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The Future Of Boxing From Puerto Rico: More About Santa Juanita Gym

Images: Rich Mancuso

Third in a series of my December visit to boxing gyms in Bayamon Puerto Rico. Next week 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 bantamweight 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.

Santa Juanita Boxing Corner: In previous installments of this chronicled series, I have highlighted the aspiring fighter and Wilfredo Rivera, former professional and welterweight who had opportunities for the world title losing to Pernell Whitaker and to Hall of Famer Oscar De La Hoya in bouts televised on HBO Championship Boxing. Rivera has a paid Bayamon position as head coach and director of the Santa Juanita Boxing Corner.

The aspiring fighter in the Bayamon vicinity conducts a Google search of boxing gyms that are offered at no cost and Santa Juanita is listed as their preference. They drive or a friend or family member turns the corner, heads to a driveway, and walk through the front door.

Rivera is there maintaining his small and spacious boxing gym and greets a prospective new student that seeks to be a champion representing Puerto Rico. He has an immediate connection and knowledge of training a novice.

I was there on a Tuesday afternoon and 31-year old Ana Serpas Guanago wrapped her hands for a third day of training. She was a Senior Airwoman at Wellsoworth Air Force in South Dakota and recently relocated to Bayamon.

“I enjoy and appreciate it here,” she said. “They are very welcoming. South Dakota they have to warm up to you,” she said with a smile.

Guanago always envisioned walking in a boxing gym. As a teenager, boxing was always a passion and she is the lone female training with the younger aspiring guys who welcome and shadow box with her in a makeshift maintained ring that Rivera assembled with others.

Though, female boxing is quickly gaining more recognition now that Amando Serrano, a lightweight champion from Puerto Rico is headlining a historic main event at Madison Square Garden in New York on April 30. More females are walking through the doors of Santa Juanita.

“My oldest brother, he got me into it,” she said. “He was a professional fighter in Quatemala. Boxing is my outlet. It continues to be my outlet.” Though she has no intentions of turning professional at the moment and takes this day-by-day.

“More for the training,” she said. “Mental ability and taking care of myself. What’s very important is the coach. He’s, (Rivera) very informative. His personality made me come here more. I can see his passion I still don’t know much about him his history. I like his teaching and his energy.”

And as days pass, Guanago and others get to know about the passion and understanding Rivera gives them. It goes beyond the training, discipline, and boxing because Rivera deeply cares about his students, their well being, and provides the head gear, gloves, and wraps needed.

You will see Rivera teach the basics of foot work, hitting the bags, and helps with wrapping their hands until they become self sufficient of the necessary and first task.

Reynoldo Gonzalez Vasquez, 19-years old, finishes his shift at a McDonald’s Restaurant in Bayamon, gets in his car and takes a brief commute to the gym. Boxing has been a transition after 19 fights as a Taekwondo fighter and training in martial arts

“The style its different,” he said wrapping his hands near the ring apron. “When I practice It’s boxing and more physical. I like that the style is different. Everything is different.”

He is keeping his weight at 147, the welterweight level, has the physique, determination, and discipline for the sport. His cousin led him to Santa Juanita and there is no turning back as this has become a passion the past few months.

“He’s very patient with me,” Vasquez says about Rivera.” He teaches me a lot. I’m 19 and catching up. I want to turn pro.

I asked, “Do you know the history and names of Puerto Rico champions.?” There was an immediate response because Felix Trinidad, the late Hector Camacho, and four division champion Miguel Cotto are among icons of the sport from Puerto Rico.

Five years from now where does he see himself in the sport? He said, and in almost perfect English, “Try and do my best but I want to fight and be a world champion. Im being trained by one of the best, (Rivera). He gives me confidence.”

Juan Carlos Torres, 18 years old, and a nearby worker at a warehouse in Bayamon, runs in the morning and does his eight-hour hour shift. He trains for three hours from Monday to Friday.

He has compiled an amateur record of 7-0, 1 KO in tournaments, at the standard 126 pound lightweight limit. He was training at other gyms on the Island, San Juan and other vicinities that have boxing gyms but did not provide the proper attention and lacked an experienced pro fighter and trainer.

Rivera, though, he has the credentials and knowledge of how this boxing business works and dealing with a young and aspiring pugilist.

“I see Rivera as a second father because Rivera has taught me everything in boxing, the first step,” said Torres who has the look and physique of a champion. He did not know about the resume Rivera had in the pro boxing ring until he arrived at Santa Juanita and through the translation of Don Altamirano said, “He’s a champion”

Torres said he has a couple of favorites of the Hall of Fame boxing champions from Puerto Rico and mentioned Trinidad, Cotto, and three-time world champion Wilfredo Gomez. His passion for boxing began as a 13-year old and viewing fights of future Hall of Famer Manny Pacquiao, the now retired eight-division champion.

“His speed and his choice of punches and combinations,” Torres said. “That’s what motivated me.”

He and Vasquez are like brothers in the gym. They arrive minutes apart, wrap their hands, get in the ring, shadow box, and had a good sparring session as Rivera supervised near the ring. The goal is to become a champion in the next five years, though the rigors and challenges of boxing at times make that difficult and Torres has a backup plan to attend college.

He says about Miguel Cotto and his upcoming June induction to the Boxing Hall of Fame: “ Well deserved. He brought history to Puerto Rico,” referring to Cotto as the first four division champion from the Island. Cotto, he said, is a motivating factor and inspiration.

“If he did it, I can do it too,” he said. With Rivera, he was fortunate to meet Cotto, Hector Camacho, and Wilfredo Benitez once the youngest New York born Puerto Rican to win a world championship. He learned that fighters from Puerto Rico are natural born warriors.

“Puerto Rico boxers have heart, pedigree,” he said. I asked this prospect about the historic rivalry of Puerto Rico and Mexican fighters that are always competitive and at times slugfests.

Surprised, though, Torres believes Mexican fighters are better, but he made clear there was no disrespect to his heritage. The new era of young fighters to Torres are not as tough as the past legends.

“Mexico,” he said, “They put everything on the line. They are hungrier. Puerto Rican boxers are laid back, not the names of history. The current era.”

But he watched the first fight when Cotto lost his welterweight title to the Mexican Antonio Margarito in 2008, Then, Cotto was stopped in the 11th round in a war. It was later revealed that Margarito used plastered and padded gloves that cut both eyes of Cotto.

The Mexican was eventually suspended and banned from fighting in the jurisdiction of the United States. Torres was quick to answer when asked about that fight.

“Margarito cheating with padded gloves. Margarito is the dirtiest fighter in Mexico history. l even thought Margarito had the advantage. He still had to cheat to win”

Cotto would get revenge in their second fight and went on to achieve more boxing history. Torres, indeed, knows the sport and history. He mentioned how Margarito would eventually get nailed for trying to do the same cheating in his fight with former champion Shame Mosley that led to a suspension and ban.

“It was pure joy,” he said about the redemption that Cotto received. “ He (Margarito) knew without the wraps he couldn’t win. He got caught in the Mosley fight and they had the rematch. Cotto still shines. He still had heart,”

It’s certain. They know their boxing at Santa Juanita.

More to come including another look at a boxing gym in Bayamon and exclusive with former champion Wilfredo Vasquez. Rich Mancuso: Twitter@Ring786 Facebook.com/Rich Mancuso

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