Amanda Serrano leaned an elbow against a wall at her boxing gym in Brooklyn after a recent workout, massaging her triceps against a lacrosse ball. Her face was flushed and her hair pulled back into a tight bun, with the sweaty proof of her work in the ring.
“I’m holding up the wall. How am I doing?” she said with a laugh.
If anyone were up to the task, it would be Serrano.
Serrano, 34, is a world champion in seven weight classes, a number rivaled only by Manny Pacquiao. On Saturday, she will try to add to her collection of belts when she faces Erika Cruz of Mexico for the undisputed world featherweight championship in the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. Serrano enters Saturday’s fight with a record of 43-2-1 and 30 knockouts, one of the best in women’s boxing.
“There’s a lot of history for me in the Hulu Theater,” Serrano, who has fought at Madison Square Garden three times, said. “Now I’m fighting for the last piece of the puzzle in my division.”
“I’ve made so much history in that arena, it just brings more confidence. It’s my lucky spot,” she added.
This will be Serrano’s first fight at Madison Square Garden since her loss to Katie Taylor in April in a bout that was billed as the biggest women’s boxing match in history. Taylor successfully defended her undisputed lightweight world titles with a split-decision victory.
“I went in there and I proved that I’m well-deserving, that I’m one of the best,” Serrano said. “I put on a show and proved that I belong in there with anybody else.”
Despite the loss to Taylor, Serrano has seen only gains since then.
She defeated Sarah Mahfoud in the fall for another featherweight title. She returned to a level of training she had not reached since the beginning of her career 14 years ago. And perhaps most important to Serrano, she bought her first house.
“When I became a world champion and I decided that maybe this is what I’m going to do as a career, you start thinking about that: Can I do this? Can I be successful? Can I be wealthy?” Serrano, who often doubted that she could make it work, said.
Serrano, like many women in boxing, started out with three- and low-four-digit paydays. Even then, expenses add up. Before paying herself, Serrano must pay her team, taxes and training-camp expenses.
But the fight against Taylor guaranteed them both at least $1 million, among the highest purses in women’s boxing, and a way for Serrano to fulfill at least one of her dreams. The house in her hometown, Carolina, P.R., along the island’s north coast, has three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms.
“It’s perfect,” she said.
That large payday came in part because Serrano reached out to an unexpected source for help: Jake Paul. The pairing of Paul, the boxer known for his social-media antics, and Serrano, who famously does not have a cellphone and has described herself as a “wuss” outside of the ring, seemed unlikely right from the start.
But in a sport in which promotion is everything and a talent like Serrano is a rarity, the two found a way to balance each other out.
“We all have our alter ego, because the Jake that’s on camera and the Jake that’s in person, I believe, is two different people,” Serrano said. “He wants the best for the people around him.”
That’s something Serrano can relate to, also.
“I don’t like fights; I don’t like arguing,” she said. “But when I’m in the gym, or when I’m training, when I’m fighting, I’m totally someone else.”
Serrano first stepped into a ring when she was 13 years old, following in the footsteps of her old sister, Cindy Serrano. During an open sparring session in Brooklyn, Serrano went one round with another girl, hitting her “a couple times, hard.” Two weeks later, Serrano did it again. A few weeks after that, she went into the ring with a boy her age.
“It went more than one round, and I couldn’t breathe,” she recalled. “I was crying. I said, ‘Get me out of here, I don’t want to lose anymore.’”
Serrano would not return to the ring again for five years.
After graduating early from Bushwick High School in Brooklyn, Serrano worked in several family-owned gyms. She was reading The New York Daily News while working at the front desk one day when she came across an advertisement for a Golden Gloves event, one of the largest amateur boxing competitions.
The next thing she knew, she was filling out an application.
“That’s when my whole life turned around,” she said.
Like many athletes, Serrano attributes much of her success to the art of sacrifice. She has never owned a cellphone or had a boyfriend, and she keeps her circle exceedingly small: just her sister and her brother-in-law, Jordan Maldonado, who is also her manager.
She enjoys going to the movies — the cornier and sillier the better, she said — but skips the popcorn when she’s training. Her biggest relaxation technique, however, involves a roof and some birds.
After training sessions, Serrano and Maldonado will tend to their roughly 70 pigeons on the roof of Serrano’s apartment building in Brooklyn, watching them fly as they make stops on other roofs in the neighborhood. It’s part of a larger network of pigeon keepers in the area and similar to a hobby shared by another boxer, Mike Tyson.
The birds, her family and some friends at the gym keep her company. But Serrano has found it difficult to have friends in the sport, she said.
“It’s easy becoming a champion, but it’s hard maintaining that champion status, maintaining that pound-for-pound best. That’s extremely hard and stressful, mentally and physically,” said Serrano, who also described the difficulty of being a woman in boxing. “People are not really nice — promoters and networks — being a girl, it’s really hard.”
Serrano said she was not lonely because she had her sister. So it was perhaps only her sister who could light the fire she needed to get back into the ring after the loss to Taylor.
“She said, ‘This needs to change. We need to change everything back to the way it used to be,’” Serrano recalled. “The way it used to be” meant taking Serrano back to “when I felt young,” she said.
After the Taylor fight, Serrano and her team examined what might be missing and “started doing things that we neglected for a long time.”
“I wasn’t really satisfied on how I looked, how I felt,” Serrano said. “There were certain things that we needed to work.”
That meant increasing her training to twice a day and sparring three times a week consistently, sometimes for 13 rounds at a time.
“I haven’t done that in a long time, with men obviously, so there are no easy days for me,” she said. “I’m always in there for the fight of my life with men. That always makes me happy because when I go in there with a girl, it’s easy-peasy for me.”
She also started working with a sports massage therapist.
“Ever since I started fighting, I never took care of my body,” she said. “You start to feel it as you get older, fights get a little harder and intense.”
Serrano said she feels like she’s “back to the old days” and will be taking the confidence she built up in the fight against Taylor into the ring when she faces Cruz (15-1, three knockouts) this weekend.
“Cruz is a Mexican champion, so that brings something different in a fighter,” Serrano said. “She’s going to come with everything, and so am I. I’m not going to make it easy for her. She’s a warrior. So am I.”