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A Fighting Chance : Boxing Club Gives Youths Lessons in Discipline, Beating Gangs to the Punch

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Night after night in a back alley room, they drip with sweat and dream of a championship--or least a better life.

Blocks away from the city’s toughest gang neighborhoods, local youths crowd into a partially renovated room with a half-dozen exercise cycles, a few heavy bags and one boxing ring. In the cramped gym, where almost every young man knows someone claimed by the streets, they train their muscles to fight.

Since 1973 they have wandered from churches to high schools, but now the group known as the Anaheim Boxing Club finally can boast of a permanent home. The modest gym just off West Broadway near City Hall has reinvigorated the boxing club since opening in October.

Before that, the club literally had no roof over its head and was forced to use a grass field at Anaheim High School to practice. Participation in the city-funded program aimed at keeping youths away from gangs fell as low as eight kids per day, organizers said.

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Today, the club attracts throngs of neighborhood youths for four hours Monday through Friday evenings and on Saturday mornings.

“We went from virtually no program at all to more than 60 kids a night,” said Moses Menchacha, who supervises the gym for the city. “We finally have a home.”

Club supervisors proudly point to youths such as 18-year-old Bill Paz, who has found welcome shelter in the gym. Less than a year ago, the Anaheim youth was expelled from school and spent his evenings on street corners.

But a bruising from a fistfight last year shook him up. Then, Paz ran into Richard (Rip) Icenhour, one of three city-paid trainers at the Anaheim Boxing Club. Not only has Icenhour honed Paz’s boxing skills, but the former Marine also helped him land a job.

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Now, the 134-pound Paz wakes at 4:30 a.m. to train. A little after 7, he heads off to work at the shipping and receiving company, where Rip also works. And by 5:30 p.m., Paz is back in the gym, honing his boxing technique.

“I leave at 8 p.m.,” said Paz, who also is studying for his high school equivalency test. “By then, I am dead-tired, and I don’t want to go hang out.”

Paz probably won’t win an Olympic gold medal, club trainers conceded, but his dedication has earned him victories in local tournaments. But more important, the trainers say, the aggressive sport has calmed the youth and given him direction. Paz has embraced a new life and now wants to join the Navy and study computers.

“One of my friends got killed in November,” said Paz, staring down at his taped hands. “If I wouldn’t have been boxing here, I’d have been out there with him. I just thank the Lord I wasn’t.”

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The club has its sad tales as well. A club member for a decade, 19-year-old Jose Aguirre demonstrated great promise as a fighter, compiling a 27-3 record and placing second in the Silver Gloves National Championships in 1991.

Last April, the 1993 Anaheim High School graduate was shot in the head and killed when he went out for hamburgers. Police are still searching for the killer.

“Jose was the best prospect of all the kids I’ve seen here in the last 20 years,” said Anaheim Councilman and Police Officer Lou Lopez, a former Golden Gloves champion who helped found the club. “It really hurt. I used to work out with him in the Police Department gym. He was known in the department as a fighter.”

Lopez, who helped train Aguirre, sees a lot of himself in the youths at the gym. As a sixth-grader, Lopez was suspended from school for fighting.

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But boxing and adult guidance turned him around, Lopez said. The sport enabled him to vent his aggression and taught him self-discipline.

“You can’t smoke, drink or do drugs and be a fighter,” Lopez said. “The discipline makes you tough. Through boxing, you realize you can take a guy out physically. And once you know you can, there’s no reason to do it.”

Lopez, who won six of 10 professional fights and once was boxing champion of the statewide Police Olympics, still laces up on his boxing gloves at the club. But the kids rarely get to see him spar.

“I get in the ring every once in a while and mix it up,” Lopez said. “But I’m 50, and my wife doesn’t let me much anymore.”

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Lopez promises to fight attempts to cut any of city’s annual $50,000 funding allocated to the club. The money, which could be threatened as the city recovers from the county fund disaster, pays for staff, equipment and expenses for young boxers who travel to tournaments.

“If it weren’t for programs like this, where would these kids be?” Lopez said. “Where would I be?”

Sixteen-year-old Cesar Esparza admits he probably would be at home watching television. The 112-pound Esparza said the boxing club fosters self-reliance.

“In boxing, it’s only yourself against another person,” said the Anaheim High School student after sparing for three two-minutes rounds. “It’s just one on one. It’s not like baseball, where you depend on other people. If you lose, you lose by yourself.”

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Boxing’s discipline also regulates 12-year-old Fernando Garcia’s diet. For him, junk food violates his training.

“I can’t eat at McDonald’s; too many calories,” said the youngster whose 12-ounce boxing gloves nearly swallow his arms.

The sacrifices are worthwhile, though, maintains Dennis Gonzales, struggling for air after a few rounds in the ring.

“I like to fight,” the 10-year-old said. “But out there I get into trouble for it. In here, I get to fight and I don’t get into trouble.”

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