Southern California, the Soul of Boxing: Part I

Boxing is definitely not dead. The stark reality is the sweet science has never been bigger at any time in the history of the sport.

You don’t believe it?

The numbers do not lie.

Hidden smack in the middle of Southern California, the entertainment capital of the world, where major motion pictures, television, music, and major sports teams dwell, the sport of boxing thrives like a hidden beehive in the trunk of a large oak tree.

For decades ill-informed news agencies have peppered readers with unsubstantiated facts that MMA has taken over and left boxing in the dust. But the stark reality, in fact, shows it’s quite the reverse.

Once again, the numbers don’t lie.

While the most money an MMA star can hope for is about $10 million tops, pro boxers have topped $300 million several times.

Boxing simply dwarfs MMA.

The reason is simple: boxing is international and thrives in almost every country in the world. MMA is merely a strong presence in the U.S., Brazil and maybe Japan. But even in Japan boxing dwarfs MMA.

Soul of Boxing

If you are searching for the heart and soul of the sweet science you might be surprised to discover that it’s located in Southern California.

For more than 100 years the region has been a hotbed for prizefighting with venues like Vernon Arena, Jeffries Barn in Burbank, Olympic Auditorium, San Bernardino Arena, and Hollywood Legion Stadium. There were other smaller venues that also regularly harbored boxing shows early in the 20th century.

Boxing gyms were established decades ago in downtown Los Angeles with such relics as the old Main Street Gym that was a mainstay for 60 years though its location moved several times. The second floor rickety gym closed its doors for good in 1984. With its departure many felt the sport of boxing was on the brink of extinction. They were clearly mistaken.

Today, 34 years since the closure of the Main Street Gym, the sport of boxing has mushroomed throughout Southern California to more than 100 boxing gyms. That’s not a typo.

Since the mid-90s boxing in Southern California has erupted to unprecedented levels. From San Diego to Santa Maria the number of gyms has multiplied tenfold from the number of boxing clubs available in 1990.

Robert Garcia, the manager and trainer of dozens of pro fighters, has been a part of the growth and witnessed the spread of boxing gyms throughout the Southern California landscape. Since 1992, when Garcia made his pro debut, the Oxnard native saw the number of gyms grow from about a dozen to well over seven times that number.

“I’d say it’s more than 100 gyms,” said Garcia who has gyms in Riverside and Oxnard. “It’s probably way over a 100 gyms.”

Freddie Roach, whose Wild Card Boxing gym is located in Hollywood, said he’s not including the high-priced workout clubs that merely help regular people cut weight, but added that many boxers train out of garages and in make-shift backyard set ups.

“Even if you don’t include those gyms it’s still a lot of gyms in Southern California,” said Roach who opened his gym in the late 1990s.

The area known as the Inland Empire – that begins in Chino Hills and extends to the border California shares with Nevada and Arizona – has seen the biggest explosion of boxing in the past 28 years.

Desert Region

In the Palm Springs desert region alone there are nearly 10 boxing gyms including the largest the Coachella Boxing Club in Coachella and the Indio Boys and Girls Club in Indio where the brothers Joel and Antonio Diaz train pro fighters.

“Some gyms have come and gone but yes there are a lot of gyms in the area,” said Antonio Diaz a former IBA world titlist.

Publicist Bill Caplan remembers when the Ruelas brothers Rafael and Gabe made the trek from San Fernando to Coachella to train for upcoming world title fights in the mid-1990s. Later, the brothers would move up to the mountains to train in altitude to help build stamina. In those days the term cardio to explain stamina exercise was not in use.

“I remember when they (Ruelas brothers) started training in Big Bear,” said Caplan who worked with Top Rank before working with Golden Boy Promotions. “Both were trained by Joe Goossen and he had them up in the mountains training for big fights.”

Today Big Bear has multiple boxing gyms scattered up among the pine trees and alongside the elongated shaped lake. Among those training in the popular mountain resort are Gennady “GGG” Golovkin, Murat Gassiev and Sugar Shane Mosley. In the past Oscar De La Hoya, Fernando Vargas and Mike Tyson chopped trees and ran in the snow covered roads in preparation for multi-million dollar fights. In 2002 it was in Big Bear that Tyson prepared for his showdown with Lennox Lewis. That gym no longer exists but that same facility was used by Mosley and Antonio Diaz when they fought each other in November 2000. Mosley would arrive early, use the gym first, then, as he walked out of the gym he would literally pass by Antonio Diaz and his crew as they walked in. They fought each other across the country in New York City at the Madison Square Garden Theater.

Down below the San Bernardino Mountains, several boxing clubs opened during the 1990s. Quickly the number of gyms spread to Redlands, Highland, Colton, Moreno Valley, Fontana, Corona, Murrieta, Perris, Chino, and Temecula. But in cities like San Bernardino, Riverside, Pomona and Ontario multiple gyms popped up like weeds.

Today, San Bernardino still has three boxing gyms going strong and Ontario has an equal number. But in Riverside the number of boxing clubs continues to grow. There are close to a dozen boxing gyms in its vicinity. Some are small facilities harboring a few pro fighters and others are monstrous with several dozen pro boxers that actually live in boxing compounds.

The city of Riverside might need to recognize producing boxing champions as its true identity, not the growth of oranges as seen in its city emblem.

With world champions like Mikey Garcia, Brandon Rios, and Evgeny Gradovich training in the hills of Riverside and prospects like Hector Tanajara, Joshua Franco and Saul Rodriguez itching for a chance to grab a world title, it’s a simple assumption to call Riverside a champion factory for boxing.

Border Gyms

Further south in San Diego County, many more gyms have popped up during the past 15 years including Saul “Canelo” Alvarez establishing a training camp near the beach. It was near Del Mar Beach that Alvarez prepared for his middleweight war against Gennady “GGG” Golovkin.

Gyms dot the border areas near Mexico and those boxing establishments regularly send boxers across the international border to spar or fight in that boxing hungry country. Whether it’s Tecate, Mexicali or Tijuana, boxing takes place regularly. American-born boxers from the San Diego area are comfortable sparring or fighting in Mexican border towns and often have large followings in both countries.

One significant difference between the U.S. and Mexico has been the explosion of female boxing taking place down south. A strong group of Mexican female fighters dominate the fight scene. Some of those female fighters like Kenia Enriquez have visas that allow them to fight in the U.S. In San Diego, a few women like Amaris Quintana feel comfortable fighting in Mexico as well as in the USA.

The explosion of boxing interest can best be measured by the number of gyms that exist in Southern California. From about 20 gyms in the 1980s to more than 100 gyms boldly emphasizes the interest in the sport.

“I can’t remember ever seeing this many gyms,” said Ben Lira, who began as a boxer in the 1950s in Southern California and now works the corner of Golovkin and Murat Gassiev as a trainer and cut man. “We are definitely in a new era of boxing.”

So how and why did this growth happen?

It’s a combination of ingredients that led to this explosion of boxing.

Next: Part II Soul of Boxing: Chavez, De La Hoya and Population Growth

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