Published in TexasMonthly.com
“I’m five pounds away,” Jennifer Han says while sitting on a wooden bench inside her father’s martial arts studio. She’s spent more than half her life here, inside this gym on El Paso’s Dyer Street—the seventeen-mile road that stretches from central and northeast El Paso into New Mexico. Fast-food restaurants, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, gun stores, and pawnshops advertising that they too sell guns fill the lower part of Dyer. Around the middle part, Korean churches and businesses become prevalent. That’s where the gym is and where Han sits, telling me she’s ready to fight, not far from a weather-beaten storefront sign reading “Han’s Kick Boxing.”
“I’ve already lost seventy pounds,” she says. “I’m thirty-eight years old but my time is now. I’m ready for it.”
If all things were equal, Han would be known as one of the best fighters in the world. She has black belts of varying degrees in kickboxing, tae kwon do, and hapkido. As a boxer, she’s the only El Pasoan who’s ever been a world champion. And for months now, she’s been training: first to lose weight after giving birth to her second son in February, then to prepare for what she and everyone around her say is the biggest fight of her career. “I’ve trained many, many, many years,” Han says. “I’ve worked hard for it, and I deserve this opportunity. I’m just glad it’s finally here.”
“This opportunity” is happening Saturday in England—a fight against Katie Taylor. At worst, Taylor is among the five best female boxers ever. At best, she is the best. A 2012 Olympic gold medalist for Ireland, Taylor is the undisputed lightweight world champion. As a professional, she’s never lost. ESPN lists Taylor as the best active woman boxer in the world. The Ring, the magazine that calls itself the bible of boxing, agrees. So if Han beats Taylor—at the time of this writing, some oddsmakers believe Han has a one in one hundred chance of winning—it’d be the type of upset that makes the boxing world stop.
“I’ve been a road warrior before, it’s nothing new to me,” Han says of fighting in England. She knows that of the 20,000 fans expected to attend the bout at Headingley Stadium, only about ten will be cheering for her. “I’m excited,” she continues. She talks with that innate confidence all world-class boxers have. “I know what I’m facing. I know what I’m up against. I’m fine with it.”
Han, just like her four younger siblings, learned to fight from her father, Master Bae Han. As a boy in South Korea, he became infatuated with martial artists. To him, they looked like they could fly. “Whatever they wanted to do, they could do,” he says. That’s when he began studying, learning, and eventually mastering different fighting techniques.
But before he was a master, he was Private Han, a member of the Korean Army and part of the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army. As part of that program, U.S. and Korean soldiers shared barracks. That’s where Han practiced his martial arts. At first, he trained by himself. Then, as U.S. soldiers watched, they started asking him to teach them what he knew.
“The GIs would come and bow to me,” Han remembers. “Commanders would come, bow to me. I was a private, lowest ranking, but all respected me like a teacher.” Before long, he was teaching groups of soldiers. Eventually, one of his students suggested he migrate to the United States.
When he came to El Paso in 1978, he found a small Korean community in the northeast part of the city. From there, he taught martial arts to his children and any El Pasoan who wanted to learn. His children—Jennifer, Abraham, Israel, Heather, and Stephanie—would train for hours and then eat at the closest buffet. “All you can eat, that’s a good restaurant,” Master Han says. “Cheap prices, that’s good. That’s survival.”
Before long, the family was winning local martial arts tournaments. Then state, national, and even world titles. Before long, boys and girls—knowing they’d lose—refused to fight Jennifer. And so, the Hans started fighting in a discipline they’d yet to master: boxing.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” Abraham Han says of the family’s introduction to boxing. He says they’d sometimes go to boxing gyms around El Paso and get beat up. Jennifer was sixteen, Abraham was fifteen. “But my dad said, ‘You have to be humble. Let’s figure out what we’re doing wrong,’” Abraham recalls. “My dad knew nothing about boxing, so he would imitate drills just by watching HBO, watching Oscar De La Hoya and all these fighters. ‘Okay, let’s try this,’ he’d say. And we’d work on it.”
The entire Han family is tight-knit, but Jennifer and Abraham are particularly close. She calls him Abie. He calls her Jenny. They’re fifteen months apart in age and have fought together since she was five and he was four. They’re also the only two of the Han siblings to box professionally.
The two were inseparable. They’d spar, run, and do strength and conditioning drills together. They’d eat and rest together. When they attended the University of Texas at El Paso, they’d even ride to campus together. “We’ve been so close all the way until 2018,” Abraham says. That’s when he fought the latest—and possibly final—bout of his pro boxing career, a loss to Anthony Dirrell that left Abraham with a record of 26–4. After that, even if the bond between siblings hadn’t changed, the time that Jennifer and Abraham spent together had. Now they each have young families, and Abie runs his own gym on El Paso’s West Side. Still, he thinks about the way things were.
“I miss it all the time,” he says of boxing and his years training alongside Jennifer. “I wish I could come back. I’m still in phenomenal shape, so you never know.” He sounds as if he’s letting himself fall into a daydream, and then he catches himself. “It doesn’t seem likely that I’ll ever fight again,” he admits a few seconds later.
Part of the reason his career is likely over is a shoulder injury that will require surgery before he competes again. Another part is just his knowing how physically and emotionally taxing the life of a professional boxer is. Having gone through it in his own career and watched it in his sister’s, he knows it twice over.
“Jenny’s gone through so much disappointment,” Abraham says. He’s talking about the close decisions—including a loss and a draw in her first two professional fights—that he feels Jennifer should have won. He’s talking about the time she fought for a world title in Korea, only to have judges give the victory to her opponent. “They screwed her,” he says. He’s talking about there being so little money in women’s boxing that his sister has never earned anywhere close to what she would have if she were a man.
“She’s been a world champion and she can’t make anything,” Abraham says. After Jennifer had her first son, Abraham told her she should retire. That all the sacrifices she was making—denying herself food, time with her kids, the ability to go through a day without getting punched in the face—just weren’t worth it. “She’s always been paycheck to paycheck,” Abraham continues. “She fights because she wants to be the best in the world.”
And now that Jennifer has gotten the opportunity to prove it, Abraham—who never thought his sister would get this chance—can’t be there for her the way he once was. He still trains with her when he can, two or three times a week. But even that doesn’t feel like enough. “It’s been very upsetting that I can’t be there for her more,” he says.
On a usual day, Jennifer Han arrives in Las Cruces, New Mexico—a 45-minute drive from El Paso—by nine-thirty in the morning. She’ll train with her boxing coaches until noon, sometimes a half hour past that. Her father’s gym doesn’t open until four. So, between the end of training in Las Cruces and then, she’ll drive back to El Paso. Eat, spend time with her children, get physical therapy, rest, whatever she needs to do. Once her father’s gym opens, she’ll help teach classes. But only “a little bit, not too much, because I have to go back and spar in evenings,” Han says. After sparring, she goes home, rests, sleeps, and wakes up to do the same thing all over again.
For the past several months, this has been her life. For most of her life—33 of her 38 years—she has followed a similar routine. A Spartan lifestyle built around fighting.
“Every fight, we expect to win,” Master Han says. As he talks, sitting in the small office in the corner of his gym, he’s surrounded by mementos of victories—first-place trophies, gold medals, and championship belts that justify his confidence. Proof that his children know how to fight. Proof that he did something right in teaching them.
“My children stayed in gym,” he says, “training and training, punching and punching, kicking and kicking, sweat and sweat, super punch and super kicking.” As he speaks, his voice gets louder and louder.
He’s an older man now, 73 years old, with long silver hair and a wrinkled face. But as he talks, an intensity creeps into his voice. That force in his words tells you that he too has been fighting throughout his life. That he may not be able to move as he once did, but he’s still the same person who did splits in the air with his ankles resting on two folding chairs. The same person who used to look like he was flying when he kicked. The same person who believed, deep in his bones, that no other family in the world trained harder than his. The same person who, today, is convinced that Jennifer will win.
He, along with his two youngest daughters and other members of the family, will watch Han’s bout with Taylor from El Paso. Abraham, along with his younger brother, will be in England with their sister. “I always get nervous,” Abraham says of watching his sister fight, even when he’s sure she can win. “I think that’s the emotion, especially when you’re really close to somebody.”
Han, sitting on the wooden bench in her father’s El Paso gym, suggests her brother is only being sentimental because he misses boxing. “He’s upset that he can’t go to Las Cruces with me and practice like the old times,” she says.
The old times when, inside this gym, as their father watched, Jennifer and Abraham—along with their siblings—would fight. Sometimes together. Sometimes against each other. This gym became the hub around which the Han family revolved. This gym, in this corner of Texas that many have chosen to run away from.
Since that’s always been the question around here—to leave or to stay?—I ask if she thought to do the same. She says she considered it but stayed because she loves El Paso. Because for decades, along this road that crosses into New Mexico, she and everyone around her have been preparing for the very opportunity Han has in front of her Saturday night.
“I’ve overcome so much,” she says. Her tone becomes suddenly serious. She’s no longer laughing and smiling. Suddenly, she’s the person who visualizes herself winning during those quiet moments spent driving across state lines and running countless miles to build stamina. Others following her path would have stopped long ago, but she kept going. “I’m so excited to shock the world,” Han says. “That’s what I’m going to do.” She, along with everyone who’s close to her, understands that if nothing else, she knows how to fight.