Cham­pi­ons in the ring, and out

Since box­ing was le­galised in Puerto Rico in 1927, the is­land has pro­duced dozens of world cham­pi­ons and even more ca­sual en­thu­si­asts, writes Justin Porter

New Straits Times - - | LIVING -

IN the beat­ing heart of Puerto Rico, there are two are­nas: the base­ball di­a­mond and the box­ing ring. Emilio Lozada, 35, found his call­ing in the ring. “It’s ob­vi­ously em­bed­ded in our cul­ture,” said Lozada, the di­rec­tor of Mon­ter­rey Box­ing Academy in Bayamón. “Even the peo­ple who don’t ac­tu­ally box, they’re so in­trigued by the sport.” (Ri­cardo Figueroa, who man­ages Lozada’s fight­ers, trans­lated for him.) Lozada said that many Puerto Ri­cans iden­tify with the chance to come “out of nowhere” and fight for their dreams.

Since box­ing was le­galised in Puerto Rico in 1927, the is­land has pro­duced dozens of world cham­pi­ons, be­gin­ning with Wil­fred Ben­itez, who in 1981, at the age of 22, be­came the youngest world cham­pion in the sport’s his­tory. Since then, many fight­ers, in­clud­ing Felix Trinidad, Miguel Cotto, Héc­tor Ca­ma­cho and Amanda Ser­rano, have cap­tured the at­ten­tion of fans and of young box­ers.

Or­lando Gon­za­lez, who fights out of the At­lantic Gym in Aguadilla, a town in the is­land’s north­west re­gion, sees box­ing as a fa­mil­ial rite, a kind of in­her­i­tance. “For me it’s like a legacy, be­cause my fa­ther, my cousin and my un­cle were pro­fes­sional fight­ers,” Gon­za­lez, 23, said. “My un­cle went to the Olympic Games in At­lanta in 1996.” By the age of 5, Gon­za­lez was al­ready in the gym and com­pet­ing in ex­hi­bi­tion matches.

“When lit­tle kids start fight­ing in Puerto Rico, they’re not look­ing for a gold medal in the Olympics, they’re look­ing to be world cham­pi­ons,” Gon­za­lez said. With world ti­tles comes money and a chance to change one’s for­tune.


Train­ing gyms en­cour­age pro­fes­sion­al­ism, but they also serve a sec­ondary func­tion as com­mu­nity cen­tres. Many of them, Lozada said, be­gan as self-started or­gan­i­sa­tions in D.I.Y. spa­ces. In Lozada’s case, it was a bas­ket­ball court in Vil­las de Mon­ter­rey in Bayamón, a low-in­come hous­ing com­plex.

A boy who had watched Lozada train­ing for one of his fights was the first to ap­proach him about learn­ing the sport. More young stu­dents fol­lowed, un­til space and lo­ca­tion be­came an is­sue; Figueroa said some of the would-be box­ers were de­terred by the hous­ing com­plex.

So Lozada’s fight­ers, their friends and their fam­ily found a new place to train.

In a process that Figueroa says is called

“in­vadir” on the is­land, “to in­vade,” peo­ple en­ter a build­ing that has been aban­doned or ill-used and claim it for them­selves, clean­ing, im­prov­ing and re­fur­bish­ing it.

The build­ing that Lozada’s gym would come to oc­cupy had been a drug hang­out. Af­ter much cleared de­bris, paint, and time and care, it be­came the Mon­ter­rey Box­ing Academy, a bright space lined with mir­rors, filled with equip­ment and young ath­letes train­ing­hard.

Cham­pi­ons all? Per­haps one day, but that’s not the top pri­or­ity for Lozada, who said he prefers to cre­ate “cam­pi­ones de vida,” or cham­pi­ons of life, and if one of those cham­pi­ons should go on to con­quer the ring as well, all the bet­ter.

“Very few gyms have world-class fight­ers that they’re re­ally mak­ing that type of money,” Figueroa said, adding that most of it is vol­un­teer work, es­pe­cially work­ing with chil­dren or young men, who are not charged for their train­ing.

But as chil­dren from the neigh­bour­hood come there to work out, and usu­ally step into the ring them­selves, Figueroa says that then the govern­ment will of­ten take no­tice and pro­vide some fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance.


These smaller box­ing clubs be­gin nur­tured by the com­mu­nity, and young­sters with their heart set on the sport. Ded­i­cated coaches or­gan­ise the space, help pro­cure equip­ment and even, for ex­am­ple, get all the kids into an old church bus and drive them to lo­cal tour­na­ments where they can test them­selves against other young com­peti­tors.

Af­ter the fights, Figueroa said, that same bus of­ten fer­ries the group to get pizza. In ad­di­tion to cul­ti­vat­ing com­mu­ni­ties, these box­ing gyms are also the sites of deeply per­sonal trans­for­ma­tions.

“It saved my life,” Lozada said. For those born poor on the is­land, he said, the temp­ta­tion to earn a liv­ing il­le­gally is ev­er­p­re­sent. Sports of­fered him an es­cape, and he hopes that box­ing can of­fer the same al­ter­na­tive to the young peo­ple he trains, should they find them­selves in the same po­si­tion.

When Hur­ri­cane Maria dev­as­tated much of the is­land a year ago, many gyms were aban­doned or for­got­ten, with fight­ers and coaches scat­ter­ing to look af­ter their fam­i­lies or head­ing to the main­land to seek a fresh start. But as Puerto Rico has be­gun to re­cover, its box­ing clubs have, too.

The process has been bol­stered by peo­ple who seem less in­tent on fight­ing pro­fes­sion­ally than they do on be­ing healthy. These box­ers visit their lo­cal club not only to ad­mire the sport’s star fight­ers up close, but also to use the train­ing meth­ods of box­ing to get into shape. That, Lozada said, makes him very happy.

Or­lando González, left, and Henry LeBron train­ing at At­lantic Box­ing Club.

Out­side the Boxeo En El Bar­rio tour­na­ment.

Or­lando González train­ing hard at the At­lantic Box­ing Club.

Alex Velez of the At­lantic Box­ing Club in Yauco, Puerto Rico. The is­land has pro­duced dozens of world-cham­pion box­ers in the last cen­tury.

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