Amanda Serrano: the knockout artist making her pound-for-pound case

Fake news, deep fakes, virtual reality – in our current moment, there’s something especially thirst-slaking about authenticity. Amanda Serrano, the seven-division champion from Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, is as genuine as they come. In the ring, she’s pure attention and devastating power, with a heat-seeking hook and combinations you don’t see until you’re breathing canvas. Outside, she has that sweet combination of sincerity and bravado, at once humble and determined, that says she earns every win – and win she does.

Flashy Jordans aside, there’s something unadorned about Serrano, who was born in Puerto Rico before moving with her family to New York as a child. Speaking on the phone ahead of her latest title defense, she exudes such relaxed enthusiasm, it’s easy to forget her fists have finished 29 opponents inside the distance. Known for her cloistered, sport-centric lifestyle, Serrano is in control but not tightly wound, her affability and groundedness girding years-deep competence. All in all, she embodies her nickname: the Real Deal.

At 32, the heavy-handed southpaw has achieved nearly everything a fighter could hope for. With a professional record of 39-1-1, Serrano has captured nine major world titles across every weight from from 115lbs to 140lbs. At or around the top of pound-for-pound rankings for most of the past decade, her name is now spoken in the same exultant breath as women’s greats like Laila Ali, Christy Martin, Lucia Rijker and Ann Wolfe.

Yet Serrano has no intention of resting on her laurels. On Thursday, she will climb through the ropes at San Juan’s Plaza del Quinto Centenario to face Argentine three-weight world champion Daniela Bermúdez (29-3-3, 10 KOs), who despite few knockouts in her record has recently proven her fight-ending power, winning four out of her last six appearances by stoppage. The fight is part of the nascent Ring City USA boxing series and will be broadcast on NBCSN in the US and Twitch overseas. Serrano’s goal is simple: to successfully and decisively defend her WBO and WBC featherweight titles. “I expect her to come forward and throw lots of punches,” Serrano said. “That’s what I’ve seen her do with great fighters, try to overwhelm them. But you know, I’m ready for every second of every minute. Every round, I’m ready to throw punches with her – mine just are a little harder.”

Regardless of the added pressure of fighting in her native homeland, Serrano has been preparing the same way she always does: with down-to-earth tenacity. Having fought twice in 2020, including a first-round knockout over Dahiana Santana in December, Serrano has stayed well-oiled and ring-ready. Of course, training has evolved over the past year, as safety measures due to Covid-19 forced Serrano’s team – and athletes everywhere – to adapt.

Serrano counts herself lucky. Her manager always emphasized preparedness, teaching her to cultivate mental toughness as well as to save money for this type of crisis. She also has the benefit of family ties: her primary female sparring partner is her sister, Cindy Serrano, a professional boxer who held the WBO featherweight title from 2016 to 2017; and her manager is her brother-in-law, Cindy’s husband, who trains both Serranos. Even at the claustrophobic peak of lockdown, the core team was able to remain together and continue training with some degree of consistency. Still, with facilities closed and travel bans in place, logistics have not been easy. “In the beginning it was hard, it was hard for everybody,” Serrano said. “I was lucky to have my sister with me. We just trained together, we sparred together.”

More recently, as restrictions have lessened, gyms have reopened and sparring opportunities have diversified. The mixed martial artist Pearl Gonzalez, a friend of Serrano’s, visited earlier this month from San Diego for some sparring in advance of Thursday’s fight. Still, while training conditions have improved, Serrano looks forward to fight night itself regaining its pre-pandemic electricity. Recalling her bout against fellow Brooklynite Heather Hardy – in which Serrano won her current WBO title – at Madison Square Garden in September 2019, Serrano sounded wistful: “It was awesome. To have that experience with the fans, it was great. I can’t wait to have that back again.

If successful on Thursday, the natural question is: what’s next? One wonders how such an accomplished fighter stays motivated.

Serrano seems to be focused on carving an indelible legacy. As the only Puerto Rican boxer in history, male or female, to win world titles in more than four weight classes, she wants to further pride to the island where she was born – not only by securing a home win against Bermúdez, but by unifying the 126lbs weight class and giving Puerto Rico its first undisputed four-belt champion. To do that, Serrano needs to fight current WBA titleholder Jelena Mrdjenovich – or Erika Cruz Hernandez, if she beats Mrdjenovich in their 22 April bout – as well as the undefeated Sarah Mahfoud, who captured the IBF belt in July. Who Serrano fights, in what order, doesn’t concern her: “Whichever one comes first. I don’t mind. I’ll fight either one of them.” Either way, by the end of 2021, Serrano plans to be undisputed featherweight champion. A hotly anticipated superfight with unified lightweight champion Katie Taylor, which had been announced last March only to be undone by the pandemic, could follow.

Lest that seem sufficient, however, Serrano is a two-sport athlete. In 2018, she made the switch to mixed martial arts, securing a draw in her first fight against Corina Herrera with Combate Americas. “I went in there not knowing much on the floor,” Serrano said. “I almost got killed the third round. But I went back to the gym and I practically ate the floor, I just practiced 100% what I wasn’t comfortable at.” Five months later, Serrano submitted Erendira Ordonez in the first round. Now, it’s back to boxing, but Serrano hasn’t finished with mixed martial arts. “I still want to become a great MMA fighter.”

Serrano isn’t alone in pursuing MMA: from her former opponent Heather Hardy to Holly Holm to two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-weight unified champion, Claressa Shields, many top female boxers have branched out beyond their original craft. This trend, and the fact that few men tend to follow suit, makes unpalatable sense. In boxing, some estimate that female fighters make 15 to 20 cents on the dollar compared to men with the same records; Hardy reportedly made $7,500 for a title defense when her male counterpart on the card netted six figures. Promoters of female fighters find themselves scrabbling like birds over breadcrumbs for televised slots. MMA, however, offers parity. The transition may not be easy, but you can’t beat the returns. MMA often provides better contracts, better purses and more equitable coverage, not to mention the perhaps elusive, yet deeply felt, compensation of esteem. “The respect and the acknowledgement that the MMA gives their female fighters is the same as men,” Serrano said. “In MMA, it’s like there’s no gender, we’re fighters.”

Boxing has begun making strides, however. Women’s boxing became an Olympic sport in 2012. Last year saw women inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame, incredibly, for the first time since its creation in 1990. And while women’s bouts still garner far less than men’s, big-draw fighters like Taylor have seen as much as $1.4m (£1m) for certain matchups. “It’s definitely going the right way,” Serrano said. “Now a lot of these promoters are putting a girl on their show, they’re putting it on TV where people can see that there are female boxers out there.”

Still, discrepancies remain stark. When asked what was needed to keep – or ideally, push – boxing along its positive trajectory, Serrano identified visibility as a key factor. “They just need to continue to put us on. Put great female fights on and showcase that we have great skills. You can’t just put anything on, that’s for sure, but you’ve just got to show the right fights and then you have a fanbase and people are going to be interested.”

When Serrano steps into the ring this Saturday and moves one step closer to unification, shining a light on Puerto Rico and women’s boxing, one thing is for sure – we’ll be seeing something real.