NEW ROCHELLE – Jesus “Kiko” Cancel ascended the poster-lined, cement staircase leading to Champs, a spacious, downtown second-floor boxing club.
Cancel was there last spring to work out.
He initially took little notice of a 5-foot-3 woman who entered one of the gym’s two rings. Natalie Gonzalez, 26, had competed for a long time, mostly as an amateur.
The New Rochelle High School graduate was 14 when she first boxed at a gym in White Plains. She had tried volleyball, basketball and hip-hop. They bored her.
Boxing would not.
When Cancel saw her, Gonzalez had had 55 amateur bouts and three pro fights.
Her amateur fights included winning the women’s New York Golden Gloves championships in 2014 and 2015 in the 106-pound division.
She has never been knocked down – not sparring (both men and women), not in her amateur fights and not as a pro.
He knew none of this. But a blow that put her sparring partner on the canvas got Cancel’s attention.
A boxing promoter, he decided to keep an eye on her.
“We’re just looking for talent,” Cancel said. “We look for heart, is the main thing. Someone who can’t give up and has discipline.”
The Holyfield connection
With Chris Martin Sanchez, Cancel had co-founded the boxing promotion company, Fists of Legends earlier this year. They also work for former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield’s first-year promotion company, The Real Deal Boxing.
By July, Cancel, who liked what he saw in Gonzalez, got Real Deal chief operating officer Eric Bentley to the gym to watch her spar.
Within weeks, Real Deal and Fists of Legends had her under a joint contract, Cancel and Sanchez making Gonzalez their first signee.
Strong and driven, the woman with the gym-bestowed nickname “Tuffie,” because of her toughness, was what they were looking for.
And they were what she was seeking.
“I’m truly thankful for the opportunity that they are giving me,” Gonzalez said. “Not only that, but glad that they were able recognize my hard work and dedication to this sport.”
The single mother of two trains three hours a day, six days a week. But she has earned just $3,500 combined from her three professional bouts. She works 8 p.m.- 6:30 a.m. five days a week at the New Rochelle Home Depot to help support her family.
Her fourth professional fight will be in New York next month.
Expectations are high. That’s both for her success and her success spurring the growth of women’s boxing.
Boxing in the shadows
The number of licensed professional female boxers in the state has grown, according to the New York State Athletic Commission.
Internationally, female boxing, which debuted as an Olympic exhibition sport in 1904, wasn’t added to the Olympics until 2012.
But the sport earned a short-lived boost earlier with Christy Martin’s mid-1990s emergence. Martin, promoted by Don King, had a string of knockouts and earned Sports Illustrated’s cover, as well as about $4 million in her career. Her fame fueled the New York Golden Gloves’ decision to admit female fighters in 1995.
Muhammed Ali’s daughter Laila, who succeeded Martin as female boxing’s top draw, knocked out Martin in 2003.
Females still fight, of course. Ryan O’Leary, who owns Champs and trains Gonzalez, noted 35-40 percent of the boxers who regularly train there are women, and seven or eight compete as amateurs.
But no one has come close nationally to gaining Ali’s popularity since her 2007 retirement.
“After Laila, it was pretty much dormant,” Cancel remarked. “That’s what we’re trying to change. The few (female) fights you do see, you have to literally be there. They’re on the undercard. That’s definitely wrong,” he said, referring to women never boxing in the main event.
He and Sanchez view Gonzalez as a potential savior.
“We think she’ll bring excitement to the sport of female boxing and really bring it to the forefront,” Sanchez said. “We think she’ll plant her flag in the sport that doesn’t have exposure and feel she’ll make a real difference.”
Gonzalez is embracing the challenge.
“Women’s boxing really doesn’t get recognized as much as the men do and I, as a female fighter, I would like to prove to the men and others the we can do it and even better,” she said. “We bring the excitement out just as much as the men to. I want to prove to my promoters that I’m not just going to continue winning but that I will become women’s boxing.”
O’Leary calls her the “epitome of a hungry fighter,” and said, “I expect a minor belt or national title within a year and a world championship within two.”
“Hopefully, she wipes out the division to the point where we have to take her overseas,” Cancel said.
Eventually, she’ll probably fight at 113 pounds, simply because he sees her as being too dominant at 106.
“This girl just hits too hard not to wipe out the few women in her class in the States,” Cancel said, mentioning Gonzalez probably boxing in Argentina and Hungary and possibly Spain.
Over all the years, the only wound she ever suffered was a black eye sparring against U.S. boxing team member Krystal Dixon, who works out at Champs when not at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado.
Dixon, the U.S. women’s heavyweight champion, is 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds.
“I’ll put her in (sparring) against any boxer – guy or girl — three weight classes above …. She spars with guys. They don’t really want to be hit by her,” O’Leary said.
Gonzalez displayed her power during her most recent fight last November in Las Vegas. She dropped the favored Marina Ramirez, the current U.S. women’s flyweight champ (one weight class below), with an overhand right for a second-round knockout.
That blow played nationally on CBS TV. O’Leary loves it and keeps the blurry clip of it, shot off a television screen, on his computer.
The first step toward better paydays for Gonzalez, and women boxers in general, is introducing the petite woman Cancel calls a “badass in the ring” to the public.
Gonzalez prefers “brawler” to describe herself.
The term makes O’Leary grimace. He sees her as a tactical fighter, who lands planned, precise blows.
But she fights akin to something like a whirling dervish. No Muhammed Ali Rope-a-Dope here. Gonzalez likes to bring it.
“She’s all action, all the time,” O’Leary said. “… Just non-stop punching.”
“I’m the aggressor,” Gonzalez said.
Amid the New Rochelle gym’s much-decorated brick walls is a section devoted to Gonzalez. It includes newspaper clippings and hand wraps from two of her fights adorn the wall, as well as multiple photos. One is from a Ramirez social media page that shows her at her locker with a photo of Gonzalez.
This was before their fight and the message was clear that Gonzalez was on Ramirez’s mind and in her crosshairs.
That didn’t sit well with Gonzalez, who had one thought in mind while fighting her.
“I went up that ring knowing that I had to go out for the knockout because she was Roy Jones Jr. fighter and we were in her backyard,” she said, referring to Jones, the former, highly successful fighter, promoting her. “Once I stepped into that ring with Marina Ramirez I was filled of excitement ready to fight.”
After she knocked out Ramirez, Gonzalez jumped “about 30 feet” in the air, O’Leary said.
“It felt great. It was a really nice, awesome feeling. I really jumped up and down like crazy,” Gonzalez recalled.
Family in her corner
That’s Gonzalez the fighter.
But at home her intensity level plummets.
Favorite times include taking her kids to dinner or the movies, or, on “lazy days,” watching Netflix together at home in New Rochelle.
When she’s not there, her dad, Tony, mother, Silvia, or brother, Christian, watch the kids.
She and her kids live with her dad, Tony, who was once a professional boxer in Puerto Rico. He wasn’t initially keen on her boxing. She figures he viewed her as “Daddy’s little girl” and wanted her protected.
“The difficult part is sacrificing a lot – sacrificing my kids, family – basic family time,” Gonzalez said of pursuing boxing. “I turned pro because I love the sport — also, to give myself and kids a better life.”
“If I was to succeed in a high level it would mean the world to me and I’m sure my parents would be proud of me because they see how hard I train and work every day. They see my full dedication.”
Her children, Kaelyn, almost eight, and Marco, five, get why their mom does what she does and back her boxing, she said.
Her son might even like to box someday.
But not Kaelyn.
“She’s more into ballet, hip-hop, girly-girl things,” Gonzalez said, before smiling and adding, “Nothing like her mama.”