Maria Antunez punches through barriers to pursue boxing dream

maria antunez centeno (EDITOR’S NOTE: Maria Antunez Centeno makes her return to the ring on Nov. 22 at the Bayfront Convention Center. She will participate in an exhibition match as part of the Bayfront Brawl, her first match since being sidelined by a knee injury in 2022.)

As assistant director of International Student Services at Ƶapp, most people recognize Maria Antunez Centeno for her efficiency, warm smile, and commitment to helping students succeed. But beyond her professional life, she has a passion that few in the college community know about—she is a skilled boxer.

A native of Honduras, Maria came to Ƶapp to study Biology and earned her Bachelor of Science degree in 2014, followed by a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership in 2016. During her undergrad career, she also played for the women’s soccer team.

Through it all, she never forgot the rush of scrapping with her big brother when they were kids. Then, as fate would have it, she participated in a weeklong training session with a professional boxer at her brother’s gym during a return visit to Honduras. Childhood sparring suddenly vaulted to a whole new level.

Maria got serious about boxing. Over the years, she honed her skills and discovered she had a natural talent for the sport. Even as she pursued a second master’s degree—this one in Higher Education at Geneva College—she made the four-hour round trip between Beaver Falls and Erie as many as five days a week to train at the Erie Boxing Academy, where she has been a faithful member since 2016.

Despite the challenges life threw at her—including qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and being able to participate due, in part, to COVID, and being unable to qualify for the 2024 Paris Olympics because of an ACL injury—she never gave up on her dreams of becoming a professional boxer.

“I really wanted to accomplish something in the sport, and I knew starting out at 23 gave me a late start,” Maria said. “I knew I would have to go all in, so that’s what I did.”

In 2017, as a member of the Honduras Boxing Federation, she competed for the national team in the Central American and Caribbean Games where she won the bronze medal and qualified for the Tokyo Olympics.

“I was honored to represent my country and bring back a win for not just myself, but the nation,” she said.

Maria attributes her motivation partly to her own experience as an international student and her quest to achieve. As the assistant director of International Student Services, she has been able to apply important principles from boxing in her daily work.

“There are days when we deal with emergencies surrounding immigration and, because of boxing, I can remain calm when things become chaotic,” she said. “It's like going into the ring to spar a new opponent—you take the first two minutes to collect data and get a read, then develop your strategy to defeat the opponent. When we encounter issues here, we do the same thing to knock down the issues for students' wellbeing so that they can focus on their education.”

Now, with 50 wins and just seven losses to her credit, Maria has her sights set on the 2028 Olympic Games and, hopefully, a professional career one day.

“God puts us in situations to bring glory to him and be a positive role model,” she said. “I want to inspire young girls to work hard, follow dreams, and trust God to accomplish their goals.”