Texas female boxer has potential

January 30, 2008 7:49:19 PM PST
True boxing fans look at Yoli Pena and see her unusually large hands and powerful legs. Almost everyone else -- including would-be opponents -- just see a pretty face. Truth is, she has all three -- and more.Boxer, model, promoter, full-time student -- the intensely driven Pena has all the tools to succeed at whatever she sets her mind to, and just two years out of Edinburg North High School, that's what she's doing.

"I know if I stick to something and I really want it I'll get to whatever I want, so that's what I'm doing right now," Pena said. "I chose boxing and I'm sticking to it and I'm going to do it."

A competitor by nature, Pena's interest in contact sports began at age 7 with karate lessons while her family, originally from Monterrey, Mexico, lived in Arkansas. She went on to win several fights though she was still somewhat wary of her own strength.

"Actually, I never liked fighting," she confessed. "I was scared to hit any girl. I have real big hands and real big knuckles, so I was scared I was going to hurt somebody. I remember punching a kid because he grabbed my skirt and he actually went to the floor, this was like in sixth or seventh grade, so otherwise I never liked fighting other girls or anything like that."

Pena continued her martial arts training after moving to Edinburg in the sixth grade, eventually hooking up with Tae Kwan Do instructor Johnny Garcia, now her boxing trainer. But during her high school years, Pena turned to more traditional sports.

The now 19-year-old University of Texas-Pan American sophomore played soccer, basketball, softball, volleyball and ran track and field. Her favorite sport was soccer, in which she developed the strong upper legs that help her generate power in the ring.

After graduating in 2006, Pena had offers to play Division II soccer, but her father wasn't ready for her to leave home. And that, she says, is another reason she turned to boxing.

Boxing is her calling, Pena says, but right now it's only one of them. She's taking 18 hours this spring, plays club soccer with the Broncs and helps promote several McAllen area clubs like Mint and Yacht. But it's her part-time modeling that raises the most eyebrows.

Pena is an attractive young woman, slightly built with long dark hair and delicate features, and that is what most guys notice first, her trainer says.

"A lot of people think, 'Ah, well she's just a pretty face,' this and that, and we have a lot of guys come up and want to be her sponsor, but really they just want to come check her out ... If you were to see her training and see her fights, she's got some good power," Garcia said.

Pena says she was contacted about modeling after posting photos on her MySpace Web site to promote her boxing career. That led to local businesses asking for her services in advertisements. She's since done several, making about $150 per 30-minute shoot, but it's not something she sees herself doing long term.

"I don't think I have all the qualities to be a model," Pena said. "That's just like a little hobby I have on the side. If I can keep doing it I'm going to do it, but I think boxing will take me a lot further."

That's why she's not too concerned about her potentially brutal profession damaging her looks, though she does admit to worrying about her nose -- which she's already broken once -- and perhaps having a few teeth knocked out.

"I'll just go get it fixed and who cares about the modeling," she joked.

Local amateur boxer Isaac Torres, 16, sees Pena's potential. The 2012 Olympic-hopeful is the second-ranked bantamweight amateur in the United States and Pena's part-time sparring partner at Imperial Gym in McAllen.

"She's very strong," Torres said. "She moves her opponent back. She uses upstairs, downstairs all the time, so she hits the head. When the hands come up, she hits the body. The hands come down she starts hitting the head. She's a very smart fighter."

With just two fights under her belt, both TKOs, Pena already is the 26th-ranked super bantamweight in the world according to boxrec.com, this despite no amateur fights. By comparison, Torres already has more than 100.

But she's yet to hire a promoter or manager and already has turned down a bout with a more established fighter out of California who, Garcia says, wants an easy victory over a pretty girl.

"I want to bring her along slowly first, make sure she gets some experience because that girl has a lot of experience," Garcia said.

In the meantime, Pena trains five days a week and promotes her own fights, which actually led to her losing money after her first bout, a TKO win over Casandra Soto of San Antonio at 1:12 of the first round on Sept. 8. She was paid $800 for the fight, but spent more than that buying her suit, tickets for family and other expenses.

Pena next earned a third-round TKO victory over Blanca Cotto on Nov. 30 and currently is training to fight again sometime in March.

And if opponents continue making the mistake of thinking she's just a pretty face, they're in for a surprise.

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