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He Made Boxing Bloom in the Desert

Lee Espinoza Was a Gardener Who Knew Nothing About the Sport That Would Become His Calling. He Did Understand Enough About Life to Build a Stable of World Champions.

May 11, 2003|Murray Olderman | Murray Olderman is a former sports columnist and cartoonist whose work regularly appeared in 750 daily newspapers. He is the author of 11 books and was inducted into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame in 1993.

Who could have imagined it? That little Lee Espinoza, who used to pick peanuts with his grandpa in the hardscrabble fields of provincial Michoacan, would one day stand in the spotlight of boxing rings in Atlantic City and Las Vegas and San Juan, Puerto Rico, as the manager and trainer of fighters battling for world titles. That the ninos of Coachella, Calif., whose population is predominantly Mexican American, would flock to this pugilistic Pied Piper of Hamelin to be mentored in the "sweet science," as writer A.J. Liebling called it.

The Coachella Valley Boxing Club, in the remote low desert of Southern California, is his home turf. It's probably the only boxing club in the United States that has flowers bordering the walk to the front door. Espinoza, who did menial landscape work for a living for most of his adulthood, planted them himself.

Boxing clubs conjure up the mingled smells of sweat and liniment and stale cigars in crowded inner-city gyms such as fabled old Stillman's on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, the Main Street Gym in downtown Los Angeles, Kronk in Detroit, Miami's Fifth Street Gym, and Champs in Philadelphia, where famous ring warriors from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali trained, oblivious to the seedy milieus.

All you'll ever inhale at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club is the dust of the arid landscape or the scent of Medjool dates on the fruit-bearing palms. Every weekday around 5 p.m., a flurry of activity pervades a modern tiled-roof building at the end of Bagdad Avenue. In and out of two full-sized rings, up to 80 boys and girls--yes, with ponytails streaming out of their headgear--ply the art of boxing. They spar in 14-ounce gloves and skip rope and shadow box and punch the light and heavy bags. They wrap and tape their own wrists and industriously run on treadmills or lift weights. "You see the real bad boys in town staying out of trouble here," says Espinoza, the club director. "When they leave, they ain't going nowhere. They're going to bed."

In the early afternoon, the world-ranked professionals in Espinoza's stable of fighters--the Diaz brothers, Antonio and Julio, Steve Quinonez, Rudy Dominguez--work out in the spacious, air-conditioned gym. They have appeared on HBO, Fox, ESPN2 and USA Network boxing shows, and collectively have fought five times for recognized world titles. Oscar De La Hoya, the Golden Boy of boxing, has sparred there, with Antonio Diaz.

So how did this emigre gardener who had never laced a pair of gloves on his own hands acquire the expertise to guide all these fighters?

"I can go in the ring and look and tell you what they do wrong," he says. "I never done it myself, but I can teach it. Learn the basics. If you want to do the wall, you lay down the cement first. Put up one block at a time. I know the basics. The left jab is the key to everything. If you got a good mind, everything will follow."

In his daily uniform of black t-shirt and cross-trainer shoes, lee (short for Librado) Espinoza sits in a memorabilia-filled office with a glass partition, looking out at the gym as he traces the personal history that led to a life in boxing. He speaks Spanish-tinged colloquial English that's quite articulate, but he can't write it. So he calls in Antonio Diaz, who has been punching the big bag, to spell out La Piedad, the town west of Mexico City where he was born 54 years ago, and begins:

My father was a farmer. I can still remember the peanuts because we used to pick 'em in bunches, like carrots. I remember when I was 5, they killed my father and his brother at the same time. Some guy, a millionaire, did it. My dad owned the land, and this guy wanted to take it over. He had so much money he could do anything he wanted.

My mom came over to El Paso for a better life, making tortillas and selling them to the stores. I was 8 or 9 when I came over--it took us two years to get the papers. She moved to Coachella and got married. I was legal because the guy was from here.

I never went to school in Mexico. I went to school one year in Thermal [another desert community that's south of Coachella]. I didn't speak English. My mom followed the grapes. To Selma, near Fresno, and she met these people who used to live in Tulare, so we stayed there. She got a good job, like a foreman, picking the grapes and cotton. I used to pick the cotton. I went to school, from the fifth to the 10th grade, in Tulare. You just had to be there and you passed. And we came back to here. I quit school when I was a sophomore, at 17 or 18, in Coachella.

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