By SCOTT AUST
After setting up the ring this week in the West Pavilion building at the Finney County Fairgrounds, coaches with Garden City's Bad Boyz Boxing Club took a moment to appreciate the club's new home.
"It's one of those things that you wait forever to have something like this," Robert Gonzales, club owner and operator, said. "I'm so glad that we've been given this opportunity."
Last month, the fairgrounds agreed to lease the building to the club to use Mondays through Thursdays for its regular practices, and to host quarterly, admission charging events. The club's lease on its previous site on East Fulton Street was set to expire at the end of February.
"I guess it was meant to be," he said. "This is more space than we've ever had. The kids love it."
Originally started about 25 years ago to reduce the number of kids getting in trouble for fighting, the Police Athletic League boxing club is a nonprofit organization that teaches kids the fundamentals of boxing and the importance of education.
It was renamed about 15 years ago to Bad Boyz Boxing Club, and has seen several national champions and a couple of world champions move through the program.
Roughly 30 to 60 youth participate in the program each year, and about 46 participate right now.
The club has grown a lot since it first set up shop in a small room in back of the Salvation Army where SAYAC is now.
Boxing is growing in leaps and bounds among amateur sports, Gonzales said, especially female boxing. Fifteen girls box locally, and it's sometimes a challenge to convince parents to let their girls box, he said. But it's something they really want to do.
"I'm amazed at the ability of some of them. I have a girl right now, her name is Dezire Maldonado. She is 13, and when she spars I have to put her with the boys because the girls don't want to spar with her — and even some of the boys don't want to spar," Gonzales said.
But it's more important to Gonzales to help youth get their lives on the right track, to help them succeed, be disciplined, look people in the eye. He constantly stresses the importance of education and avoids trips to tournaments or boxing events that would keep kids out of school for much more than a day, if that long.
"We have kids from all walks of life. Kids who have straight A's. Kids who are struggling. Kids that if they weren't in there would probably be in gangs or God knows what else. I'm strict with my kids in the sense that education comes before boxing," he said. "I want them to win in life."
One of the success stories for Gonzales — one of many over the years — is 16-year-old Victor Bravo. Gonzales said when Bravo first joined he was so hyper and got in trouble at school for petty things.
"Now he's doing awesome in school, he's a positive role model to other kids, and a great boxer," Gonzales said. "He's won 13 national championships and dreams to turn pro."
Bravo, who has been boxing 11 years, knows it will take a lot of effort to reach his goal, a lot of showing up every day and working as hard as he can. He is thankful to be a part of the boxing club.
"It means a lot to me. It changed my life. I was in all kinds of trouble before boxing, but now I haven't been," Bravo said. "I love boxing because I can fight without getting in trouble with the cops. I also like meeting new people in life, going to new places that I haven't been."
Another success story is Dezire Maldonado.
Maldonado, 13, has been boxing for two and a half years. Gonzales said Maldonado was angry at first but has changed so much since she started boxing. He said Maldonado is a good student, well-rounded and that he would never have to worry about her horsing around if coaches weren't watching.
Maldonado said being part of the group means a lot.
"Before I came here, I used to do really bad things, throw attitude around. But here I can get out all the things I need to," she said.
All the athletes interviewed liked the new facility, saying it is much larger and warmer than their other location.
"It's big. You can do more stuff," Maldonado said.
Moises Meza, 9, who has been boxing three years, got interested in the sport by watching it on television. He kept pestering the coaches until they let him join.
"I like traveling to different places, fighting. It's really fun to me," he said.
Cody Wilson, 23, joined the club about three months ago and never boxed before.
"I got out of the Marines and decided I needed to stay in shape. My friend Brevan, he boxes, so he got me into it, too," Wilson said. "It's a good workout, and you get to hit people in the face, so that's pretty fun. I've always been into contact sports."
Wilson, a Garden City High School graduate, wrestled in high school and got into Brazilian jui-jitsu while in the Marines.
"I like this kind of stuff," he said. "I'm looking to get into MMA type stuff with my wrestling background, so this is working more of my stand-up game."
When asked if he's been hit hard by anyone so far, Wilson said Victor Bravo hit him pretty good.
"Victor is fast, really fast. And Brevan head-butted me in the mouth one time. And it did hurt," he said.
Gonzales said the success of the boxing club over the years is due to a lot of people including coaches, parents and the community. He said he couldn't run the program without the other coaches — Cesar Meza, Filipe Bravo and Leon Shook — or without the support of involved parents and the community.
Boxing photos and memorabilia decorate the walls of Gonzales' office, demonstrating his love of the sport. While he is nearing retirement age, he doesn't anticipate leaving the boxing club any time soon.
"I'm getting close to retirement, but only from work, not from having fun," he said. "I have three loves in my life: God, my family, and boxing. I don't do this for the money because I don't make money. I do it because I know there's a lot of kids that come to the gym that need to keep busy and stay off the streets. That's the main reason I do it."