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Boxing in Puerto Rico: My first hand perspective

Rich Mancuso photos

First of a series of my visit to boxing gyms in Bayamon Puerto Rico. Later 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


Bayamon, Puerto Rico: It’s been over 25 years since I visited the beautiful Island of Puerto Rico. Last week, 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 active fighter looking to once again be in the mix of the junior welterweight division.

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.

I also had a brief tour of San Juan. I can say and from first hand experience, the troubles of two hurricanes and an earthquake are still being felt. Overall, though, there has been a great sense of pride and the damaged infrastructure is almost back to normal.

There are still ramifications of the damage and a commitment to keep moving forward. Also, COVID-19 and those variants are being felt as it is here in the states. Noticed are strict guidelines regarding COVID testing, safety, and constant reminders to receive the necessary COVID vaccines that are available. There is concern about COVID-19 and it’s no different than those that we experience here.

In this two part account, I got more knowledge about the various recreational and sports facilities the government and municipalities offer to youngsters. I was amazed to discover that sports and youth are a priority.

Boxing gyms are immaculate and there are many. Not like the city of New York, or the Bronx where I reside, the facilities and gyms are open and free to all youngsters. Trainers are available and also do not charge a fee, a vast difference from the boxing facilities I know of in New York. COVID safety is a priority and a negative test or vaccination is required to enter.

In fact, before you exit the airport in San Juan, you are required to show proof of a negative COVID test and it also helps to have your COVID vaccination proof with you. No proof of a negative test and authorities on site will detain you from leaving the airport and you are at risk of a hefty financial penalty and subject to quarantine.

Simple, though, the city of Bayamon is thriving during the Holiday season, decorations glow, and the sport of boxing is strong. After four days of visiting boxing gyms, seeing a Carmelo Anthony basketball facility, a Police Athletic League type boxing gym, baseball facilities and two stadiums, I can see why sports is a significant part of the Puerto Rico landscape.

I can also say the boxing programs offer good evidence as to why Puerto Rico develops one boxing superstar after another. Miguel Cotto, their first four-division champion and 2022 International Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, is still an icon as is Hall of Famer Felix “Tito” Trinidad.

I witnessed a 13-year old in training, a fighter that has potential and could represent team Puerto Rico in a few years at the Olympic Games.

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.

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 chronicled account will hopefully enlighten you about 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:

There was the usual December rain shower every few minutes as is often the situation in December and then the sun makes another appearance. A left turn, a right to the corner, and to a small driveway.

Welcome to the San Juanita Boxing Corner a small and spacious facility. Five years ago the city of Bayamon handed the keys to Wilfredo (Willie) Rivera, a former top 10 fighter in the junior and welterweight divisions.

Rivera had a punch, (37-7-1, 27 KO’s) and promoters knew he would be a challenge for the titles in a era when boxing was surrounded with Olympic gold medalist Pernell “Sweet Pea” Whitaker, and Hall of Famer Oscar De La Hoya.

Boxing was good to Rivera, born in nearby Rio Piedras. However, as is often the case with fighters, after a career of 17 years, he fell on hard times. Rivera earned some good money fighting Whitaker twice. de La Hoya once, to Hall of Famer “Sugar” Shane Mosley, and to another great from Mexico,  Fernando Vargas, all fights televised on HBO Boxing under the Main Events and Top Rank banners.

A nasty divorce and other circumstances fled to difficult times. Rivera was forced to live in his car but a beloved hero, as many fighters from Puerto Rico are, was not forgotten.

Though boxing has produced great champions from Puerto Rico, including the late Hector “Macho” Camacho, recall purses then were not as lucrative as they are now.

After a divorce from his wife, Rivera was forced to live in his car, found safety in a vacant area of markets and survived. Then, he was a friend of Vazquez, the former bantamweight champion and a subsequent court date led to where he is now.

Five years ago, a famed rap music artist and others led to meeting the Mayor of Bayamon which paved the way to giving Rivera keys to the gym and a government funded job. The memories and accounts of fighting for the titles are told, though the regulars he trains are too young to remember.

“I love boxing,” the 52-year old Rivera said as the few young fighters with vehicles parked and entered his gym. He is old school and gives that approach to his new pupils.

There is no vulgar language heard and respect to others which is often not the situation seen in a New York City boxing gym. There are no vending machines or banners hanging from promotional sponsors that are seen at boxing gyms in the states at various localities.

Banners of a few historic fights, trophies,awards, and title belts are in the back of a small and safe makeshift ring, and some apparatus for conditioning and strength. Of course there is a coffee machine and hospitality offered to a visitor from New York City.

Rivera is the coach and trainer as the doors open at 10am and close before 6. The aspiring fighter lives in the vicinity, attends school and employed as food preparers at a McDonalds or a warehouse. They live at home with their family and some travel an hour.

Some will research and pinpoint Santa Juanita on Google Maps.

Edgar Valdes, 24 years old, traveled an hour from Gurabo after completing another day at a produce market. He does not know where this journey will take him on his first day after training on his own at home.

“First found it to be my passion but I don’t know if I have it,” said the 114- pounder and well versed enough to speak and understand English. “I don’t know much about Rivera and will do my research today. I expect to hopefully have it; I hope I do,” he said as Rivera put the hand wraps on him for the first time.

Zander Zayes, the 19-year old former national champion and undefeated super welterweight is also the newest boxing sensation from San Juan Puerto Rico and there is a buzz about his accomplishments at San Juanita.

More to come in the next installment including chats with other young fighters at Santa Juanita and with a former fighter and police officer who manages a Bayamon funded athletic league boxing facility.

Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Mancuso

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Julio

    January 9, 2022 at 4:32 pm

    Puerto Rico produces great boxers so your article gives us a hood behind the scenes look at how some of these campions might be developed.

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