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CITY TIMES COVER STORY : School of Hard Knocks : Boxing Has Always Packed a Punch in East L.A., Where Young Street Fighters Dream of Following Former Champions to Fame and Fortune. But Whatever the Odds of Making It to the Top, the Sport Serves a Larger Purpose as a Refuge for Youth, Who Discover a Sense of Dedication and Purpose in the Ring.

August 28, 1994|SEAN WATERS

THE DREAM:

A Latino teen-ager wants to help support his impoverished family. He believes he can earn money quickly with his fists.

He walks into a gym in East Los Angeles to pursue fame and fortune that others from his neighborhood have found: Paul Gonzales, Genaro (Chicanito) Hernandez and Oscar De La Hoya.

He has been a successful street fighter. Now he learns to box. "You'll have to work very, very hard if you want to win," he is told, over and over. His confidence grows as he trains for his first fight. He thinks he is ready.

The reality:

In his first bout, the teen-ager is getting badly beaten, but refuses to lie down. By the third round, his face turns cherry, his knees buckle and he drops his hands to his sides when the referee stops the bout.

"Why did they stop the fight?' " he asks his trainer, who wipes blood from the boy's face.

"Because you were not punching back," says the trainer.

"You didn't train hard enough. Come back and try again."

*

Dreams do come true--at a cost--in East Los Angeles, home to some of the best fighters in the world and where boxing has become a way of life for thousands, regardless of professional aspirations.

East Los Angeles has earned a deserved reputation as a producer of top-flight boxing talent. Many of the nation's most talented amateurs come from there, which has also produced two Olympic gold medalists and a handful of world professional champions.

Since the days of lightweight contender Art Aragon in the 1940s and '50s, boxing has been a force in the Latino community of East Los Angeles, where longtime residents still speak of the rough-and-tumble tradition of street fights going back to the '20s and '30s. Beyond tradition, its appeal owes to a variety of reasons, including economics: gloves, protective gear and a place to train are minimal requirements for a sport and usually available on a loan basis. And with boxing's many divisions, an athlete of average or even less than average height and weight can become a champion, whereas other sports demand great size or bulk. At 5-foot-1 and 108 pounds, Humberto (Chiquita) Gonzalez is one such champion.

"For kids in East L.A., boxing is still the last frontier to get out of the barrio," said Andy Stanke, boxing trainer at Hollenbeck Youth Center.

Helping to perpetuate the dream are professionals such as Chicanito Hernandez, the World Boxing Assn. junior lightweight champion who trains at Brooklyn Gym in East Los Angeles.

Youths seeking inspiration from a local hero also get it from the walls themselves. At the Sheriff's Department East Los Angeles Community Center, the image of Gonzalez gazes steadily toward the ring from a portrait painted as part of a mural. Gonzalez, the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Council light-flyweight champion, trains at the center before he fights at the Forum.

Beyond the fame and fortune, boxing is a popular, entrenched form of recreation. Whatever the odds of making it as a champion, boxing has taken on a larger purpose. In East Los Angeles, boxing gyms are a refuge for troubled youths.

"You see the aggression in them, the way they hit the bags," said Ray Morales, 33, a postal worker and a former Golden Gloves champion, as he pointed to a boxer hitting the heavy bag. "They have troubles at school or they don't have a father at home to be a role model."

From Hollenbeck Youth Center and Los Angeles Youth Athletic Club in Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights Youth Club, Eddie Heredia Boxing Club and East Los Angeles Community Center in East Los Angeles, dedicated youths train up to five hours a day, five days a week even when temperatures soar above 90 degrees.

Two other gyms--Cache Boxing in Vernon and Resurrection Boxing Club in East Los Angeles--train a mixture of amateurs and professionals, while Brooklyn Gym, also in East Los Angeles, is strictly for professionals.

There are 1,291 amateur boxers formally registered with the Southern California branch of USA Boxing, according to Melanie Ley, Junior Olympic chairwoman. Of those, 85% have Latino surnames, including about 15% who live in the East Los Angeles. Thousands more box or follow the sport avidly. And many in the community are pleased that they do.

"It's a way to keep them off the streets," said Morales, head boxing coach at the Sheriff's Department community center. "Most of my kids box for recreational purposes. Right now we're fortunate to have a De La Hoya because kids look at him as a role model. They want to be the next De La Hoya because they come from poverty-stricken areas."

Councilman Mike Hernandez, who represents District 1, points out that Latinos have always been part of boxing history.

"It's not like baseball, where we've recently become part of the tradition, or football, where we struggle to get Hispanics recruited by even college teams," Hernandez said. "Latinos have been part of boxing history since the Golden Boy days of Art Aragon," a lightweight contender during the 1940s and '50s.

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