By Peter Cheng
Phoenix is flush with boxing gyms.
Coach Ricardo “Ricky” Rodriguez, owner and trainer at the Madison Boxing Gym in Phoenix, estimates there are around 59 clubs in the area.
Despite the number of clubs, fighters, trainers and others dedicating their time and energy to the sport, there is little money to be made and little attention being paid.
In order to last in boxing, you have to be motivated by more than money.
Rodriguez is an example of the dedication required. “It’s not easy keeping the doors open for these kids. I have to scrape my pennies, nickels and dimes just to pay rent,” he said.
Boxing helped get him through hard times, and now he passes on the lessons he’s learned to younger generations.
Rodriguez organizes boxing tournaments for young fighters to showcase their skills and gain experience. He is sometimes lucky to break even on those events, which are not easy to put together.
Pete “The Punisher” Chavez is another fixture in Arizona boxing.
As a teen, Chavez was prompted to take lessons at the Glendale Boys & Girls club after winning a fight in the neighborhood.
“Mine is the basic same story as most boxers,” Chavez said. “I grew up in a bad area on 35th and Van Buren. My dad wasn’t around, broken home, poor, all that stuff.” But once he found the sweet science, he began to get his life on track.
Chavez wanted to give back to his community, but didn’t know how until he decided to open his own gym. His background helps him connect with his students, some of which are in equally complicated situations.
Chavez raised his children as a single dad, spent two and a half years in prison and was homeless. He’s been through it all, and uses his triumphs as a guide for his pupils.
Like several other local gyms, Chavez is a 501c3 charity.
“I’m just a volunteer. I actually lose money because what my foundation gets reimbursed is $10 less than what I would as a personal trainer,” he said. He closes his gym to private clients during peak hours so he can train kids.
For current fighters like 20-year-old David Courtney, who trains at Central Boxing Gym, it’s more than just time and money that is sacrificed–it’s health. Courtney’s jaw was wired shut because it was broken on both sides during his last fight.
Courtney said he was in and out of school from 9th to 12th grade. “My parents split up when I was 15,” he said. “My uncle was doing stuff he shouldn’t be doing so our house got raided and they took us into CPS (Child Protective Services) custody and I was pretty much raised in group homes.”
After his release he started boxing.
Courtney fell in love with boxing watching it on TV as a child, but he wasn’t a violent kid. “I’m not a street fighter. I just do it because I love it. It’s a way to express myself,” he said.
He was compelled to turn pro for financial reasons after only three amateur fights. Courtney is off to a rocky start in his career with a 1-6 record, but he is determined to continue. Similar to most in boxing, he has embraced the sport as an avenue to get his troubled life on track.
He blames his poor record on drinking and smoking, which he claims to have given up. His broken jaw is the “the price to pay” for not taking the sport seriously. “I need to stay clean and train harder because my life is on the line,” Cortney said.
The Phoenix boxing community reaches beyond fighters and trainers, and it’s not just a boys club.
Maria Vargas, a grandmother from Glendale, works in an elementary school kitchen where she feeds 900-1000 kids, five days a week. But her passion is making custom outfits for boxers and coaches.
“When our boys were young, I’ll say 12 and 14, they got into boxing…so we started to take them to Madison (Gym). Coach Ricky (Rodriguez) said they needed outfits, I said ‘Maybe I can just make some,’ because I know how to sew,” she said.
Word spread and her business grew. Coach Rodriguez and his father encouraged her to continue.
When Vargas’s sons moved on from boxing she continued. She recently made gear for Chandler based professional heavyweight Malcolm Tann. Vargas’s dream is to open her own store.
“I’m proud of what I do and I love what I do. It’s my passion to sew,” She said. “I love to sew boxing outfits because… it makes me feel good that I did something that made a difference in a kid’s life.”
Despite the efforts of these boxing lifers and many others, the sport often exists in the shadows.
Boxing has to compete against the big four professional sports, major universities and high school athletic programs for a limited amount of attention.
Mark Faller, sports director at azcentral and The Arizona Republic, said he couldn’t speak for other media outlets but, “reader research and real-time metrics tells us that there is not a widespread appetite for boxing or MMA in our audience.”
Faller is not without hope though, “I’ve always felt that there might be an audience for boxing and martial sports in Phoenix if we could find a way to connect to it,” he said.
Even as few outsiders look on, the dedicated men and women of the Phoenix boxing community continue to sacrifice for the sport and culture they love.