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In Training for Life's Punches : Las Palmas Park: Rudy Campa knows plenty about running the streets and being in prison. Now he teaches youths how to box and, with the voice of experience, counsels them to stay away from gangs and drugs.


SAN FERNANDO — The two 16-year-old boys squared off. Circling each other on a tennis court at Las Palmas Park, they put up their dukes, ready for a fight.

But before either one could land a punch, Rudy Campa, green tattoos peeking from beneath a white muscle shirt, told them to shake hands.

Each youth tapped his thick red gloves against those of his opponent. They began to box, throwing punches under the watchful eye of Campa, a onetime amateur boxer and former gang member.

"Get your elbows in!" Campa shouted as the youngsters jabbed at each other. "Fifteen seconds!"

Campa, who in his wild days ran the streets of San Fernando himself, now aims to steer youngsters away from gangs and drugs. Last spring, he established the Community Youth Boxing Program to teach basic boxing skills to youngsters living near the park.

"Boxing builds a lot of self-esteem, a lot of confidence," said Campa, 51, a part-time construction worker.

Campa's program has won tremendous support from the community. Donations from individuals and businesses have paid for punching bags, gloves and other equipment. The city of San Fernando has also allocated $1,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds for the program. Campa is hoping to buy a boxing ring with money raised at an upcoming carwash.

A muscular man whose speech is still tinged with the language of the streets, Campa runs his program like the real thing. About 20 participating children and teen-agers--ranging in age from 7 to 18--gather every weeknight, first warming up with stretching exercises. They break up into smaller groups to shadowbox, hit punching bags or run around the park's track.

"I wanted to learn how to fight better, so I could get in a boxing match," said 11-year-old Carl Pacheco, a sixth-grader at San Fernando Elementary who signed up two months ago. "When I'm bigger, I want to win a medal."

Carl said he dreams of following in the footsteps of Oscar de la Hoya, a Latino from East Los Angeles who won the gold medal in boxing at the 1992 Olympics.

"A lot of these kids want to become boxers," Campa said. "Some are in it for the skill and physical fitness."

For 16-year-old Jossue Agustin, the lure was learning a skill that required discipline. "Before, I didn't know how to throw a punch," said Jossue, a sophomore at Kennedy High School, wiping sweat from his forehead. "Now I do."

The sparring sessions, held twice a week, are the most popular feature of the program, which is free. Equipment is so scarce that at the end of every bout, Campa and his assistant, Lupe Jimenez, take the gloves and headgear off one pair of boxers and strap them on to another.

Joe Espinoza, a respiratory therapist who grew up with Campa in San Fernando, was so impressed with the program that he talked 20 businesses in Canyon Country, where he lives now, into donating about $500.

"I told him I'd help him out," said Espinoza, who sometimes comes down to socialize and provide moral support.

San Fernando Police Chief Dominick Rivetti said he has not been involved with the program, but he backs the concept of providing sports activities for youngsters. "My impression from what I'm hearing is he's making an impact on hard-core gang members or wanna-be gang members," Rivetti said.

"He's providing some kind of activity that the young people like to do where they can learn skills," said San Fernando Councilman Jose Hernandez, a strong supporter of Campa and the program. "He has the charisma to talk to young people. He relates to young people. He has first-hand experience at what a hard life is all about."

Campa credits his love of boxing to his father, Rudy Campa Sr., a onetime welterweight boxing contender. A lifelong resident of San Fernando, he has shuffled back and forth from prison for drug use and drug-related violations, including robbery. But he always boxed--even while incarcerated.

Now, he's been drug-free for nine months. And he's spent seven of them teaching boxing to kids at risk.

"I've been trying to do this for years, but I was always into drugs," Campa said. To those who might be skeptical that he'll stay on the right side of the law, Campa pointed to the success he's had already.

"No one ever expected me to get this far," he said.

At the park, Campa doesn't hesitate to give the youngsters advice about life on the streets. Gang life, he tells them, "is a losing cause. You're going to lose all the way around."

He believes that they listen to him because he has been there. "They know that I've been through it--I lived it, I have survived it," he said.

Even his lingo is the same as theirs. "You gotta be quick, ese ," he coached a young boxer. "You can't just be kicking back."

And as for helping the local kids, Campa said, that's something he wanted to do the whole time he was in prison.

"If I can just get to one and help one out," he said, "Man, I'm a success."

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