Southern California Gym Hopping
We visited numerous Southern California boxing gyms during the past week. It’s clear that boxing is about to erupt very soon in the area.
In between press conferences and meetings, one of the most important duties in my opinion is visiting those houses of boxing where the truth is actually shown in front of your eyes.
Boxing has a clarity that can’t be disguised. You can talk to all the trainers, promoters and match makers in the world who spew out reasons why this fighter will beat that fighter. In reality, all one needs to find the truth is visit the gym and see in person.
One of the first gyms on our target list was the new boxing facility owned by WBC featherweight titleholder Daniel Ponce de Leon. Located in Montebello, it’s a spanking brand new boxing hub that has two boxing rings. The entire gym has a shininess and sparkle as if put together by an interior design artist. Ponce de Leon was not present when we arrived.
Putting on head gear and gloves was San Diego’s junior featherweight contender Chris Martin (picture of Martin above by Al Applerose). The slick counter-punching 122-pounder recently signed a contract with Thompson Boxing Promotions. He’s scheduled to fight on Feb. 22, at the Ontario Doubletree Hotel on a Thompson fight card.
Martin is a veteran at age 26 with 30 professional bouts in six years as a prizefighter. Only two times has he tasted defeat and his next opponent Jose Angel Beranza is one of the guys that handed it to him. Martin wants revenge.
“He was the first guy to beat me,” said Martin (25-2-3, 8 Kos). “He took away my jab. That won’t happen again.”
Inside Ponce De Leon’s gym Martin is sparring with a tall southpaw. The junior featherweight’s team drove all the way from San Diego to get sparring. Either the other trainer pulled a fast one or there was a mix up, but Martin decided to spar the lefty though he’s scheduled to fight a right-hander. He didn’t want to waste the trip.
It wasn’t a good sparring session. The lefty was tall and rangy and both tangled many times with their feet. One thing Martin doesn’t need is an accidental butt that leads to a cut and postponement. If the fight falls through due to injury, then nobody gets paid.
Watching the entire proceedings was Alex Camponovo, the matchmaker and operations director for Thompson Boxing. He’s not pleased at all that Martin was forced to spar a southpaw. But after several unproductive rounds the session is over and Martin walks out of the ring unscathed. There’s a sigh of relief. Martin is fighting the main event in a few weeks.
The San Diego boxer has recently exhibited newfound power with two consecutive knockouts. It’s one of those revelations that happens to some fighters when they reach a certain age or certain technical level with their boxing expertise. For Martin it might be both of those reasons.
“I honestly think I already had it,” says Martin about his punching power. “But I always try to win each round and the fight. The last thing I have on my mind is going for the knockout.”
Camponovo has guided two fighters – Tim Bradley and Yonnhy Perez - from their earliest fights to world titles. He also has Josesito Lopez on the cusp of winning a welterweight world title should he get an opportunity. Now he has a few more prospects and contenders under his supervision. Martin could enter that championship fold.
“I want to be in a position to fight Nonito Donaire,” says Martin. “I’m hoping to get a title shot.”
Standing five feet away was East L.A.’s Xavier Montelongo, a very fast former amateur star who is making the difficult transition to professional prizefighting. So far he’s fought three times in a prize ring and remains undefeated. One fight ended in a draw.
As an amateur Montelongo won numerous national titles and performed on the international stage as well. But amateur fighting differs greatly from pro fighting, which prefers power over speed. Knockdowns count for much more than quick touches from a jab. After years of perfecting the amateur style Montelongo is now revamping his fight technique to the pro style of power boxing.
“It’s difficult and it’s tough,” said Montelongo honestly. “In international boxing you can’t beat the Russians or Cubans if you go for power. It’s more touches.”
During sparring Montelongo used his quick reflexes to avoid punches by moving his head and taking a few quick steps out of range. Before he was more accustomed to scooting out of danger and moving around the ring. Audiences don’t like to see what they perceive as running. Mexican fans especially do not like to see this and will tell you with their collective boos. Montelongo is adapting and it shows in the sparring session.
“Every day I’m getting better,” says Montelongo. “My speed is my advantage.”
The East L.A. boxer has a tough assignment against Pedro Toledo on Feb. 22, on the Thompson Boxing card. Toledo’s last fight was a rugged four round war against Derrick “Whup Dat Ass” Murray that saw both hit the deck from punches.
“I got to get his respect early,” said Montelongo.
While we spoke WBC featherweight champion Ponce de Leon walked into his gym and greeted everyone. He’s preparing for his title defense on March 2, against Puerto Rico’s Jayson Velez in New York City. It should be a very difficult fight. I can’t remember a Mexican winning a decision in New York City the past 10 years. Ponce de Leon will have to win by knockout or he won’t retain the world title. Just ask Mexico’s Juan Carlos Burgos.
Next, we headed to Montebello P.A.L. where former junior middleweight world champion Sergio Mora and others train. It’s not open when we get there so I made a few calls to see what else was going on.
I received a phone call from one of the trainers that they’re headed to South Gate to get some sparring. I’m in the area and tell them I will meet them.
The gym is called Casillas Boxing Gym and is located on Garfield Avenue. It’s south of Firestone Blvd. and has a big storefront window that makes it easy to spot the boxing gym and numerous heavy punching bags hanging inside.
Sal Casillas is the owner of the gym and is a former prizefighter from Huntington Park who was the last fighter to step in the ring at the historic Olympic Auditorium. He fought Vernie Torres and lost a technical decision. The famed boxing arena never hosted another fight card and was soon sold to a Korean Church. That was in 2005.
Casillas was a very tough opponent for anyone. Whether it was a fledgling fighter or a true contender Casillas battled with a fury and intensity that contrasts with his congenial demeanor outside of the ring. He was bad news for anyone who took him lightly. For years he competed with some of the best in the region and was never overwhelmed. If not for short arms and stature he might have reached the highest level of boxing. He is one of those fighters that I label as “true professionals”. He trained extremely hard and was always prepared to fight at a moment’s notice. That’s the mark of a true professional.
It was good to see Casillas. I hadn’t seen him in years and had heard he was training boxers. His prize pupil is Edgar Valero who has two knockouts in two fights. Casillas also has about 100 kids who are being taught the sport of boxing. Every day Casillas opens the gym at 8 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. That’s dedication. We talked off and on between his chores and supervision. The fighter I had expected to see spar did not show up and it’s getting pretty late in the evening. We part ways and Casillas asks me to return to see his prospect. I tell him I will return. Next week we’re headed toward the desert.