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An Oxnard Son Means to Fight for the Gold : Boxing: For years, Robert Garcia has been aiming for the Olympics. With trials looming, supporters want to send him to L.A. for heavy-duty training.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Garcia, 16, was born and raised to be a boxer.

His father, Eduardo Garcia, has trained him since he was 8. His mother, Virginia, cooks him steamed meals while the rest of the family eats their food fried. His sister, Chela, makes his boxing shorts. His brother, Danny, who became a professional boxer and had a record of 18-4 before retiring at age 24, is his biggest fan.

Last summer, he trained in New Jersey with the best in the business, but he’s back home in Oxnard, hoping to represent his hometown in the Barcelona Olympics. Experts say he’s got the talent to go all the way.

However, unless his friends can raise at least $5,000 by January--money that would fund training with tougher partners in Los Angeles--Robert will return to New Jersey.

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But Oxnard is not yet willing to give up its Olympic dream.

Last week, Mayor Nao Takasugi and Councilman Manuel Lopez showed up at a news conference called by Robert’s friends to raise funds for his training. Lopez offered to organize barriadas, or Mexican block parties, to raise money. Takasugi said he would ask friends to help. Colonia Boxing Club officials said they would look into organizing some boxing festivals.

Robert said the outpouring of support took him by surprise.

“It would be nice if people help me, I really need the help,” he said. “But when the mayor comes out and tells the newspapers that I need money, well, I feel, it’s, like, embarrassing .”

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Robert began training at age 5 and got into a ring shortly after his 8th birthday.

“On that first fight, I realized he was something special,” said Martin Noriega, a volunteer coach and friend who has been in Robert’s corner ever since.

“He was beating up on this kid real bad, and his dad told him to lay off, to stop hitting so hard. Robert started crying. He wanted to show what he could do so bad, and his dad wouldn’t let him,” said Noriega, who now spearheads a campaign to keep the local hero from leaving town.

Eight years and 50 fights later, Robert had become one of the top featherweights in the United States. In 1988, when he was 14, he won the California Junior Olympics for 14-year-olds in Westminster. A year later, he won the six-state regional Silver Gloves tournament in Prescott, Ariz., but he couldn’t return to Prescott a month later to compete in the national finals because his family couldn’t afford the expenses.

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Last year, Robert won the Silver Gloves regional tournament and placed second in the national finals in Marshalltown, Iowa, losing the title to a crafty southpaw in a close fight.

“I’ve seen a lot of champions work out, and this kid is really special,” said Councilman Lopez, a self-proclaimed boxing fanatic. “He’s got a good shot at going all the way.”

Dan Deverges, a referee for the Amateur International Boxing Assn., said that Robert is a long shot for Barcelona. He is not the top-ranked boxer, and only one featherweight will be chosen for the team in a selection process that involves a series of tournaments beginning in January, 1992.

But Deverges still gives Robert a chance.

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“I’ve seen him box since he was a little kid,” he said. “He’s a very good kid.

“If he doesn’t make it next year, he’s got an excellent chance for the 1996 games in Atlanta.”

In Oxnard’s gritty Latino neighborhoods, where boxing is more a religion than a sport, people have begun to take notice. And the community sees its first real chance of winning an Olympic gold medal.

Robert’s fame has expanded beyond his city’s boundaries too. Managers and promoters across the country salivate at the prospect of having the boy in their training camps.

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A scout for the legendary Duva brothers, who manage several world champions including heavyweight Evander Holyfield, saw Robert in action and invited him to join their team.

So last summer, Robert packed his bags and went to New Jersey, where he spent two months training with the best in the business.

“In Jersey, I had everything,” Robert said the other day, his eyes growing wide as he recalled his first-ever East Coast trip.

“They gave me a car, a place to stay and $200 a week--enough to do my laundry.”

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The Duvas even took him to see a New York Giants football game and the skyscrapers of New York City.

He had everything, Robert said--except his friends, his family and his favorite Mexican foods. So when the Duvas offered to put him under contract, he balked.

“I liked it in Jersey, but my family wanted me to come home, which was OK with me. I’ve always fought for Oxnard. This is my town. If I stayed in New Jersey, I would be representing another state.”

There’s nothing flashy or flamboyant about Robert. Outside the boxing ring, he is gentle and understated. When asked a question, he always looks to Noriega, then he answers softly, often with a shy smile. And unless the topic is boxing, he usually replies only “yes” or “no.”

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The spotlight makes him uncomfortable, but he grants interviews because he needs help. In order to stay competitive, his backers say, Robert needs $5,000 to $8,000 for food, equipment and transportation to practice against top prospects in Los Angeles. It is a sum that his father, a foreman for a crew of strawberry pickers, can ill afford.

While his immediate future remains uncertain, Robert is pretty sure he will someday become world champion.

“I know I’ll do it,” he said softly, as if explaining the unavoidable.

“Everybody says I can do it. My brother Danny will raise my title belt.”

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Outside of boxing, there are few distractions in Robert’s life. He gets passing grades at Channel Islands High School, but he doesn’t have a favorite class. The dating scene doesn’t thrill him, and no girl has captured his heart.

He seldom visits church, but “I pray to Him every night,” Robert said. “I always ask Him to help me with my sport.”

Robert doesn’t know what he’ll do after he’s done boxing. Danny wants him to be a cop, but he might go to college instead. One thing is certain: “I’m not going to work in the fields like my dad,” he said, shaking his head emphatically. “That’s not for me.”

So every day after school, Robert visits the old boxing gym on 7th Street and puts himself through a grueling workout.

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“Boxing is my job,” Robert said matter-of-factly. “Some people go to school to become doctors. I go to the gym to be the champion.”

In his stretch pants and blue T-shirt, he looks just like the other boys who skip rope, pound bags and take turns hitting each other in the tattered ring.

For 90 minutes, Robert goes about his business without saying much. Nobody follows him around. He doesn’t brag or show off and never volunteers advice.

But he doesn’t go unnoticed.

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From the chubby 9-year-old who has trouble hitting the punching bag more than twice in a row, to the gym’s top prospects--everybody talks about Robert with warmth and admiration.

“When he was in Jersey, everybody was, like, normal,” said Fernando Vargas, 15, a junior Olympics finalist. “But when he’s around, everybody trains harder. He gave this gym a name. He put us on the map.”

“He’s the best,” said training partner Mike Wolfe, 15. “He uses his mind and hits real hard. I want to be just like Robert Garcia.”

Eduardo Garcia is a proud man. Robert’s father is the director of Oxnard’s boxing program and trains all the kids in the gym.

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“He has a lot of future, a real good chance,” he said in Spanish, as he watched his son spar. “It would be nice to see him bring the gold medal to Oxnard. It would make the city very proud.”

Then he paused and sighed heavily.

“But I have to be realistic. Boxing is a business. I can train him, but he needs a manager and some good sparring partners.”

Then Eduardo Garcia called time and the two boxers touched gloves. Moses Perez, 16, stepped out of the ring shaking his head.

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“Robert’s gonna make it, he’s gonna be a champ,” Perez said. “But he needs better sparring. He was just playing with me.”


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