Story and photos by Jason Green
Like the plants of the Chihuahuan desert, El Paso’s boxing roots run deep. From Randall “Tex” Cobb and his heavyweight title fight with Larry Holmes, to Juan Lazcano’s battle with Ricky Hatton in a very partial City of Manchester Stadium in England, to heavyweight David Rodriguez’s 35 knockouts; El Paso lives and dies with their boxing heroes.
There is one thing that El Paso’s newest boxing hero wears, that none of the names who came before her have worn, however. Jennifer Han – “El Paso’s Sweetheart” – wears championship gold.
Since September 19, 2015, Han has been the International Boxing Federation’s World Female Featherweight Champion. She is the first boxing champion in El Paso boxing history, male or female. Despite the importance of such a title, to both boxer and city, Han has not shied away from a challenge.
“She’s not backing down from anybody,” said Roman Robles, Han’s marketing manager, sounding more like a good promoter than a manager. “If the money’s right and they can get everything worked out, she’s ready.”
Han has fought four times since winning the title and has defeated all four opponents by unanimous decision. In addition to winning all four of her title defenses, “El Paso’s Sweetheart” has fought in front of her hometown fans in each fight.
“She is the champ,” said Robles. “They should come to her if they want a shot at the belt. She’ll provide the venue, the sponsors, the fans who will cheer for you – win or lose.”
With El Pasoans strongly backing their boxers, it may have been inevitable that the city would see an increase in females wishing to follow in Han’s footsteps. With Han working as a martial arts instructor at Han’s Oriental Martial Arts in the northeast part of the city, she is uniquely positioned to see the increase in young girls interested in the art of pugilism.
“Absolutely,” said Han with a smile, when asked if she had seen an increase in the enrollment numbers from young girls in the last few years. “Actually, El Paso’s even produced a few female (amateur) champions. There were very few boxers and now the (number of) female boxers in the area has increased and I’m super proud of them.”
Ivy Enriquez is a local nine-year-old that Han recently met after Enriquez won the Ringside world boxing tournament in the eight to ten-year-old girls division.
“They’re very young, but that’s the future – that’s where it starts,” said Han, about the young girls who are following in her footsteps in El Paso.
Han said that when girls sign up at Han’s Oriental Martial Arts – or more recently her brother Abie’s new academy on the westside, Han’s Martial Arts – they usually are pretty excited to meet her. She added that they may even have the stated goal of becoming a boxer like her one-day, after their martial arts training; but, she added that sentiment can end quickly sometimes.
“Confidence is probably the biggest ‘it’ factor for boxing,” Han said with her trademark smile. “Not too many people like getting punched in the face.”
Han is a professional boxer and the best – statistically speaking – that El Paso has ever seen. Her record currently stands at 17-3-1 and she is ranked No. 1 in the United States and No. 2 in the world, behind only Canadian Jelena Mrdjenovich (37-10-2) who is currently the World Boxing Association and World Boxing Council’s World Female Featherweight Champion.
A male boxer of her stature would make millions per fight and truly “make a living” as a boxer. Han, however, does not. The promoter of her most recent fight did not report the purse of her bout, but Robles acknowledged via text that female fighters “typically make 10k-50k.” He also added that it was, “significantly less than men.”
Despite this disparity, Han stays focused on her fighting and says that the rest will have to take care of itself.
“We’re taking baby steps forward,” said Han with a shrug, when interviewed in the build up to her most recent fight. “I know that I have to prove myself to the ‘big dogs,’ and I will.”
Han went on to say that the biggest issue in women’s boxing – and what keeps promoter’s from booking their fights for big televised fight cards – is often times that they just do not know who they are.
“They’ve heard of us, but they don’t know us. They’ve never seen us. They’ve never seen us in action,” said Han.
A large part of bridging the financial gap between the men and women – for Han at least – falls to Robles. He can do this by securing sponsorships for Han, which is where even more of her money comes from than fighting.
“We’re basing the sponsorship on her pedigree as an athlete, not her gender,” said Robles when asked about how much a sponsorship deals with Han costs. “With (former WBA super welterweight champion Austin Trout), he’s a former world champion, but right now he’s in the building phase. We ask for more money for Jennifer to be honest with you.”
Although the IBF, the governing organization who matches up Han with potential opponents, does not have anything at all to say about how purses are put together or distributed between fighters, federation spokeswoman Jeanette Salazar said that she would like to see equality there – on certain terms.
“If a woman fighter brings as much to the table as a male fighter, then yes, she should get paid the same. So, if she brings the box office, if she brings the pay-per-view, if she brings the sponsorships – all the stuff that determines, basically, a purse. If she brings the same amount of money in, then she should get paid the same amount of money,” said Salazar.
By that definition, the sponsors for Han’s recent fight were almost entirely provided by her, with Casa Nissan and Western Tech plastered all over the ring and Han herself. The two main event fighters from out of town, Devon Alexander and Victor Ortiz were basically barren of sponsors.
The fans stayed after the Alexander and Ortiz fight, late into the evening to watch Han fight – proof that they were mainly there to watch the hometown girl.
The TV rights were already sold before the Alexander and Ortiz fight was booked for the Don Haskins Center and they did not include the Jennifer Han-Lizbeth Crespo fight. Perhaps if the TV rights had been sold after the promoter moved the fight to Han’s hometown, it would have been a different story.
Han was back teaching martial arts soon after the fight, albeit with 17 fresh stitches in her eyebrow. It is a family business and family is very important to her. But, when it comes time to get ready to defend her title, make no mistake – she would love to be like other fighters who make enough money to be able to live and only train for that next pay day.
“If I could just box and make money, that’d be awesome,” said Han with a chuckle. “But, because my fights are not on TV, I don’t get the huge paychecks.”
Then Han thought for a second, “but I love my job.”
Han is not even able to spar for a few more weeks, until she is fully healed from her defeat of Crespo in front of close to 7,000 rabid El Paso boxing fans. She had hoped to fight in April. Her opponent is still a secret that Robles nor Han will tell – or honestly do not know.
A quick glance at Mrdjenovich’s schedule shows that she had hoped to fight an unknown opponent in April.
Perhaps she is waiting to give “El Paso’s Sweetheart” a shot at making even more boxing history for the city she loves.