Fighting in the Ring Instead of Fighting in the Streets : Boxing Coach Straightens Lives of Bent Youths

Times Staff Writer

They were actually stars, these children in boxing gloves, and that elevated them high above their bare-fisted counterparts on the streets.

When they stepped into the ring Sunday at the Hyatt Hotel wearing the green and white shirts of the Commerce Boxing Club, they were special to the adults who had proudly come to see them.

Before the first of 20 amateur bouts at the fifth annual Commerce Boxing Show, Mayor James B. Dimas had told the crowd, "This says a lot for our kids getting involved in programs. If we can save one kid, we've done something."

It also said a lot for Johnny Rivera, the main saver.

"Parents like our program," Rivera, director of the 50-member boxing club, said as he prepared his fighters for their matches with youngsters from other area clubs. "They see changes that come over their kids. We teach them discipline and to respect people. Those tough kids (on the streets) won't bother these kids. They accept them now. Before, (our kids) had to prove themselves by beating the hell out of somebody, or by drinking or using dope."

Coach Used to Fight Professionally

If Rivera is an expert on street-tough children, it is because he was once one himself. He also was a professional fighter, a flyweight, 40 years ago.

Now 59, he has not swelled like ex-fighters tend to. He is 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighs about 165 pounds. His hair is mostly black. His eyes are small beneath thick brows but still reflect an unmistakable thoughtfulness.

Rivera said he was not in the business of developing professional boxers--only two of the some 300 youngsters he has trained have turned pro.

Mainly, he molds character and straightens lives, a never-ending fight in Commerce. His insistence on putting his four sons through boxing instruction almost cost him his marriage. "My wife said boxing was too brutal," he said.

She was not alone. When the club was organized five years ago, people told Rivera that boxing was sadistic and had no value. "But if it's taught properly, there's a lot of science to it," Rivera told them. And when he began turning out confident, disciplined and respectful young men, the people began to understand.

About a dozen of Rivera's fighters were packed in a small guest room at the hotel before the show. Trunks and gloves were scattered on the bed. The boys were asked what being in the club has meant to them.

"It keeps me out of trouble," said Carlos Galvan, 15. "I ain't on the streets."

The rest nodded.

"They're all good kids," Rivera said.

In a banquet room, the show began with Chris Zaragoza, 7, the youngest member of the Commerce club. His face was almost lost beneath his head gear and his gloves were about as big as his torso. He and his opponent flailed away mightily at each other toward a draw, but still their breaths of exertion were barely audible.

In the sixth match, Rivera was the corner man for Juan Rosales, 20, who danced around the ring in green, red and white shoes. "Stick that jab in his face," Rivera kept telling Rosales during his three-round bout.

Rosales lost. "Not in shape," was Rivera's summation as he pulled the gloves off his fighter's hands.

He Used to Hang Out on the Street

Back in the dressing room, where a TV with too much pink in it was going unwatched, Rosales gave a brief history of himself:

"When I was about 11, I used to hang out with the kids on the street and drink. Now I don't want to run around with drug addicts. I want to live and be myself. Doin' exercise and good stuff to live. (Boxing) makes me feel good inside. On streets people ask for fights. They know I'm a boxer, they start jabbin' in my face. They keep pushing me. I don't want to fight. But when they push me too far . . . . "

Rosales said he had a part-time job delivering patio furniture until his driver's license was suspended. "An accident that really wasn't my fault," he explained.

Rosales changed into a pink shirt and white pants. On the bed was the trophy he got, even though he had lost.

Rivera came in and said to a visitor, as if Rosales wasn't in the room, "This kid's one tremendous fighter, but he doesn't know himself. He has all the ability in the world. This is what disgusts me. He does not give 100%. He is not hungry. He's always out playing with his girlfriend."

Girlfriend Waited for Him

Rosales smiled, brushed his hair and went down to the lobby to meet Eloise Castillo, his girlfriend, who had on bright red lipstick and purplish eye shadow that matched her earrings. "It scares me," she said of boxing. "But I like it."

Rosales was happy to be with her. She is the woman who, when they first started going together four years ago, got through to him by saying, "The guys you hang around with are stupid."

Back in the ring. Commerce's Jose Morales, 20, was throwing his 170 pounds around, tangling rather awkwardly but enthusiastically with Steven Felli of La Habra.

Morales won, which thrilled him. An unemployed truck driver who went only as far as the 11th grade, Morales was a newcomer to boxing. He has been with Rivera for a year and a half.

"This guy, he's dedicated," Rivera said. "He wants to learn."

The victory was satisfying to Morales, a friendly person, because he said he had overcome the nervousness that used to be a problem for him.

"I decided to keep cool," he said, proudly pointing out his father in the crowd of a few hundred.

The next afternoon, Rivera was at his club, a dismal, barracks-like short-ceilinged building in Bristow Park, the place where he continually tells his kids, "Don't be a bum."

Punching bags hung from the ceiling and a couple of American flags were on the wall. The ring was at the far end, its apron the color of an old pool table.

"Five years ago, this was a very, very tough area," Rivera said of the time the club was organized by the city's Parks and Recreation Department. "People could not go in the park. I used to see guys run after other guys with knives. I was scared to walk out of the place without getting my throat cut."

A gang called the Choppers ruled the park then and made it clear to Rivera that he was an intruder on their turf and that they were going to dictate to him.

"I told them they were very mistaken," Rivera said. "We had quite a few arguments with those guys."

The Choppers lost most of them, Rivera said, and now the park is a place where families do not hesitate to picnic. "It has changed 100%," he said.

Many Youths From Broken Homes

The children started coming in, and the reality of their lives hit him.

"Half the kids come from broken homes," he said. "There are plenty of kids who can't even afford a damn jacket."

Rivera, unlike most boxing trainers, does not dwell on jabs, hooks and uppercuts. He prefers talking about a former club member who was in the Golden Gloves and was an A student. When he devoted too much time to boxing, his grades began to slip. Rivera told him to forget boxing.

"Education is everything," Rivera said.

Jaime Osegueda, the No. 1-ranked fighter in the 139-pound division in California and a 1988 Olympic hopeful, came in from the rain.

"He's going to be a world champ," Rivera said. "He can hit like a mule."

It was evident that Rivera--who has been training Osegueda in boxing and counseling him in life for five years in this shack that passes for a gym--has given this 18-year-old a future, something not everyone has in this city.

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