South Cache Boxing Club
All around him, the world is bustling.
From the interstate a couple hundred feet east of the Salt Lake City gym he is in to just feet away, where his father is nervously pacing from the seat where a beer is resting back over to the side of the calm son, Cris Arrieta is tranquil in a sea of movement.
Small children run between heavy punching bags, and climb on a metal support like a jungle gym. A row of men with silver hair sitting ringside talk and laugh with everyone who walks by. R and B music plays over a scratchy P.A. system as a crowd gathers in metal folding chairs, the banners near the ceiling scream with Budweiser ads, and then the crowd itself starts screaming "let's go!" to start the show they've each paid $10 to see.
And Cris, a 106-pound, 14-year old from Hyrum with medium-length brown hair and quiet, almost sleepy eyes, sits and soaks it in. Tonight, a Saturday evening at the Salt Lake City Fight Coliseum, Cris will enter a boxing ring for his first officially sanctioned fight. It's a bout against a fighter from Las Vegas, who is in town with a team that has traveled to take on boys from all over Utah in a border challenge. Cris and his friend Francisco Guizar, also 14, are representing the South Cache Boxing Club from Hyrum, a fledging group that started last spring with six fighters and has grown enough to have the two invited to the Utah vs. Las Vegas event.
Cris says he's "a little nervous." Francisco, a veteran of five fights in the past few months, is way past that.
"I just get anxious to get in the ring," says Francisco, who keeps his hair buzzed low and bounces around in baggy sweats and a gray sweatshirt as he warms up.
Francisco paces back and forth, corrals his little sister when she runs off, and shadow boxes as he waits to lace up the gloves. When another teenage member of the club approaches the two, Cris's eyes are still locked on the ring, where eight halogen lights glow over the red canvas.
"Estas listo?", meaning "Are you ready?", asks Erick Chiang, 15, a chattering teenager with spiked hair and two sparkly earrings who is, personality wise, in the exact opposite corner of the ring from Cris.
"Yea," Cris answers under his breath, stands and walks away to have his hands taped by coach Mario Pena in preparation for the bout.
"He's so calm," says Erick, shaking his head.
Before Cris and Francisco step into the Salt Lake City ring that is surrounded by hundreds of spectators, they will have spent months in a small sheet metal garage on the south end of Hyrum. So the story should go back to that makeshift gym as well, where Mario Pena has been training the lithe 14-year-olds for nights just like the March evening where Cris learned to fight before hundreds of spectators.
The story even goes even further away than southern Cache Valley, since, in a way, the club also began when Pena learned to box as a teenager in Aculpuloco, Mexico. Not quite talented enough to survive as a professional like his brother, Sabino, Pena gave up his fighting dreams. He married, had four children, and settled in Hyrum. And then, at age 31, decided he would do something for his Latino community.
So he arranged for use of the garage, a tiny room with a cement floor, sheet metal walls with exposed rafters and a flannel sheet for a door. In exchange for its use, he trains the property owner's 10- and 8-year old sons. Pena gathered up what boxing equipment he could find, and now, four heavy bags and a red double-end bag strung on a cord hang for fighters to punch; a large drum in a corner is covered by carpet for sit-ups; and a small propane heater hums on one wall. And he recruited a growing number of boys who fill the room more than the sparse equipment ever will, all the way from 8-year-old Mariano Chavez to men in their late teens and early twenties.
Practice starts with a run for half of the dozen or so boys who showed up on a chilly Monday night in March. The group breaks into two at the outset, one taking a forty minute training run while the other goes through three-minute punching drills — the same time a round in a sanctioned bout lasts — under the watchful eye and encouraging voice of Pena that switches from Spanish to English.
"C'mon, otro tiempo," Pena says to the boys who practice in near silence — other than heavy breathing — when each three minute frenzy ends. A few switch places at heavy bags, and another takes his turn in the open area of the garage with Pena, who spars and coaches the fighters through the session like a dance instructor wearing a thick black torso protector.
"Left, right, left, right, dodge dodge, body body," he says as his students hit him again and again.
Pena has ten licensed fighters on the team, but others are practicing and working towards the goal of getting into the ring. They are kids like Tonio Mondragon, a 16-year-old who joined the team in February after moved to Hyrum from California. Tonio has fought before, obvious from the way he hisses when his lightning blows land on the heavy bag. They are kids like Hector Lopez and Agustine Melchor, teenagers that, although still slight and baby faced, say they want to be champions of what can be a rough sport. And they are also kids that aren't at practice tonight, like a 16-year-old South Cache fighter that was awarded the Silver Gloves Boxer of the Year award last December, but has since been suspended because of legal trouble.
In fact, that's the only time Pena refuses boys the generosity that they respect him for so much. With temptations to join a gang, participate in a feud brewing in the Hispanic community, or find trouble elsewhere surrounding these boys, Pena has one goal that outranks winning boxing matches.
"I'm trying to keep these kids away from the street. That's my point," says Pena. "I can teach you to fight, but you can't fight in the street. My only condition."
The need for his alternative hit home recently. Cris's older brother Oscar, who did not box with South Cache but was very supportive of Cris and Ivan, another Arrieta brother in the South Cache club, was shot and killed after a dispute with two other Hispanic men. It was rumored Oscar Arrieta had gang associations, or may have simply been part of a feud in the Hispanic community between immigrants from different Latin American countries.
Mario points out that his team has kids from Hyrum to Smithfield, who have immigrated or have parents from Mexico, Guatemala, California, and America. He said the incident involving Oscar Arrieta, who was in the front row at Cris's inaugural fight in Salt Lake City, just makes his boxing mission that much more important.
"What happened is something we have to learn from, we have to stop this," says Pena.
"Mario's a good man. He wants us to go far," says Erick, who works as assistant trainer for Pena while he gets ready to start boxing again. "If he didn't want us to, he wouldn't be buying equipment and letting us use it for free. And giving us all that advice."
Cris is calm again, but now it's a different kind of peaceful.
His forehead, still in red headgear, is resting on the top rope of the ring in the Fight Coliseum. Pena is softly speaking in his ear, still coaching even though the bell has rung to signal a second-round TKO. The large cheering section from Hyrum, which takes up nearly all the folding chairs on the south side of the ring, has quieted, but they soon get the noise going again as Francisco steps to the ring.
Francisco lasts three rounds, but like Cris, is simply worn down by a stronger and better-conditioned fighter. They lose to the Torres brothers of Las Vegas, both of whom had an advantage over the friends from Hyrum in terms of experience, height and reach. You can only wonder what kind of advantage there was in equipment, but the odds are the Vegas boys never run in 30-degree weather or do sit-ups on a rusty drum covered by used carpet.
Adam Kubuki is seated at ringside to watch Francisco's bout. Kubuki's match has been canceled, so he roots for his friend instead of prepare for a fight.
"He's good. He's got heart. I was his second fight, and I beat him," says Kubuki, a shaggy haired kid with pale skin and an athletic build, wearing a sweatshirt of his Summit County boxing club. "But he's a good fighter. He has a future in boxing, I think."
As long as his coach is there for him, at least. Pena says he's been offered a job coaching at a bigger gym, like the facility in Park City where Kubuki trains with three coaches, 25 other teammates, a locker and a weight room. But he isn't leaving Hyrum.
"I want to finish what I started," says Pena. "They (other fighters) got a better place, or gym, but we compete. I trust these kids. It feels great to teach them. I want them to be a champion someday. Like Oscar, or Chavez."
He means Oscar de la Hoya or Julio Cesar Chavez, famous Latino boxers that Pena encourages his boys to learn about. Especially one boy, a 10-year-old also named Julio Cesar Chavez who Pena calls a future champ because of his name. And only his name, since the young Julio has a record of just 1-1 so far.
"He'll be good someday, but he's got a lot of things to learn," says Pena.
Fortunately, like the six others who are gathered in the gym when the coach makes his good-natured crack, Julio is well on his way.