When she was 7 years old, well before moving with her family to Ocala two years ago, Faith Mendez wanted to become a boxer. No, her father told her.
Carlos Mendez tried to put her in any other sport: basketball, swimming, tennis. She never quit asking. So one day five years later he threw her in a ring with a boy with a few fights under his belt. The idea was he’d punch her a few times, make her bleed, and she’d quit. No more asking.
Except that his daughter beat the boy.
“The one you’ve been waiting for to be the champion is standing in front of you, begging you to fight, and you keep turning her down,” Sandra Mendez told her husband afterward.
The father finally relented. Three months later, Mendez won the 2016 Pennsylvania State Junior Olympics. Since then, she’s also won two national Golden Glove titles, three National Junior Olympics and the 2020 USA Boxing Youth National Championships.
Now 18, she’s the nation’s No. 1 lightweight youth female boxer – and from Thanksgiving Day through Dec. 5 she plans to compete in the 2021 Junior Pan American Games in Cali, Columbia.
If she wins her weight class, her father said, she will automatically qualify for the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris. Winning a gold medal there is her ultimate boxing aspiration.
Boxing is the Mendez family business, with Carlos, 54, a retired construction worker, the patriarch and coach, and his five daughters – Faith in particular – the talent.
Training at 12 Rounds Boxing Inc. in Ocala’s historic district, Faith takes her role as a young woman in a male-dominated sport seriously, happy to inspire young girls with big dreams of big belts and other pieces of heavyweight hardware.
Sharline Mendez, Faith’s oldest sister, started boxing in 2000. She made it all the way to the 2012 U.S. Olympic trials – the first year to include women’s boxing – before retiring to become a mother. After watching her siblings take theirs, Faith wanted her turn.
“I feel like my sisters used to get jealous a little,” she said, “because everybody says I’m better.”
The Ocala City Council recently bestowed Faith with a commendation for her boxing success.
“We congratulate her for all her achievements and contributions, wishing her the very best in all future endeavors,” Mayor Kent Guinn said as Faith and her father stood with him at City Hall.
Faith wore her Team USA travel outfit, complete with the medal she earned at a recent Junior Pan American Games qualifier around her neck. Their identical posture and synchronous gum chewing made it easy to see the coach-athlete tandem doubling as a father-daughter pairing.
They held three belts: One each from the Sugar Bert Boxing WBC Amateur Championship, USA Boxing National Youth Championship and USA Boxing Junior National Championship.
She handed one to her father when invited to speak: “This means a lot. Everybody doesn’t see how hard it is to be in boxing, and it’s not a boy’s sport. Girls can do it, too.”
Boxing has long been considered a men’s game. The first female boxing match on U.S. soil occurred in 1876 – the top prize was a silver butter dish – but USA Boxing later banned women from the sport until a lawsuit forced a reversal in 1993.
Which is why when people come into 12 Rounds Inc., Faith considers it her duty not only to herself and her family to perform, but to other aspiring women boxers as well.
“I have a lot of little girls that look up to me,” she said. “It just helps them to get the confidence to do it.”
When his daughters first started boxing, Carlos Mendez was just “dad,” not “coach.” He took them to a gym in Brooklyn, New York, where the family hails from, but the training was lackluster, as if reserved because the fighters were female. So Mendez started Almighty Boxing Club in Reading, Pennsylvania. The family moved to Ocala to escape the cold weather, he said.
For Carlos and Faith, the coach-athlete relationship works until it doesn’t. Sometimes boxing is all they talk about; other times, it’s anything but. He rides her hard. She can handle it.
“The coach goes home with me,” Faith said. “He’s basically a coach 24/7.”
Her father shook his head, but not in disagreement. The two often argue, he said.
But he wants what’s best for her, so he keeps it real.
They share hobbies outside the ring, too, which helps them decompress from intense practices. She joked that he “tries to play basketball with me,” to which he rolled his eyes. They also spend time together tending to the 45 pigeons the family owns – a slightly smaller coup than Mike Tyson’s and one in danger of eviction because of an ordinance the city council passed in 2019.
A typical day for Faith starts with a 30-minute run, she said. Then it’s off to the gym.
She warms up by jumping rope before shadow boxing and then hitting the bag. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays are usually for strength and conditioning, while Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays are typically reserved for sparring, her father said.
When the workout ends, Faith picks up every barbell, mat and weighted ball. She rolls up the ropes and packs her things, retracing her steps and breaking down the practice area. It’s all about discipline, her father said: “After we work out, we clean up.”
12 Rounds owner Joyce Nieves, 39, knew nothing about Faith’s career when they first met. The fighter seemed shy as she got accustomed to her new surroundings. Then Nieves saw her fight.
“This little girl’s doing something,” she remembers thinking. “She was giving it hell in the ring, so everything she did just spoke for itself.”
Smiling with pride, Nieves watched as Faith weight trained with her dad.
“She knows what she wants, and she does what she needs to do to get there,” the gym owner said. “So she’s in charge of her own destiny. She’s in charge.”
A pair of black and gray gloves hang from the phrase “Golden Girl” on Faith’s left shoulder. As a Puerto Rican American, her nickname resembles that of a legendary boxing champion, Oscar “Golden Boy” de la Hoya, who won gold at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.
That feat provides even more inspiration for Faith.
“I want to win gold in the Olympics in 2024,” she said confidently.
If Faith strikes gold at the Junior Pan American Games in Cali, it would spare the family from traveling across the country for future Olympic qualifying tournaments.
Competing in an Olympic sport can be a huge financial strain on athletes and their families. Training, traveling and equipment costs add up quickly. Since moving to Ocala, the family has struggled to find sponsors after people in Pennsylvania stopped donating.
In August, Sharline Mendez started a fundraiser on her sister’s behalf to cover training camp costs. “Making My Boxing Dream A Reality” has earned just $50 of its $3,000 goal.
They are determined to find a way to keep Faith in the Mendez family business. For her part, she hopes to not disappoint her biggest fans: her nieces and nephews.
“They come home like, ‘Did you bring me a belt?’” she said. “It gives me the hype to keep going.”