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Boxing Gyms In Puerto Rico: The Aspiring Fighter

Photos: Rich Mancuso

Second of a series of my visit to boxing gyms in Bayamon Puerto Rico. Later in another installment a visit and chat with former bantamweight champion Wilfredo Vazquez and his quest next year to be the newest inductee into the International Boxing Hall of Fame

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Bayamon, Puerto Rico: It’s been over 25 years since I visited the beautiful Island of Puerto Rico and two weeks ago I featured a few of the members of the Santa Juanita Boxing Corner in the city of Bayamon. I had the opportunity to begin a boxing project with video production company La Red Films with Don Altamirano and Magdiel Maldonado. Altamirano is a friend from the old neighborhood in the Bronx.

The purpose was meeting and talking to Wilfredo Vazquez and his son, Wilfredo Jr. looking to once again be in the mix of the junior welterweight division after a few years of inactivity.

Bayamon, a city municipality of Puerto Rico, a suburb of San Juan, and located in the northern coastal valley is spread over 11 barrios and Bayamon Pueblo. I was surrounded with the beautiful culture, people, food, and clean streets that are a pride of the people who reside in their communities.

Here is the second installment of the experience. I spoke with more members of the Santa Juanita Boxing Corner and their quest to become the next boxing champion from Puerto Rico.

I learned more about the pride of representing Puerto Rico in the boxing ring. I was not surprised the aspiring champion has a quest to continue the legacy of Boxing Hall of Famers Felix “Tito” Trinidad and Miguel Cotto the first four-division champion from Puerto Rico along with many of the other Hall of Fame champions from the Island.

Boxing is strong in Puerto Rico. Aspiring fighters are offered the opportunity to train and be coached at no cost. Gyms are immaculate and all abide with COVID-19 safety protocols.

Most of all, I witnessed the commitment of Wilfredo Rivera, former professional fighter and welterweight who fought three times for the world title losing to Pernell Whitaker and to Hall of Famer Oscar De La Hoya.

Rivera is a story of the strong who survive, once homeless and now with a Bayamon government paid position as director and head coach of the Santa Juanita Boxing Corner, a small, spacious, and immaculate gym that is situated at the end of a street corner and in a residential community.

This continued and chronicled account will hopefully enlighten my personal experience. I want to thank those involved with their assistance and as senior writer with Latino Sports, I will never forget this journey that will culminate when Vazquez gets his eventual call to the Hall of Fame up in Canastota, New York. **************************************************************************

Santa Juanita Boxing Corner: I witnessed a 16 and 17 year old, two heavyweights that resembled pros and have ambitions of becoming the next heavyweight champion from Puerto Rico

Carlos Nunez, 17 years old was out of shape, 250 pounds. His uncle, Hector Sanchez is an active fighter and his longtime association with Wilfredo Rivera led him to Santa Juanita.

With intense training and a daily routine, Nunez shed the weight with a proper diet and resembles a strong cruiserweight at 215 pounds. His goal is to continue learning and Rivera is his mentor. His father, Carlos, a local Coca Cola salesman, drives him to Santa Juanita.

Nunez Sr. in a corner of the gym sits on a chair. Hiis son puts the hand wraps on and works with Rivera. Another aspiring heavyweight trains with Nunez, and that is another rarity I have not seen in boxing gyms over the years. a blessing for Rivera.

“Right now, I don’t have a clear path plan,” Nunez said as Altamirano assisted with translation “I’m working on that plan to be heavyweight champ. I’m definitely aware of the history and reputation. If I do become a professional prize fighter I will deal with it.”

He said about Rivera, “He’s helped me a lot. When I came here, I was 250 pounds. My self esteem was very low. He’s a mentor.”

Moments later, 16-year old Ian Yael Perez Gonzalez, a 6-3, 205 pound youngster ,entered the gym. He looks like an athlete and more suited for the basketball court and his mother Glenda was not far behind. Nunez and Gonzalez have become inseparable and their motivation thrives off each other. They train in a tiny area and use the exercise bike and some weights. They get in the ring, shadow box, and hit the bags.

Many that know boxing are aware it has always been the heavyweight champion that was a face of the sport. As years progressed and after Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, and others saw their last punches, the heavyweight division has been consumed with alphabet soup titles. Identifying a unified champion has been a mission of futility.

There has not been a heavyweight champion from Puerto Rico since John Ruiz had that distinction. Gonzalez, though, is a special breed and soon will embark on a amateur career that will also incorporate his education.

Much different from the amateur United States boxing structure, Puerto Rico has a good network that develops young fighters with aspirations to represent at the Olympic Games and lead to goals of a successful professional career.

Basketball on the Island has grown in popularity and NBA star Carmelo Anthony invested in a million dollar facility for youth. Gonzalez, though, and his quiet demeanor chose boxing which is becoming the proper decision.

Gonzalez and Rivera have also developed that special bond. Rivera pointed to the ring and made sure that I had my eyes on what was coming as his two young heavyweights, Gonzalez and Nunez went to work with the shadow boxing and banging the bags on the floor. Unfortunately, though, I picked the wrong time because I was not able to watch two aspiring heavyweights put on the gloves and spar as it was not their day for that routine.

“I’m a novice in every aspect,” Gonzalez said. “I am still learning. About the sport. “Boxing is a different sport. It’s a contact sport. I like that.”

“I like his jab, he’s strong,” Rivera said about Gonzalez.

Boxing, though, always has some setbacks and in the event Gonzalez or any of the other fighters at Santa Juanita Corner confront the unexpected failure, there is a backup plan.

In a government funded gym, education and a career outside of boxing are always an agenda for Rivera and his fighters. It’s more than boxing and Gonzalez may be a step ahead of the competition. Forthcoming is a full scholarship with a boxing and education academy located in nearby Salinas, Puerto Rico.

In the right place at the right time it was a month ago. At an amateur tournament coaches from Albergue Olimpico, an athletic training and education complex got word about a young heavyweight that could spar and jab.

They contacted Rivera and went on his word. Soon, Gonzalez will sign an agreement that provides a complete room and board. He will complete his education and continue to progress as a fighter, and that is comparable to a high school athlete receiving a scholarship towards earning a degree and competing.

The end factor could be Rivera no longer having control of a fighter that walked in his gym, However, Rivera is not in this for the money as his goal is to help young people and allow them to achieve their goals.

Boxing, according to Gonzalez, has offered the discipline and ability to become a better student in the classroom.

NEXT INSTALLMENT: A 31- female Air Force officer walks in the gym, begins training, and working with Rivera. Also a look at two promising and upcoming prospects that have a potential to join that elite group of boxing champions from Puerto Rico.

Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso

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