Crowds peer through the metal, grated fence, wearing baseball caps and looks of disbelief. Their eyes seem to travel up every pulsing vein, with small clouds of sawdust blurring their features, disguising mouths agape. On the other side of the fence, a woman lies flat on her back, with her knees up, stretching. She’s wearing earrings and has her hair nicely styled, more suited to a gymnast than a star of what she describes as the “loneliest sport”. It’s not boxing; not this time.
Puffing out her cheeks and readjusting her weighted belt, Stefi Cohen deadlifts a quarter of a tonne. She is 5-feet tall and weighs somewhere between 114lbs and 125lbs – which is why the small audience can’t grasp it, squinting their eyes as though deceived by street magic. Cohen, Venezuelan by birth and Miami-based, is the owner of 25 astonishing powerlifting world records and now she’s an undefeated professional boxer training out of the Mundo Boxing Gym, under the tutelage of Dr. Pedro Diaz.
Cohen spoke to Boxing Social ahead of her second professional boxing match, detailing her transition between isolated sports: “I’m a master of the mundane. There’s nothing that’s more boring or lonelier than powerlifting. It really is. You’re literally beating your head against the wall every single training session trying to fight for a .1-pound increment in your lifts. And sometimes it never happens. You throw out six months of your life trying to improve your lifts by this much, and then it doesn’t happen.
“I think the fact that there’s only one variable of being tested makes it actually more difficult. Because there’s way less room for error, right? When you’re in front of someone else, and there’s many different aspects of performance you can improve or work on, you have your footwork, your striking, your head movement, your power, your rotation, your reflexes, your conditioning. There are so many things that you can believe and work on. In powerlifting, it’s either you can lift the thing and you can’t.”
Cohen definitely can. Though her introduction to strength-based training came at a later juncture after falling away from soccer in the US. Still just 29-years old, there is plenty of time for her to establish herself in a shallow featherweight division and, given past successes in sporting arenas, she’s betting on herself to succeed again. Her link with Diaz set tongues wagging and, when watching clips of the pair working together in the gym, it’s evident the novice has learned at a rate of knots.
Although her technique and understanding of the sport’s fundamentals is a work in progress, it’s the lifestyle and professionalism of boxing that seems to come easy for Cohen and, when discussing her path to Mundo Boxing, it wasn’t surprising to see that she’d landed on her feet.
“I’ve been involved in sports my whole life,” she explained. “I started taking soccer seriously when I was 10 or 12, making it through to the national team when I was a little bit older. So, my dreams and aspirations have always been to be a professional athlete of any kind, really. I just love the lifestyle. I love pushing myself physically and mentally, and it’s just what I identified with most. Growing up in a third world country, there was not a lot of options as far as professional careers go. There’s just not that much; there aren’t many opportunities, not to mention how unsafe and dangerous it is to live there.
“In 2010, we had just gotten out of a civil war, and there was a lot of political and social unrest. So, I was pretty much forced to leave the country, but it all worked out really well. I got a scholarship to play football at SDSU (San Diego State University), but the transition going from South America, a third world country, to America, just culturally and socially and the language barrier, nothing came easy for me. It was a really difficult transition to make at 18 by yourself. I ended up transferring to the University of Miami in Florida because it seemed like it made more sense. It’s only a two-hour flight away from home, and the culture is a lot more inclusive towards Hispanic people. This is pretty much an extension of Latin America.”
From featuring in Venezuelan news clippings as their soccer MVP, to becoming a small fish in an endless ocean in San Diego, something had to replace soccer; something had to welcome Stefi Cohen home as an athlete. She told Boxing Social that she tried skateboarding, triathlon biking, Muay Thai, marathons and Tough Mudder. All roads – for one reason or another – led her to CrossFit, which acted as a gateway to Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting.
The daughter of a Moroccan immigrant and a second-generation Romanian immigrant, Cohen knows all about humble beginnings, whether in sport or in life in general. As a boxing newbie now, her plan is to earn the stripes she’d plastered over her powerlifting sleeves, but time is also of the essence.
“I don’t think there’s anything realistic about any of the goals that I’ve ever set for myself. And I’m totally fine with that. I think there’s a very big misconception about why I got into boxing, and why I’m doing what I’m doing. A lot of people think it’s for attention. A lot of people think it’s for fun. A lot of people think it’s because they want to make money from influencer boxing. And none of those things are true,” Cohen told Boxing Social.
“I got into boxing because I love being an athlete. I love learning things. I love being challenged, and I love being good at something. So, I’m genuinely doing it for the love of the sport. My ultimate goal is to win world titles, whatever, whichever world title I have access to. And just be the best boxer that I can get. I envision myself doing this for the next five, 10 years, and just trying to get as good as I can.”
Cohen became the only woman to lift 4.6-times her own body weight in June 2020 – a remarkable feat. It was her 25th world record, and she dropped 16lbs in competition weight to achieve it. Why? “Because that’s what people who go on to become legends do,” she explains.
It is that type of achievement, coupled with intelligent social media content and marketing, that places her in a unique position for a one-fight novice professional. She currently boasts a staggering Instagram following of over one million users, all hanging on her every post and, in turn, intrigued by her strapping on the boxing gloves.
We spoke about the importance of that ready-made audience and, unsurprisingly, she explained that some lesser-profile boxers have approached her for advice. In most cases though, they think it’s too much work and that their talent will put bums on seats. For the majority of fighters turning over, that doesn’t happen, not in this lifetime. Cohen’s HYBRID Performance company has taken up a lot of her time over the last few years, but the entity’s enormous customer-base and consumer-group is now allowing her to focus solely on boxing. Fellow professionals could learn a thing or two, surely.
“I came from two sports that no one gives a shit about. No one gives a shit about Olympic weightlifting; no one gives a shit about powerlifting. And still, I found a way to become relevant and to make money from it. That’s it. So, it is the same thing in boxing, it’s not like, ‘Okay, you go against you and then whoever wins goes against the other winner’. Professional boxing, there’s a lot of politics. And ultimately, it’s the entertainment business. So, it’s who can sell the most tickets? Who’s the most entertaining fighter? Are you charismatic? Are you good in front of the camera? Do people like you?”
Cohen continued: “My following comes from many years of carefully crafted content directed at enticing people to follow, providing some sort of value, whether it’s free videos from education, inspiration, motivation, fashion, whatever. Providing some sort of value.”
Linking up with Cuban coach Diaz has been a dream come true for the Miami-resident, who opened up on being thrown into a group of beginners at Muay Thai classes in the past, despite displaying an aptitude for gruelling, physical tasks. It was in boxing – and at the Mundo Boxing Gym specifically – that Cohen was treated as ‘somebody’. They spotted potential in her crouching, explosive style and met her dogged determination with belief. Now, they march on towards her second professional contest.
“It’s honestly been such an amazing experience. He’s [Pedro Diaz] an academic. And he’s also lived it. So, he has everything going for him as far as the highest level of evidence-based practice goes. Because first and foremost, the most important thing when you’re working with a coach is trust. Do you trust what he’s saying, what his plan is, his guidance, his workouts? Because if you don’t trust him, then you’re not really going to get better. If you ask him why we’re doing whatever, there’s a reason why we do literally everything. And that puts my mind at peace that we know exactly what’s best for me.
“It’s just been a super enriching experience and just a great learning experience in general. That aspect of inclusivity, the family team, it’s amazing to have a genuine support system around you. I really do feel like everybody there cares. Obviously, there has to be something for them as well, which is if I get really good, then they make a lot of money. But for somebody like that to believe in me and invest time in me. I’m 29-years old with one year of combat sport experience and he’s invested time in me. For me, that’s the biggest gift anybody can give me.”
Being gifted with an excellent trainer should help Cohen (1-0, 1 KO) notch up some standard victories against the lower echelons of the division, learning on the job and getting used to a two-person sport. But it can only take her so far. Realistically, it could be a while before we see the unbeaten prospect tested, but when that does happen, when adversity is staring back at her from behind its own cloud of sawdust or through its little gap in the grated fence, Cohen has no doubt that she will be suitably prepared. After all, “the limit does not exist,” as she announces.
“Really, that’s been my life philosophy. I’m training; I’m picking up a new sport and I want to prove that if you commit yourself, and you if find something that you have a natural inclination and aptitude for, and you dedicate yourself to it with consistency and focus, then you can achieve anything. I just want to be a living proof of that,” she said. “And hopefully I can inspire many people to do things that they’re afraid of, to do things that society has told them that they can’t do. Because I was told that I couldn’t do it for many years by many people. So that’s my main motivation. And that’s what I hope to be remembered for, I guess.”
Main image and all photos: Stefi Cohen/HYBRID Performance Method.