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The Fight of Their Lives : La Colonia Youth Boxing Center Provides Haven for Kids to Learn Discipline, Self-Respect and Pride

December 01, 1988|BILL DIEPENBROCK | Times Staff Writer

He was doing everything his coach had told him to do, but after a grueling 6 minutes of right hooks, left crosses, jabs and blocked punches, Martin Cazares could hold up his arms no longer.

A referee quickly ended the bout and awarded the winner a tall statuette. Then he turned to Cazares, 18, and handed him a prize--a second-place trophy for having the guts to enter the ring.

"I feel better when they give me a trophy," said Cazares, who keeps track of the amateur bouts he's fought--he's won 8 and lost 5--by the number of his trophies. "It makes it a little easier. Sometimes you lose by a couple of points, but you don't feel so bad as long as you made a good fight of it."

Cazares and 45 other pugilistic wanna-bes ranging in age from 7 to 21 study the sweet science at Oxnard's La Colonia Youth Boxing Center, a dilapidated facility credited with keeping kids off the street and on the straight-and-narrow in one of Ventura County's poorest neighborhoods.

The 11-year-old club is the last refuge for organized boxing in Ventura County. Started during a period of gang turmoil, it strives to steer teen-agers away from crime and toward discipline, self-respect and responsibility.

The two-trophy system, informally used by many of the 50 or so clubs with which the center competes in Southern California, is part of that effort. While gym organizers don't frown on success, they place greater value on the athletes' desire to learn and the wisdom they gain from their efforts.

"We don't like the word loser," said Gary Cole, a spokesman for the Amateur Boxing Federation, which sanctions the bouts in which the club participates.

The center occupies a tiny, run-down building on East First Street in La Colonia, the densely populated, poverty-ridden Oxnard barrio.

The city primarily finances the center. Its annual contribution of $20,000 pays for the building, its utilities and the part-time salaries of director Martin Noriega and his assistant. The center annually raises about $4,000 on its own.

A constructive outlet for teen-agers is critical in La Colonia, which has the second highest crime rate of any district in Oxnard and where young toughs hold court in the streets at night.

"I was always on the street," said Cazares, who has spent close to 10 years training at the gym. "I was used to stealing stuff. Then I came here with my cousin and I liked it. I don't hang out in the streets anymore."

Neither does Colonia resident John Ramirez, a professional boxer who has trained at the gym for 3 years.

Ramirez, 26, a supervisor at a film plant in Newbury Park, went through some tough times himself. When he lived in Orange County, he said, he had an uncontrollable temper.

"I got kicked out of two high schools for fighting. My dad kept saying, 'You're getting old, and now you're married, so you got to calm yourself.' He suggested that I sign up at a boxing club."

Ramirez now boasts of a state championship in California's amateur featherweight division and a 1987 trip to the nationals. Last month, he won his first professional bout in Los Angeles.

Ramirez is proud that the younger members of the gym look up to him and the other adult boxers. "They see us and they want to grow up to be good fighters," he said. "The grown-ups inspire them."

Tony Espinosa, 23, has a comparable role at the gym and a rockier past. An impressively built professional boxer, he appears to be the favorite of many of the younger children. When he walks through the gym, they gleefully shout, "Hey, Tony--Tony the Tiger!"

Afoul of the Law

Espinosa briefly attended the Colonia boxing program when he was 17, but ran afoul of the law and wound up in the California Youth Authority for 3 years. When his term was over, he returned to the gym. Last month, he too won his first professional fight.

"It's changed my whole life. It's given me discipline," Espinosa said.

The daily workouts testify to the discipline that Noriega instills in his charges. From 3:30 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, he puts four dozen boxers through their paces. The youths--many of whom refuse to participate in other programs--spend so much time at the gym that Noriega will occasionally ask one to take a few days off to ease the crowding.

Sometimes the training scene is traditional "Rocky" fare: The coach shouts at a young teen-ager who can't seem to keep his guard up and finally tapes the boy's right elbow to his side to underscore the point. Behind him, two boxers face off in the ring before an adult monitor. Solitary figures pound away at four different kinds of bags along the walls.

But the gym can look like a day-care center at closing time. About 17 elementary and junior high school children, finished with their workouts yet unwilling to leave, romp noisily until Noriega rounds them up. Then, a visitor might see 10 kids doing 50 laps around a course in the back yard and another seven jumping rope for 10 minutes.

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