The incredible story of the upbringing of the former super lightweight champion.
Mario Barrios talks to her. He’ll look up at the picture on his living room wall at someone he never touched, or hugged, or kissed. But he knows. He feels her presence.
As far back as he could remember, Barrios knew he had an older sister. There were pictures of the tiny angel Esperanza everywhere, frozen in time with her sparkling wide eyes and curling baby smile. He didn’t understand where she was or what happened to her. She was never there.
A child’s wonderment is a powerful protector. It shields them from the moving parts swirling around them, the shrill screams, the lasting scars, the drunken, abusive torment—and from unimaginable acts. It’s that insulating snow globe Barrios used to prance through. He didn’t understand what the adults were talking about, and why they suddenly stopped speaking when he entered the room. His mother, Isabel Soto, would put up a strong front, never letting her children see her cry—yet she did.
Mario was always curious, though he did not press about Esperanza.
How could he know?
He was a seven-week-old infant at the time.
The story came to him in pieces.
Gradually, the 27-year-old former WBA super lightweight world champion was around nine when he discovered his biological father, Mario Barrios Sr., was incarcerated for the murder of his older sister Esperanza, who was a one-year-old. Autopsies revealed she died from a lacerated heart caused by an impact blow to the chest.
Before Mario Barrios became a world-famous boxer, his name first appeared in July 1995 in the account of his father’s murder trial. Barrios Sr. was described as an abusive drunk, who battered his wife and endangered his three children. Mario and his older sister, Selina, then two, were placed in protective custody by the Racine County Wisconsin Human Services Department.
Isabel suffered the unbearable—she lost a child. The Wisconsin judicial system attempted to implicate her. They failed. When she was exonerated, she fought Wisconsin back for her children.
“It’s a story no one knows about me,” Mario said. “But I think it’s good to get it out and talk about it. It eases a lot of pain. My mom is the love of my life. She’s my hero. People don’t know everything. They just knew how she raised us. There was a lot more to it.
“My mother had her heart ripped out of her chest when my sister died. I don’t think there is ever enough I can do for my mom. She’s the strongest person I know, and I faced world champions in the ring. I don’t have any children, but I always get asked if I’m going to pass my name down and I always struggle with that. There’s a lot of baggage that comes with my name.”
Mario Barrios Jr., however, changed the course of “the other” Mario Barrios.
This Mario Barrios cancels “the other.”
“I would see pictures of my sister Esperanza around everywhere, my mother and grandparents never hid it, I was just too young to understand,” Mario said. “I was around nine years old when I found out my biological dad was incarcerated for the murder of my older sister. I was very curious. My sister would be often brought up, and I would ask my mother and grandmother a bunch of questions. It was a lot to carry. The woman that my mother is made sure we grew up with love, sacrificing everything for us, not growing up with a father figure. We grew up with nothing.
“My grandmother raised me and Selina because my mom was working on her GED to become a medical assistant. We grew up on government assistance. I remember my mom working constantly. We would see her on weekends, and she was always tired. My work ethic comes from her. I heard stories about my father. He grew up in the gang life of Northern Wisconsin, which is no excuse at all, but I would hear the things about him and how he treated my mom. It was infuriating. He would be abusive when he would drink, and my mother still has the scars.”
After battling and winning custody of Mario and Selina, Isabel went back to San Antonio, Texas, to join her parents. They provided the support for her to reorganize her life and create a stable foundation.
“ I forgive my father. He’s never asked me for forgiveness, but I forgive him. ” Former Super Lightweight World Champion - Mario Barrios
It was Isabel who introduced Mario and Selina to boxing, when he was seven and Selina was nine. Selina knew what happened. Mario now knows why she fought with such a relentless rage. In turn, it explains why Barrios (26-2, 17 KOs) is so difficult to beat.
“My father was a different person when he was drunk; that’s the version of him that I was angry with,” Mario said. “Selina was older than me and she understood a lot more. She had a lot more anger, too. My sister was that tough. She was intense. She was ferocious every time she stepped into the ring. Her style was like Mike Tyson. Looking back, I can understand why. Looking back, I may understand why I fight.
“I was definitely angry at what happened. I wasn’t an angry kid who would constantly get in fights growing up. I was just confused. When you’re a kid, there’s a lot of things you don’t understand. It was hard to wrap my head around. I remember going to the store and paying with food stamps.
“When my grandmother’s social security checks would come in, she would spoil us the best she could. We would pick up a couple dimes and a few quarters coming home from school. That was like a million dollars to us. We would fill a change jar that sometimes had $50 in it. I remember in elementary school, early on, on bring-your-dad-to-school day, the other kids would bring their dads. The other kids would ask me where my dad was. I didn’t have an answer. I would tell the other kids I didn’t have a dad. I was well-adjusted though. I had my mom and my grandmother.”
Mario is hoping to get back in the ring by the end of this year, looking to rebound from a pair of losses; one to Gervonta “Tank” Davis, who stopped him for the first time in his career, in June 2021, and a 12-round decision setback to Keith Thurman this past February. Barrios feels making 147 pounds will be far easier than deflating to 140.
Recently, he has shown indominable courage to even talk about what happened to his sister.
He was born in chaos.
He was raised in love.
Throughout the years, Mario Sr. would send letters from prison to San Antonio for Selina and Mario. From everything Mario heard about his father, coming from his mother and other family members, he was a loving, caring man. Alcohol changed him. Mario would hear how his father could be one way, and then it was if a demon possessed him. The family walked on eggshells around him, fearful Mario Sr. would go off when he was drinking.
In October 2020, Mario Sr. was released from prison. He and his son have a dialogue. It’s distant, though they are talking.
“I forgive my father,” Mario said. “He’s never asked me for forgiveness, but I forgive him. I grew up knowing my father murdered my sister. I’m thankful for my family, and the strength that they give to me, especially my mother. She’s my motivation. I hold nothing against my biological dad. There was a point in time when I did. As a grown man, I have forgiven him. I can’t forget my sister, either. I look up at her picture to this day. Recently, me and my mom have really bonded over this. It used to be a little taboo to talk about it. I think it’s important that we do. It’s like a great weight has been lifted off our shoulders.
“I never like to see my mother cry. She never likes to see me cry, but it was a beautiful moment of the two of us crying together. It’s like a deep scar that’s healing. I can’t remember the last time I cried in my mom’s arms like that. It’s why this is so important to me.”
The next time Mario fights the name “Esperanza” will be emblazed on his trunks, as it had been early in his career.
“I can’t forget her,” Mario said. “Never.”
For a closer look at Mario Barrios, check out his fighter page.
- Mario Barrios