by Shannon Firth ~ Special for WSEN (2012)
Christella Cepeda’s nose was bruised and swollen. She stepped out of her coach’s car, squeezed past a row of bushes, up the porch steps, and crept inside her family’s house in the Southern part of Yonkers. When Secundino Cepeda caught sight of his daughter’s face, he walked directly out his front door and began shouting at her coach.
“The neighbors all heard,” Cepeda, 19, remembered. “He was saying ‘She’s done with this.’”
This is boxing. And no, Christella Cepeda, 141-lbs, was not done. That night in July at a small Brooklyn gym, Cepeda had been paired against a woman who was much shorter than her, but powerful. “All she was throwing was overhand rights, and I didn’t know how to defend myself yet, ” said Cepeda.
One of those overhand shots caught Cepeda’s nose, and blood ran from both nostrils. The doctor confirmed her nose wasn’t broken, and let the fight continue. Cepeda lost 3-0.
When he heard Cepeda’s father shouting, John Morrison, a coach at the Yonkers YMCA, stepped out of his car and tried to reason with him. Morrison explained that injuries although rare were still part of the sport. As she watched the two men argue, his daughter, who has enormous brown eyes and long lashes, started to cry. “It’s not what I want. It’s what she wants,” Morrison told her father.
Cepeda, a freshman at Lehman College on the pre-med track, loves to box and she isn’t intimidated by more experienced fighters. She had fought Kathleen Walsh, 24, at the Golden Gloves Championships in Madison Square Garden a few months before her fight in Brooklyn. At the time, Cepeda had only three fights. Walsh had been boxing for four years. If anything felt wrong, her coaches were prepared to step in and stop the fight.
Cepeda lost. That she had only one standing eight count–a delay invoked by a judge when a boxer appears overwhelmed or unsteady–was in itself a victory.
On the porch steps that night, after the two men had argued their points, Cepeda’s father turned to her. He asked if boxing was really that important—important enough to risk getting her nose broken. She told him how much she loved fighting. She promised she wasn’t going to get beaten like that again. Her father relented. “If that’s what’s going to make you happy,” he said.
Cepeda won her next fight and the next, and the next. For her, the allure of boxing is clear. “I love winning. I love making people proud of me” she said.
Women’s amateur boxing will debut at the Olympic Games in London this summer. Cepeda was neither advanced enough nor eligible–there are only three competing weight divisions 112, 132, and 165 pounds — for the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Still, she is looking towards summer 2016. If in four years, the International Olympic Committee hasn’t added the 141-lbs weight class, Cepeda plans to shed nine pounds and fight at 132.
For years, Cepeda watched as her father and her older brother cheered for pro- boxers like Miguel Cotto and Antonio Margarito during Friday Night Fights. Sometimes, Cepeda watched alone.
In the summer of 2010, Cepeda and her sister Genesis met with the boxing coaches at the Yonkers YMCA to discuss training. Her sister asked lots of question that day, but never did come back. Cepeda had only one question: When can I spar?
The answer, for someone as eager as Cepeda, was one month.
Cepeda is dedicated. In addition to school and her part-time job at Staples, Cepeda trains four days a week, three hours at a time. She also runs 3.5 miles every weekday. “She never makes excuses,” said Mitchell. “She hates running,” he said, “but she does it.”
Morrison and Cepeda butted heads just once during training. “If you don’t like it, you can leave,” he told her. Cepeda left. A few minutes later she came back inside the gym and walked up to Morrison. “Coach, can we both go take a walk and come back?” she asked him. Morrison was taken aback by her maturity. While she may appear shy, “she’s not afraid of confrontation,” he said.
After the nosebleed bout, Cepeda won her next five fights. At the Metropolitan Boxing Championship in December 2011, she was given a walkover, meaning her opponent forfeited–this often happens if a fighter is sick or simply doesn’t show-up. This win advanced her into the USA Boxing National Tournament in Fort Carson, Colorado.
The most frightening part of the Nationals was getting there. Her coaches and her good friend Ivette Delgado, 18, who also boxes, flew with her to Colorado in late February. When the aircraft hit some turbulence, Cepeda certain it would flip over, gripped her seatbelt like a lifeline. She had never flown in a plane before. When the pilot finally rolled the plane to a stop in Colorado, no one was more relieved than Cepeda.
In the Nationals, when a boxer wins a fight she competes again the very next day. This was also a new set-up for Cepeda. She had two days to train before her first fight. She and her roommate Alicia Napoleon, 24, woke every morning at 6:30 a.m. They would run, hit the bags, lift weights, and do sit-ups and other drills. Too prevent injuries before their fights, no one sparred. In the evenings, they Cepeda and her roommate went to sleep early after reading a psalm from the Bible. They were exhausted.
“The first fight was the worst,” she said. She won 29-13. The scoring system included individual punches in the final tally, instead of simply using the points to score rounds.
While she should have felt happy with her win, she was miserable. Because of the climate and elevation, she wasn’t getting enough air and her mouth was dry no matter how much water she drank. “I was thinking ‘how am I going to do this again’,” she said.
But she won her second fight by an even broader margin, 30-8. At the semi-finals the following night, Cepeda’s streak ended. She lost to Mikaela Mayer, a boxer from California who had won that same tournament twice already with a score of 21-5.
Afterwards, Cepeda’s coaches told her the loss was a psychological block not a physical one. “You created a monster,” Mitchell told Cepeda. “You made this girl out to be bigger than she was.” Cepeda knew he was right.
Napoleon, her roommate at the tournament, echoed her coaches’ advice. “She told me ‘if you think confident, you fight better’,” Cepeda said. Brian Adams, director of the Golden Gloves believes most fights boil down to “will over skill.”
A few weeks later, on March 29, Cepeda returned to Madison Square Garden for her second Golden Gloves tournament. Cepeda was expecting simple one-two punches from her opponent Tiffany Chen. Instead Chen kept switching from southpaw—a right foot forward stance—to orthodox. “I was getting hit with a lot of punches that I should have seen,” said Cepeda.
By the second round, Cepeda had figured out how to move away from Chen’s punches. And by the third round, “this was the only thing in my head ‘you’re not tired’,” she said. After the fourth bell, Cepeda wasn’t certain who won but she was hopeful.
She defeated Chen, but Cepeda was not satisfied. She felt some of her punches were slow and she worried she looked tired. A year earlier, the announcers who saw her fight Kathleen Walsh in the Gloves told her she had started competing too early. “I wanted to go back and show them a different fighter,” she said. Still, Cepeda won the fight 4-1.
Mitchell, sees the fight differently. Cepeda puts too much pressure on herself, which sometimes affects her performance. “A lot of fighters think they are better than they are,” said Mitchell. “Christella doesn’t even know how good she can be.”
Like in life, developing “boxing maturity” takes time, said Mitchell. The best boxers see things in slow motion even while they happen quickly. “She has the physical talent,” said Mitchell. “Once she gets the maturity and the understanding, there won’t be too many people going the distance with her.”
On the Monday following her fight, Cepeda still hasn’t told her school friends that she competed in the Golden Gloves five days earlier or that she won. Her father, however, has been bragging about her win non-stop, she said.
It is less than a year since her dad reluctantly allowed her to continue boxing, and now, she said “people from my block come up to him on the street and congratulate him.”