INDIO, Calif.-Deep in the Coachella desert tiny scorpions come out at night so it’s best not to walk in sandals. Even the fancy gas stations get their share of the dangerous little creatures.
In the summer the heat hits like a smack in the face yet it doesn’t stop the various gyms from filling up with eager wanna-be fighters.
One of the more crowded gyms, Indio Boys and Girls Club, has blossomed into a powerhouse. Led by the Diaz brothers Joel (in the white shorts) and Antonio, the roster of professional boxers can match any other gym in the world in terms of talent.
It’s slowly made the transition from training strictly local boxers to international mega stars in this past decade.
So how did this happen?
Located about 128 miles east of Los Angeles and 95 miles north of the Mexican border, the Indio Boys and Girls club gym is roughly in the middle of nowhere unless you like golf. The area has some of the most prestigious golf courses in the world.
The Coachella Valley has long been an area where the center of activity is Palm Springs. Celebrities such as Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra and William Powell had homes here. Located about 24 miles southwest of Indio, Palm Springs is still home to many celebrities.
Migrant workers come each year to the desert region to pick crops: primarily dates, grapes, peppers, and citrus fruits in the area. Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio has grapefruit trees on its compound alongside the plush hotel swimming pool.
Speaking of casinos, it was the arrival of casinos that opened the door for professional boxing cards in the Coachella desert area. In 1987, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that neither the state of California nor Riverside County could dictate authority over the various American Indian tribes, it changed the landscape for good and brought professional boxing to the forefront.
Now seven casinos have opened their doors in the desert region and most of them have held boxing cards at one time or another. Fantasy Springs Casino has a continuous schedule of boxing cards.
Many of the fighters showcased at Fantasy Springs Casino and other surrounding casinos come from Joel and Antonio Diaz’s group and include prizefighters from all over the country and internationally.
Stars like Argentina’s Lucas Matthysse to UFC’s Cub Swanson have walked through the doors of the gym that is run like the United States Marine Corps recruiting depot. Joel Diaz regularly shouts booming instructions to fighters across the lengthy gym.
Joel Diaz sounds like a drill sergeant and constantly harangues the various boxers to continue the intensity of their drills.
“Step it up Vergil,” he shouts to one of the fighters Vergil Ortiz Jr., a welterweight from Dallas, Texas. “Raise your punches a little higher.”
Nothing escapes Joel Diaz who occasionally glances around the gym and notices Diego De La Hoya, the younger cousin of boxing great Oscar De La Hoya. He shouts some instructions in Spanish to the youthful father of an infant just recently born who is being held by the mother.
The gym is clattering with noise from the various boxers working in the different stations. Heavy bags, speed bags, weights, chin-up bars and two boxing rings are all used simultaneously by the different boxers. There’s no wasting time. Every second is used by the prizefighters.
Antonio Diaz works with Vergil Ortiz Jr. inside one of the boxing rings on movement and punching accuracy. When he was active as a fighter Antonio captured the IBA world welterweight title and fought many of the best fighters in the world including Sugar Shane Mosley for the WBC welterweight world title in November 2000. It was Mosley’s first defense after taking the title from Oscar De La Hoya and was held in New York City. Ironically both Mosley and Diaz were from the Inland Empire and ended up training in the same Big Bear training camp. Even more ironic was that two Inland Empire fighters were forced to fight 2,000 miles away instead of in California. But that’s boxing.
Antonio Diaz, the younger brother of Joel, works well with the fighters and their combined knowledge gives them insight not often found in many gyms. Joel Diaz fought for the IBF world title against South Africa’s Phillip Holiday in 1996 and lost by decision. He would fight one more time before retiring as a fighter and continuing as a trainer.
Joel Diaz worked for a while with Lee Espinoza at the Coachella Boxing Club before opening up his own gym.
When Tim “Desert Storm” Bradley arrived as a pro in 2004 he had been passed over by various promotion companies who felt he was too small to fight at the super welterweight class he had participated in as an amateur. As a pro Diaz brought him down to lightweight.
But most promotion companies were not interested.
Luckily, a new smaller promotion company had just started in the Inland Empire called Thompson Boxing Promotions. They were looking for new talent and Diaz brought forth some of his boxers, including Bradley.
It was a perfect match.
Bradley was groomed by the Diaz brothers into a professional style that was pleasing to boxing fans in the Southern California area. Though Bradley had speed and agility and could easily fight 10 rounds without getting touched, he was being sculpted into a fan friendly action packed fighter.
The rest is history. Bradley won world titles as a super lightweight and welterweight and ultimately became one of the best pound-for-pound prizefighters in the world. The Diaz coaching staff suddenly became world famous too and their gym began filling up with more boxers from not just the Coachella Valley region but from other parts of the country as well.
Elite boxers began showing up such as Terence Crawford, Omar Figueroa, Lucas Matthysse and others. Word was spreading that there was something going on in that desert gym in Indio that was making champions.
Three years ago Diego De La Hoya, Jamie Kavanagh, Manuel Mendez and brothers Jessie and Diego Magdaleno arrived. More have arrived recently including the first female prizefighter to step in the gym full time in middleweight contender Maricela Cornejo.
“We don’t treat her any differently than we do the men,” said Joel Diaz. “She has to do the same work as the guys. We don’t have any women for her to spar so she spars with the men.”
Because of the two dozen elite fighters working in the Indio gym, it always seems to be prepping for an upcoming fight card.
“We always have a lot of things going on,” said Joel Diaz. “Right now we have Maricela Cornejo and Vergil Ortiz getting ready to fight in Cancun, Mexico on Nov. 16.”
Recently former WBC super featherweight champion Francisco “El Bandido” Vargas has become part of the team and is preparing for a showdown against England’s Stephen Smith at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas on Dec. 9.
“His manager asked me what I thought of his last fight and we agreed,” said Diaz of Vargas. “We’re working on some changes and we’ll see on December 9.”
Other fighters like Argentina’s Matthysse have arrived too and will be living and training in the remote desert gym. Not all prizefighters can adapt to the remoteness and solitude and end up moving on to urban locations like Jessie Magdaleno did recently. But those that remain like the focus on boxing and the solitude.
Vergil Ortiz Sr., the father of welterweight prospect Vergil Ortiz Jr., said he urged his son to choose Indio because of the desert location.
“There’s nothing to do but focus on boxing,” said Ortiz Sr. whose family is based in Dallas, Texas. “Back at home in Dallas there are too many distractions. Way too many distractions. But here my son can just focus on boxing and only boxing and sharpen his skills.”
Over the past few years the benefits of desert training are evident in the overwhelming success of those sweating and grinding in the sweltering desert gym in Indio.
It’s evident in their victories.
Recently Diego De La Hoya has emerged as a budding young star who is just about ready to enter the big time.
“He’s almost there,” said Joel Diaz. “He’s just waiting for his time.”
Waiting for his time just like a scorpion in the desert heat.
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