One by one, the boxers streamed into the Theater at Madison Square Garden on Saturday night, entering from the wings to their walkout music and to plenty of fanfare from a packed house. Then came Amanda Serrano.
Serrano, who was seeking to unify the women’s featherweight division titles, entered the theater from the back and made her way through the throng with a trail of championship belts and Puerto Rican flags behind her, setting the tone for the remainder of the night. She then exhausted Erika Cruz of Mexico on the way to an unanimous-decision victory that made her the undisputed women’s featherweight champion.
“I’m just so emotional underneath. I finally did it for my island!” Serrano said in the ring after a bloody and competitive fight.
It was Serrano’s first fight at the Garden since last April, when she lost a split decision to Katie Taylor of Ireland in the main arena in one of the most celebrated women’s matches in boxing history.
Before the sweat and blood could dry from Serrano’s fight against Cruz, Serrano and Taylor’s camps announced a date for a much anticipated rematch. It will be May 20, in Dublin, for Taylor’s lightweight titles.
Saturday’s fight was key to that rematch. Serrano, 34, entered with a record of 43-2-1 and 30 knockouts, one of the best in women’s boxing. Cruz, 32, who turned pro in 2016, came into the fight with a record of 15-1 and three knockouts. Despite having less experience than Serrano, Cruz was relentless. A head butt in the third round had Cruz wiping away blood for the rest of the fight. But every time it appeared she had run out of gas, she continued to fire away, using her low-and-long style to reach for Serrano again and again.
As Serrano began to understand her opponent’s style, she pulled away more and let Cruz tire herself out. Serrano stood firm; Cruz began to flail. By the sixth round, Serrano was in command of the fight. She released a flurry of combinations that left Cruz on the ropes and disoriented. Serrano’s message was clear: The undisputed title was hers, and hers alone. The Serrano friendly crowd knew it, too.
Serrano, who was born in Carolina, P.R., but grew up in Brooklyn, centered her ring appearance on one of the original flags of Puerto Rico. Her Jordans were red, white and sky blue, and she wore a sports bra emblazoned with the logo of Econo, a supermarket chain in Puerto Rico. At the end of the fight, she draped herself in a sky blue Puerto Rican flag.
Two judges had Serrano as the winner by a score of 98-92, and a third judge scored the fight, 97-93. According to CompuBox, Serrano and Cruz combined to land 459 of 1,917 punches per two-minute round. Cruz landed 202 punches of the 968 thrown, the most by a Serrano opponent. But Serrano’s experience won out, and she landed 257 of 949 shots.
Serrano wasn’t the only one walking away with an undisputed title on Saturday. In the other main event at the Garden, Alycia Baumgardner, who lives in Detroit, defeated Elhem Mekhaled of France in a unanimous decision to become the undisputed superfeatherweight champion.
Baumgardner has been discarding her competition handily in recent months. She gave Mikaela Mayer her first professional loss in October to become the unified superfeatherweight champion in the International Boxing Federation, World Boxing Council and World Boxing Organization.
Mekhaled was no exception. In the third round, Baumgardner unleashed her power and took Mekhaled to the mat not once, but twice, within the two-minute round.
“I dug deep,” she said after the fight and was met with a swell of applause when she noted that she had just started her period, “so it’s all good.”
Baumgardner clearly had her eyes on bigger prizes.
“We want Katie Taylor, we want those better fights,” she said. “I want to challenge myself, that’s the only way I’m going to know where I’m at.”
But Serrano will have first dibs.
Serrano went through one of the most intense training camps of her career to prepare for this fight: training twice a day and sparring three times a week consistently — sometimes for 13 rounds at a time — with men. Now, to get back in the ring with Taylor, she will need to add an additional 10 pounds to meet the threshold for the lightweight class.
With heavy breaths left over from her battle with Cruz, Serrano said she was up to the task.
“I learned a lot, and now I know what I need to do,” she said. “I’ve done enough” to beat Taylor, she said, “and I’ll do more.”