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Santa Ana Boxing Club Gives Kids a Winning Combination

Recreation: The group builds confidence and respect for others. Some members are even national champions.

May 10, 2001|HECTOR BECERRA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

He weighs less than Mike Tyson's legs. But Brian Gonzalez--all 65 pounds of him--bounds across a Santa Ana boxing ring, stalking his larger opponent.

With every punch, his headgear heaves upward. Even as he gazes into the other boxer's eyes, Brian has to adjust the oversized equipment.

Inside Jerome Center gymnasium, beyond the boys and girls jumping ropes and slugging punching bags and adults pumping up on industrial-drab equipment, three women sit together, spinning young boxers' hand wraps through their fingers.

Miguel Ornelas, a 48-year-old day laborer, beams as his 10-year-old daughter, Cristina, takes her turn against Brian--a rising star since he won at the National Silver Gloves Tournament in February. Like bantams with tunnel vision, neither child backs down, even though this is only a sparring match.

"She likes to play with dolls and she's very feminine," Ornelas said. "But she's very brave. She has a lot of courage. Other kids have cried when they went up there. She never did. Not once."

Not long ago, a watershed of sorts occurred at the TKO Boxing Club in a working-class neighborhood in Santa Ana. Brian, Rodrigo Garcia and Robert Vargas, all 12, returned from Lenexa, Kan., as national champions. Only a year before, Rodrigo became the first champion the club had produced in its seven-year history.

The triumph, over more established clubs throughout the United States, brought attention not only to the children but also to a gym created to make a difference in a sometimes hard-knocks neighborhood, where children often have to cope with gangs, crowded schools, poverty and blight.

More children have enrolled--and stuck around--than ever before, volunteer trainer Hector Lopez said.

With the children, an army of mothers and fathers, grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends have followed, crowding into the gym like people showing up for a picnic at the park.

"They're more than a group of people," club founder Pedro Rayas said. "They've become friends. They've created their own community inside the gym. They cheer each other, and when appropriate I'm sure, they chastise each other."

And they keep winning together.

Brian won the Junior Olympics championship at Long Beach in April, along with partners Victor Garcia, 11--Rodrigo's brother--Cristina Ornelas and 13-year-old Luis Ramos.

Rayas first thought of creating the club during the 1980s, a time of heightened gang activity in the city, which was often blamed on the lack of recreational activities for area children, Rayas said.

With the help of others, Rayas opened the first club at an old Methodist church at the intersection of Bristol Street and Warner Avenue. Homeless people, drug users and gang members hung out in the area, he said. While Rayas cleared weeds on weekends, children stood around watching and peppering him with questions.

Club Became Knockout Among Local Parents

They seemed cynical, Rayas said. But eventually, they volunteered to help. Later, as children began to enroll, parents began to show up and steadily became more active in their children's training.

City leaders have commended the club for helping children and improving neighborhoods by fostering community.

"Every one of those kids has a sphere of influence. Every one of those parents has a sphere of influence," Rayas said. "This is one of those things that creates a good vibe with people, and it just ripples out into the neighborhood."

But why boxing? Because, in part, in working-class neighborhoods, where one-on-one instruction in crowded classrooms is virtually nonexistent, boxing is a highly personal sport.

"Coaches become like fathers. It's a very personal relationship," said Carlos Palomino, a world champion boxer during the 1970s and perhaps the greatest prizefighter Orange County has ever produced. Palomino, 51, co-founded the Westminster Boxing Club partly to combat neighborhood problems.

Ornelas said daughter Cristina and son Ernesto, 12, never would have gotten this kind of special attention in a team sport.

Tennis, gymnastics, figure skating and even music are activities that involve one-on-one attention. But most of these families can't afford those sports.

And indeed, in the end, boxing--love it or hate it--is a democratic sport. It doesn't discriminate against size or socioeconomic class.

"You don't have to be able to slam-dunk a ball. You don't have to be the biggest or the fastest," Palomino said. It's a sport that has drawn its heroes from among "the downtrodden."

Many people might object to children boxing. But Palomino said the sport, taught correctly, imbues children with a discipline and confidence that sometimes is missing from their lives. And most of the children usually don't have long-term boxing dreams.

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