Feature Premium

The far side of boxing

boxing
Virgil Barrow
A long way from the millions earned by Canelo Alvarez lies the opposite end of the boxing spectrum in Mexico. There are some similarities; the desire to inspire, even that fair hair and pale skin. But, as John Dennen discovers, they operate in a different world to their idol

MEXICO is synonymous with boxing. Its national holidays shape the calendar of the sport, there’s a reason even Floyd Mayweather fought on Cinco de Mayo and Mexican Independence weekend. The country has produced some of the most celebrated boxers in history. Chavez, Barrera, Morales, the list is vast. They all come from somewhere, the hard gyms and the fighting culture of their homeland.

The phenomenon of Canelo Alvarez is well documented. Pale-skinned, red-haired, he doesn’t look a regular Mexican fighter. Last year he signed a monumental deal with new broadcaster DAZN. His signature in October guaranteed him an eye-watering $365 million over five years, making him the most highly paid boxer in the sport today.

At the top end of the sport almost unimaginable fortunes can be made. But it is a world removed from the lot a typical boxer in Mexico faces. But Canelo can still be an inspiration. Allan Gonzalez is pale, like Canelo, and a boxer himself, though his achievements are far more modest. He’s only boxed seven times, and he’s been defeated on five of those occasions. He’s fought in Mexico City and Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, the densely populated urban sprawl that lies beyond it. Only 22, undaunted by his humble record, he has hope for himself and his future. “I got hold of my dream. Because I always dreamed and here it’s possible,” he said of becoming a prizefighter. “I saw that was possible, getting closer to what I always had dreamed about. I got hold of the idea of the dream because I always had that in mind.”

Of course he looks at the dream of Canelo. “I identify myself with him. As far as I know he went through similar things in his life. Because people would bully him, because of being red haired and because he’s got freckles. So it’s something similar to the thing that I went through as well. He’s very important for all Mexican fighters and young fighters because he’s an inspiration for young people like me that want to be excellent boxers,” Gonzalez told BN.

Gonzalez had been bullied for how he looked. It led him into ‘a fighting life’. “I had two phases of this fighting life in school. The first thing I was bullied by the school because I was quite white.

“I was bullied because they believed I was from a different social, economic background. They would call me the posh one, the one with privileges basically. I would fight against those things,” he said. “It was because of the colour of my skin, people assumed I had a better economic position, which wasn’t true. They based the whole thing about the way I look.

“Sometimes because of the colour of my skin or the way I look, sometimes even my opponents would misjudge me because I don’t look like the aggressive, strong person they are. At the end of the day they see things in the ring like we’re totally similar. The colour of skin or the way you look doesn’t determine the power you have or how strong you are.”

He would become too good at defending himself. “I became good at bullying others and I would be the one who started the fights for other reasons,” Gonzalez admitted. This fighting prompting his mother, increasingly concerned, to take him to a boxing gym in their hometown of Salamanca in Guanajuato. The experience would change him profoundly.

“Something that inspired me is the way I see boxing as an opportunity for me to go forward, go forward in a positive way. “To overcome your reality and be something else and be someone for your family and for people that surround you. So I feel motivated as well for the things that I could reach or I could dodge through boxing,” Gonzalez said.

But turning professional never really seemed a possibility. Not until his family moved to Mexico City. There he found his way to Lupita, an old club that has celebrated 50 years in Tacubaya, a club where once, long ago, Finito Lopez and other great fighters trained. It hasn’t produced any fighters of that calibre for many years. But its work is more important than ever. The gym supports the TRASO organisation, part of the Fight for Peace Alliance, which runs a programme that uses boxing to divert children from gangs and criminal activity and promote education and self-development. After training at Lupita first, Allan became one of the boxing coaches for TRASO.

While he has helped young people, that experience has affected him deeply. “Becoming part of TRASO has changed in a positive way my life, as a person, as a boxer as well. Before I joined TRASO I was boxing in Lupita. That’s why I met these guys, because they trained in Lupita’s building. I was training in Lupita and I never thought about being a teacher or teaching young people.

boxing

“I never thought about it. But I met Margi [Larrinaga] and Hector [Colin] and they kind of gave me the opportunity to do that, not just the opportunity but they support me to be able to do that,” Gonzalez said. “As an amateur boxer you feel like there are so many problems around you want to throw the towel in, just give up and then for me, if I wasn’t part of TRASO maybe I’d have left boxing and the city because I had some problems. Now the children look up to me, I’m a kind of a role model for them, for the children. So I feel a responsibility that sometimes stops me from giving up. The responsibility I feel, if I left my dreams I’m going to disappoint also the young people I work with.

“I know I’m an example and I need that, because I’m an example I have to ask more of me. More discipline. More and better every day.”

“I feel that giving back something or giving something to children, for them not to experience things that I experienced as a child, I feel good about doing that and preventing them from having some of the bad experiences I had. I feel good about it,” he added. “I’m not just a coach, I’m also a mentor, I’m an example for children to follow so I don’t just use words, but acts that teach better than words. As a person I show, not just say but also show, that changing is possible. Showing young people as a person I made a choice, I changed. So it’s possible to change. I believe I’ve got a really good relationship with children because I’ve experienced things that they’re experiencing. So I relate to them, understand them and I try to listen to them and support them. Also I believe the children teach me a lot and they have taught me so many things.

“We’re all learning from each other.”

boxing

He is far more than simply his 1-5-1 record. “As a boxer I want to be the best,” Gonzalez says. “Many people want to be the world champion. I want to be a world champion as well but I want to be the best.
I believe if I grow as a fighter TRASO is going to grow as well so it’s something that really inspires me. I want to grow because I want to see TRASO growing with me and I want to see TRASO helping more people, extending their benefits and be able to help more young people.”

Every boxing club is its own epic. Different stories, different lives with their own fights and unique struggles intersect within a gym’s walls.

Assisting Gonzalez with the boxing coaching for the TRASO programme is Dulce Orihuela. She had found her way to Lupita from Barrio Norte.

“First of all I love boxing and I believe it’s an awesome sport. Lucha Libre is like acting but compared with boxing, boxing’s the real thing. If someone punches you, you bleed. You feel it. I believe I really like real things,” she said. “It’s not that I like being hit. I like real things. I really admire boxing because boxing is a real sport. It’s not about violence and it’s not about aggression because the first thing we learn when we box is it’s not for hitting others. That’s not the propostion of boxing. I challenge people’s perspectives because for me it’s an amazing sport.”

So she had to go to a real boxing gym. “When I said I’m going to Tacubaya, everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God, you’re going to Tacubaya.’ Because it’s a really ‘heavy,’ difficult and rough area. I haven’t experienced that myself because I try to look after myself, be smart about the time of day I move around and everything. [There are] a lot of robberies and fights, people fighting,” she explained. “I live in Barrio Norte, where things are more difficult than Tacubaya. In my neighbourhood there are a lot of drugs and the distribution of drugs. My friends, people I’m related to, they are the ones who sell drugs and everything. It’s very common. Last week there was a killing because of the trafficking situation. Problems with drugs are the most common things in my neighbourhood. They are very similar but if you compare, Tacubaya is easier than Barrio Norte.”

boxing

At Lupita she “liked the environment. Things are different. I wasn’t looking for luxury, I was looking for what’s real”.

It was unexpected for her to become a boxer. “My father thought I wasn’t going to last in boxing. It’s true, people in society expect you to be very fragile because you are a woman, for you to have less power and be less strong because you are a woman,” she said. “Like the perception of how women are… They expect me to be bad, rubbish basically, and then when they try me, I’m very strong.”

Dulce didn’t start boxing particularly to learn to defend herself. “That was not the reason in my case. What motivates me is everyone does the same things, all of them selling drugs. So I thought sport’s a different path in life,” she said. “What makes me is trying to be different, trying to choose a different path because everyone else does basically the same. Something that motivates me a lot is because I’ve got a brother, a younger brother, and I believe I’m his example. So I bring him to box with me. He starts by copying me; ‘Dulce tries that way so I’m going to do it that way’. It’s challenging also for me. My relationship with my brother, that motivates me better than [simply] being able to defend myself.”

Orihuela, determined, has even turned professional herself: “Yes it’s more difficult [for a woman to turn professional in Mexico]. But it’s not impossible. I have to recognise that for me, I have had to find my place and show people that I am able to do it, as a woman. It’s not impossible. Difficult but not impossible.”

She has had her first prizefights, though she met defeat. But it was still a special moment for her to compete professionally, to start that side of her career. “It was really, really emotional and really important. I’ve waited for that moment. Since I started boxing I’ve always waited for the time I was going to do that jump. It was so full of emotions that I wasn’t afraid. Even though it was the first time I fought without a headguard.
I had been thinking about, yes, it’s difficult to receive punches on your head without a headguard but all that disappeared because I was very excited.”

By working with TRASO, like Gonzalez she is a part of something bigger than herself. “Also, I feel it’s great to be able to inspire a generation of children and show even if they have bad moments or bad times surrounding them they can make wonderful things out of that. I feel so proud I’m able to be part of that,” Dulce thought. “TRASO makes the children improve in school. Things like that happen because TRASO is giving them the opportunity to come and be creative.”

“I love it. They gave me the opportunity of doing something I really love doing. In my role I’m the coaching assistant of Allan. Also I do body conditioning and when we have time and they behave, we play as well,” she added. “Allan is very noble, is very kind of calm. I am the one that puts in the discipline.”

Gonzalez, like Orihuela, hasn’t been winning. But they’re fighting for something. Gonzalez hasn’t had the support of a promoter developing him for success, selecting his opposition, building him. That 1-5-1 record sentences him to a hard career. “I started my career with fighters with more experience and better fighters than me in terms of more time being a professional and everything. But I believe in a way I’m happy with that. Because I believe it has made me a real fighter,” Allan said. “Everything I have, I won it.”

Boxing news – Newsletter

Current Issue