Fighting for a Future

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There were adults with more experience at practices then, "but that's faded," he says. So, Mr. Garcia reads voraciously about boxing and watches any fight tape he can get. The 41-year-old father of three has even learned to dance spryly in the ring while young boxers pummel his padded hands.

"Somewhere down the road, it will pay off," he argues. "Boonie may not go pro, but he will not get in trouble at school or with gangs. He doesn't have time to get in trouble."

Boonie says his dad pulled him out of boxing last year for more than a month while he brought up failing grades in three classes: "I was being lazy. I had to go to tutorials at school at 8 a.m."

He shows that same concern on Friday, the eve of the San Diego fights. At 6:30 p.m. sharp, Boonie is at the club and ready to work out. His teammate, Luis Santoyo, is not.

The sport has always attracted young men from lower-income neighborhoods, and today is no different.

Acting on a hunch, Mr. Garcia drives over the railroad tracks to the east side of town, where most of the local farm laborers live. He finds Luis behind a single-story apartment building, talking to his girlfriend.

Mr. Garcia could walk away and spend this time with more reliable boxers. But he wants to keep the youngster away from gang life. Relaxed but dogged, Mr. Garcia knows the pitfalls of that lifestyle. "I have lots of friends from gangs who are in jail and who are hypes," he said, using a slang term for drug addicts.

At the very least, boxing is a distraction for Luis, who has been in juvenile hall before because of a gang-related fight.

The elusive but charming 15-year-old is short on details about those days. "I was a gang member for three to five years," he says. "I started hearing about boxing, and I came here."

Most of his head is shaved to an eighth of an inch, though he spared a 6-inch ponytail, which hangs over a "Santoyo" tattoo on his back. His mom likes the fact that boxing seems to keep him out of trouble, he says. But she hated the tattoo--even tried to remove it with an iron, he adds with a grin.

Luis' muscular 5-foot-5-inch, 127-pound body looks bigger in the ring, where he is a tireless mixture of fluid movement and jackhammer-like fists. Although he has an 8-4 record, he still needs to sharpen his footwork and technique. After all, amateurs win by punching for points, not knockouts.

"I know how to fight, and I don't have to show off," says the youth, who swears through two perfect rows of white teeth that he avoids fights outside the ring. "If people want to see me fight, they can pay."

Who Boxes?

Why do young, healthy people allow their bodies to be bloodied and bruised in the ring?

For Luis and for Boonie Garcia, pain is part of a sport. They insist, however, that the two-hour workouts, four days a week, also help keep them motivated in school and out of trouble. "I'm so tired by the end of a workout," Boonie says, "I just want to go home and go to bed."

Besides, boxing is fun.

The sport has always attracted young men from lower-income neighborhoods, and today is no different. In part, it's because they see fighters like Mike Tyson or the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Oscar De La Hoya of Los Angeles, box their way from poor backgrounds to fortunes.

But some youngsters just want to learn how to defend themselves. Others want a change of pace.

"I've dealt with lots of young people in tough communities who are not playing basketball, but getting into confrontations," says John Carter, a retired police officer who runs a Police Athletic League program for 127 young boxers in Suffolk County, N.Y. "It's better that they come to a boxing program now and use their hands where they get coaching."

But youngsters from middle-class and well-off families also find their way into the ring. "A lot of times, the kids from affluent families are kind of soft, and parents want them in for self-defense," Mr. Carter says.

On the other hand, boxing is not for everyone. A boxer fires his 8- or 10-ounce gloves mercilessly into the face and body of his opponent as often and fast as he can. And it hurts. Especially if you're not used to it.

"Some middle-class kids come in and their knees are shaking, and we see that it's not their choice," Mr. Carter adds. "In these cases, we try to diplomatically weed them out."

Gene Fullmer, a former world-champion middleweight who is the Rocky Mountain region director for Golden Gloves, a national amateur boxing organization, notes that boxing can accommodate young people of all sizes. "Not everybody is tall enough to be a basketball player or big enough to play football," he says. "But no matter what your size, there's a weight group for you."

Increasingly, that includes females.

There are 360 girls between 8 and 18 registered with USA Boxing, and the number is growing. Officials are even considering a Junior Olympics national championship tournament for female fighters.

Brawley has no girls registered to fight. But Mr. Garcia's 8-year-old daughter, Ellyn, regularly shows up at the gym to train on punching bags for fun and for exercise.

In his Suffolk County gym on Long Island, Mr. Carter has 12 female boxers.

"At first I laughed when people said girls would box," he says in a telephone interview from the gym. "Now one of them is one of the best athletes I've ever dealt with."

Regardless of race, gender, or income level, the youths who stick with the sport tend to be passionate about it. And to be good, they must work hard, limit their eating, and, aided by good coaching and role models, avoid risky lifestyles.

"The ones who are successful have the discipline," says Mr. Fullmer, a lifelong Mormon and Utah resident. "This is a rigorous process."

Evolving Sport

Aside from the newfound interest among women, the biggest changes in youth boxing have come from the overhauled rules and regulations.

Ray Silvas, the chairman of the officials' committee for USA Boxing, recalls that he didn't wear headgear when he started boxing as a youth in 1967. Fights back then often pitted novices and experienced opponents, he says, and lasted longer.

There are 360 girls between 8 and 18 registered with USA Boxing, and the number is growing.

And gone are poorly regulated "smokers," or local fight nights in which often-inexperienced youths would climb into rings and slug it out.

These days, doctors give exams before and after every youth bout.

"The biggest complaint we get is that we stopped a fight too fast," says Mr. Silvas, who is also a regional trainer for Allstate Insurance Co. in Houston. "We consider that a compliment."

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