OXNARD — The boxing dreams began 32 years ago, born of sweat and desire inside an abandoned firehouse.
They endured five years of hardship when the crude gym was shuttered by the city in 1990 and the fighting hopefuls of La Colonia Boxing Club were left shadowboxing in a cramped corner at the Oxnard Boys & Girls Club.
But the dreams survived, and despite poor training facilities, a few Oxnard youngsters realized fantasies of becoming big-time boxers.
Fernando Vargas became the youngest-ever U.S. amateur champion last year at 16, and junior lightweight Robert Garcia, 20, recently won the North American Boxing Federation title.
Now the club, widely regarded as one of the finest amateur fighting programs in California, is going back to the barrio where it all began.
The old gym, newly furnished and expanded to more than twice its previous size, will again host boxing in a partnership involving Oxnard officials, the city's Police Activities League and local boxing boosters.
"We're excited," said Manuel Herrera, a local boxing fanatic and longtime club advocate. "With the success of Robert Garcia and Fernando Vargas, and with the gym opening, it looks like we're going to make it after all."
La Colonia Youth Boxing Gym will not officially open for about two weeks, but a celebration ceremony is scheduled for Saturday at 10 a.m., and Oxnard's boxing gurus expect that the ceremony will be followed by an onslaught of boys eager to don the gloves.
Only the most dedicated boxers stuck with the club during its exile at the Oxnard Boys & Girls Club, and Eduardo Garcia, who trains Vargas, his son Robert and a slew of promising youngsters, expects dozens of newcomers from throughout Ventura County and beyond.
Some Peruvian fighters have expressed interest in the gym, and even the official massage therapist of the Swedish Handball Team, who lives in Oxnard when not with the team, has inquired about renting space, said Alex Flores of the Police Activities League.
"This place has 30 years of tradition already," Eduardo Garcia said. "Now that it's bigger, it's going to attract more people than ever."
For the Latino youngsters who live in the rough-and-tumble La Colonia neighborhood, the old boxing club was a place where youthful aggression could be channeled into respectability.
With a little talent and a lot of heart, it was widely believed, petty street punks could become local macho icons, adored by their parents and admired by their peers. With exceptional skills, possibly more.
Vargas said he was well on the path to becoming a hoodlum by age 10, seeking out trouble and reveling in fisticuffs. When he saw a commercial for the boxing club on a cable-access channel, he enrolled the next day.
"I thought [boxing] was only for big shots," Vargas said. "When I found out there were local fighters here in Oxnard, I was down there right away. They couldn't get me out of the gym."
Now a celebrity in Oxnard, Vargas is a role model for a whole generation of the city's young boys. So is Garcia, who used his prize money to open a Mexican restaurant in Oxnard and get his farm-worker father out of the strawberry fields.
Mario Aguinaga hopes to be the next success story to come out of La Colonia gym. Now 14 and boxing at 90 pounds, Aguinaga has already won two national championships in the 65- and 70-pound weight class, and he is fighting Saturday for the regional Junior Golden Gloves title. He has been boxing half his life.
"I always wanted to be like Robert [Garcia]," he said on a recent afternoon at the Boys & Girls Club, his hands still tightly taped after a workout. "I saw him win the national championship, and I said, 'I want to be just like him.' I want to go pro too."
Shortly afterward, Garcia entered the sweltering concrete training room, his gleaming NABF belt in hand for a television interview. The speed bags stopped rattling and the ropes stopped skipping as he walked toward his father, who was counseling a handful of young boxers.
Garcia is living the dream, and his chances of a world title bout increased Saturday with a 12th-round technical knockout in his first title defense. But "Grandpa," as the soft-spoken young fighter is known, keeps the youngsters firmly grounded in reality with warnings to focus on schoolwork before boxing and to use the experiences of the sport in life.
"I've gone far," said Garcia, who collected his first boxing purse while still a senior at Channel Islands High. "Boxing kept me focused and feeling positive. But I was going to turn out OK if I made it or not."
Daniel Cervantes, for one, was listening. The 9-year-old boxer, who won the Junior Golden Gloves medal in the 70-pound weight class last week, said he admires Garcia and Vargas a great deal.
Boxing has given him self-confidence, but it's no career choice, he said. He wants to work with animals when he grows up.
"I'd rather be in school and get a scholarship," Cervantes said. "If I win a championship, someone can take that belt away from me. If I get a degree from school, no one can take that away."