OXNARD — Mario Aguiniga spreads his fingers and methodically wraps them with surgical bandages, working his way up to the wrists, then solicits someone's help to slip on and lace a pair of boxing gloves.
Aguiniga, 15, walks to a heavy bag and starts pounding it furiously, his eyes fixed on the target and his mind oblivious to the Mexican rancheras blasting from a boombox at La Colonia Boxing Club.
"This young man, if he stays with it and doesn't start thinking about other things, is going to be outstanding," said Eduardo Garcia, the gym's head trainer.
Already a veteran of nearly 60 amateur bouts, Aguiniga is all business. There's no wasted effort, no room for diversion. The gym is packed with many other small boys with big dreams but Aguiniga stands out from the rest.
Which is a fairly tall order at La Colonia, a boxing factory sitting in the middle of a gang-plagued barrio, a sanctuary for kids with purpose and desire who do not want to fall prey to the mean streets.
This is where Olympic welterweight medal contender Fernando Vargas, once an angry youngster headed for disaster, got his start and still trains.
This is where Robert Garcia, Eduardo's son, has honed his considerable skills. Garcia is the No. 2 contender in the International Boxing Federation super-lightweight rankings and is No. 3 in the World Boxing Council rankings.
This is, as the Spanish and English signs inside the gym proclaim, La Casa de Campeones, The House of Champions.
That claim holds true with Aguiniga, who last weekend won the 100-pound class at the Junior Olympics championships in Marquette, Mich. The club also has produced several local, regional and even national winners in Golden Gloves and Silver Gloves tournaments.
"There are many good boxers in this gym," Aguiniga said. "Guys like Fernando Vargas are my role models."
Even before the doors open at 4 p.m. on weekdays, the kids arrive at the two-story building with the off-white stucco and rust-colored aluminum facade.
The first wave to La Colonia gym brings mostly young boys who gradually give way to older guys as the afternoon slips into night.
Their attire is as contrasting as their skills, their physical maturity as different as their demeanor. But they all come to La Colonia for one common devotion: to learn and practice the Sweet Science.
"All of them are very serious and very committed," Garcia said. "Very few of them miss training sessions."
With such impressive facilities, who would want to?
The gym was renovated for about $275,000, with the majority of the money coming from a federal grant secured by the city. It reopened last August on the same space occupied by its predecessor for nearly 30 years in the modest La Colonia neighborhood. The facility bears little resemblance to the old, dilapidated structure that was once a firehouse and that was closed in 1990 because it was deemed unsafe.
Since then and until seven months ago, the club operated out of a small room at the Oxnard Boys and Girls Club. But now it is back on familiar ground with the financial backing of the city, the Oxnard Police Activities League and private contributions.
Although not overwhelmingly large, the gym is twice as big as the original. It has a regulation ring just inside the front door, with a powder blue canvas floor and red, white and blue ropes. There's also an area with heavy bags and punching bags, a locker room with showers and an exercise room on the second floor.
Mirrors cover the walls on opposite sides of the ring and a bulletin board displays newspaper clippings about the club's boxers. The window of a small office adjacent to the ring features a color photograph of Mexican boxing icon Julio Cesar Chavez and the walls are peppered with posters of other boxing luminaries.
Amid all of this, Garcia and his assistant, Ruben Juarez, work with the 50 or so kids under 16 years of age who are registered at the club and who pay only $10 for a one-year membership. The two men, both volunteers, coach the youngsters and organize weekly cards against other clubs in which boxers are matched according to weight and experience.
"I like how they train the kids," said Javier Alcala, a former amateur boxer whose sons, Victor, 11 and Carlos, 10, have been regulars at the gym for about four months. "I work out at home with gloves and they kept asking me when they could come to the gym. . . . Victor was in soccer but gave it up because he likes boxing so much."
On a recent afternoon, boys repeatedly approached Garcia, sitting by the ring, asking for sparring time. Those not scheduled to fight in a tournament the next day are given the OK and follow each other to the ring, their three-round battles interrupted only by the loud buzzer of a time-marker.
"When they don't spar, they feel like the training session wasn't any good," said Garcia, laughing.