Kaliesha “Wild, Wild” West Retires After 12 Pro Years
By David A. Avila
Kaliesha “Wild” West announced her retirement this weekend with little fanfare, but while she fought professionally for 12 years her style and humility woke up an entire region to the world of boxing.
Before West the area known as the Inland Empire was a slumbering region that was largely unnoticed, but she along with male fighters like Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley, Chris “The Nightmare” Arreola and Mauricio “El Maestro” Herrera ushered into the boxing world their style of fighting.
West was the first female to win a world title in Moreno Valley, California and the second to win in the Inland Empire, an area located east of Los Angeles County and stretches through the desert region to the border of Arizona.
Now 30 years old, the perky bantamweight fighter was forced to retire because of a severe injury to her back and neck. Though not serious to a person with a normal lifestyle, the injury for a boxer is potentially dangerous.
“When sparring my limbs would go numb,” said West who was preparing for a fight in Mexico when the injury was discovered. “It would get worse if I continued to box.”
Originally from Michigan, the West family settled in Moreno Valley, a small city of more than 100,000 in Riverside County. Her father Juan West, who later would train her, was a professional boxer. When he fought at the Olympic Auditorium in February 1995, his daughter Kaliesha was seven years old. She jumped up and down cheering for her father that night. She caught the boxing bug right then and there and never lost it.
Ironically, I was there for that fight too covering the boxing card for the LA Times. One of the fights on that card included former world champion Jaime Garza in perhaps the bloodiest battle I ever witnessed. I had purchased a brand new tanned suit and wore it ringside for that fight card. After 10 bloody rounds that suit was drenched in red and I was forced to throw it away. I was baptized that day in the sport of prizefighting. So was Kaliesha West.
That same evening in Los Angeles 1995, her father Juan West entered the boxing ring a final time as a prizefighter and Kaliesha would be handed the boxing gloves. It took a few years to convince her father, but he soon relented.
We did not cross paths again until 2003 when I was writing a boxing column for the Riverside Press-Enterprise and La Prensa newspapers. I was in my fourth year writing the weekly column and West was boxing in the amateurs. She was 16 years old at the time and had won a national tournament. I was introduced to the shy teen with braces along with three other teens at a gym in Redlands.
West is mixed with African American along with Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Asian bloodlines. As a youngster she would occasionally get ridiculed or tormented for being slightly different. Normal stuff.
Boxing provided her an outlet and she excelled. But her first time putting on the gloves and trading punches was not a success.
“I fought this girl in East L.A. and she beat me up,” said West. “I cried when I lost.”
She immediately demanded a rematch.
The next time the two girls met West won the rematch and proved to her father – who was training amateur boxers – she had the guts and determination to be a boxer. She was 11 years old.
Hit and Miss
In the early 2000s barely a decade had passed that girls were accepted into amateur boxing programs. Though women had been fighting professionally since the 1970s, the amateur program was still slow to officially accept girls.
Others like West were popping up all over Southern California in gyms eager to try boxing. During the early period, female amateur boxing was mostly train hard and wait for someone to fight. There weren’t many girls in amateur programs so fighting in tournaments was hit and miss for girls. Olympic boxing did not include girls until 2012 though an abundance of talent existed in Southern California and the rest of the United States.
In 2006, West decided to become a professional and 12 days after her 18th birthday she signed to fight Suzannah Warner at San Manuel Casino in Highland, California.
Because we had published a story on West winning a national amateur tournament we covered her pro debut at the Indian casino. It was the first time a female fighter had participated in a fight at that venue. West brought dozens of fans with her and the place was packed.
The battle between West and Warner showed off both fighters’ speed. After four quick rounds West was deemed the winner by unanimous decision. When the photographer examined the photos he took of the fight he was hard-pressed to find a decent photo. West seemed to be closing her eyes a lot.
That would be the last time she closed her eyes in a fight.
Ironically, though Warner lost the fight that night, she would go on to win a national title in a lower weight division. In her last venture into the boxing ring in 2011 she encountered Argentina’s legendary Yesica Bopp.
That’s women’s boxing. If willing, you eventually can fight the best.
In the early 2000s it was difficult to find many female boxers in the area so they regularly organized sparring sessions and about a dozen would agree to show up.
On one occasion a session was set up in Fontana, Calif. in a gym owned by Frank and Larry Ramirez. They trained a talented female contender named Heather Percival who would later fight for the world title.
Weight classes didn’t matter in these sparring sessions so lightweights would battle flyweights.
On one particular session, little flyweights like Carina Moreno and Heather Heaps battled against bigger bantamweights like Percival, West and current Mexican queen of boxing Mariana “Barby” Juarez. There was also lightweight fighter Jennifer Barber and a few others who engaged in the round robin sparring sessions that featured hefty exchanges.
Nobody backed down.
These sparring sessions led to more sessions and eagerness to prove their mettle. It was like wild fire that spread throughout the Southern California landscape. Other young women heard about the sparring sessions and asked to be included.
Women’s boxing was on the move.
All-female sparring sessions still continue today in places like Duarte, Calif. and Maywood, Calif. Regardless of weight classes the young women congregate and put on the gloves to see how they fare against each other and to get sparring against other women. It’s a rare treat.
Two years ago at one of these sessions a young woman who had not boxed competitively in nearly 10 years took part in a session and discovered she had not lost her touch. She sparred with West and others and decided to become a professional. Her name is Adelaida Ruiz and now she’s among the new rising stars in the boxing world.
West eagerly supports her and others like Ruiz.
World title journey
Unable to find opponents or promoters to stage her fights, West and her team accepted fights anywhere and anytime.
On one occasion a Danish promoter contacted Team West through Facebook and asked if she would be willing to travel to Denmark to fight world champion Anita Christensen. They consented and off they went to Europe to fight the hometown hero near Copenhagen. After 10 hotly contested rounds the fight ended in a majority draw.
Soon other fights in other countries followed. Next was a venture to Lima, Peru where West through help of Peruvian star Lina Malpartida was placed on a fight card there. She won by knockout in the fifth round.
Her victories and fights in Peru, Denmark and Mexico increased her notoriety of being a fearless fighter and soon her image grew. Golden Boy Promotions took notice.
With help from a friend Claudia Ollis, a world title fight was offered by Golden Boy Promotions. It took place on September 2010 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. West would be fighting Angel Gladney for the vacant WBO bantamweight world title.
That night West, then 22, fought smartly the first two rounds then began to put on the pressure against Gladney who entered the ring with five knockouts in six wins. Though West had only three knockouts in 15 pro bouts, she had faced the much tougher competition. It was seen as an even fight.
Both Gladney and West battled it out until suddenly an opening was discovered and a left hook ended the night. West won by knockout at 59 seconds of round seven. West was the new WBO world champion and cheers were heard throughout the massive arena.
Fans that night discovered that female fighters possessed boxing technique, speed and power just like their male counterparts. West’ victory over Gladney was probably the best fight of the night. Later, Sugar Shane Mosley and Sergio Mora fought to a draw in a battle of counter-punching. But fans had nothing but praise for the female contest.
It looked like West was on her way to being a super star, but plans went sideways.
West had been offered another fight with Golden Boy Promotions but declined. Instead, her new team got her a fight at the Pico Rivera Sports Arena and she fought Ava Knight to a split draw in defense of the WBO bantamweight title. For that fight West made zero dollars. She had to forfeit her pay in order to pay the sanctioning fee and also to pay Knight.
She then signed with a Mexican promotion company and was offered two fights. West was victorious in both defenses and returned home with the belt. But though victorious, she was dropped by the promotion company and was left to fend for herself in 2011. She subsequently won the super bantamweight title against Christina Ruiz but finding fights was a difficult task.
Pound for pound
At the time West was released by the Mexican boxing promoter she was among the top fighters pound for pound. Few bantamweights or super bantamweights could match her combination of speed, power and skills. She had never been knocked down or seriously hurt in any of her fights.
Because she did not have a promoter, defending the WBO bantamweight title was out of reach. She was then stripped of the title because of an inability to pay the fee to retain it. It’s a kind of racket that was common back then. West never lost a title fight at bantamweight or super bantamweight, but the title moved on to another person. Only a few fighters during that period were capable of fighting West, female fighters like Melinda Cooper, Ana Julaton and Celina Salazar were rivals in the 118 to 122 weight classes. But paying them to fight each other was a major stumbling block. West never fought them in the boxing ring but did spar with two and also had sparred with Mexico’s Mariana Juarez who today is the current WBC bantamweight world titlist at age 38.
Another problem was finding opposition willing to face her. A few existed but the problem of finding a promoter willing to pay for a world title fight was the main detriment. Television was another obstacle and one that did not change until the arrival of the Olympians in 2016. Few women fights were promoted between 2007 and 2016 none were televised anywhere in the U.S. With television comes bigger purses but none were forthcoming for women. It was the darkest period for female boxing.
West returned to the ring one last time in September 2017 and fought as a super featherweight against Kirstie Simmons at the Agua Caliente Casino in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Three years had passed and fighting at a heavier weight against a heavier opponent changed the way she usually fought. But that was always a strength of West. She had more than one method of fighting. She could fight aggressively, box and move or counter with the best. During her final fight she methodically put the pressure on the bigger opponent and landed thudding shots all six rounds. Simmons was not a pushover and tried to match her but was caught repeatedly by left hooks. West continually moved her backwards while landing single and double big blows. All three judges scored it for West. It was her last professional fight.
Most of her fans expected her to return quickly to the boxing ring. Some promoters were interested in West but though she trained she never returned to the prize ring. The injury incurred while sparring was too damaging.
“I heard something snap in my neck when I got punched,” said West of the sparring injury.
But she had a long run from 2006 to 2017. Now 30 years old, the former bantamweight and super bantamweight world titlist has formally retired.
“I look at all the female champions and think wow, I’ve been doing it for so long,” said West. “I am blessed.”
West formally announced her retirement from boxing on Sunday November 18, from her home in Temecula, Calif. When she fought, many considered her one of the best female fighters to ever come out of Southern California.
She began burning the trail for female boxers beginning in the 1990s as an amateur and ending as a prizefighter in 2018. West is still remembered today as one of the most exciting boxers male or female. And she remains today in love with the sport of boxing.