comfortable right here in El Paso. “We’re a boxing community,” Han said. “ I enjoy training in El Paso.” Besides the support of her family, she likes the fact that male boxers will spar in the ring with her and “give me their best.”