by Jason Walker
photography by Sylvia Castellanos
Ding! Blow after blow, leather swings and connects with the left and then with the right. Warriors await the opportunity to connect with the glass jaw of their opponent. Ding! The time is now to land that ferocious jab that will ignite the crowd. Fans stand and watch the battle. A quick right-hand is landed by one of the fighters, and the oohs and ahhs dance through the Vaseline-choked air. “Stick and move!” someone exclaims in the crowd. But this boxing match is far from conventional. It is not at Mandalay Bay or the Staples Center, nor are the warriors Lennox Lewis or Evander Holyfield. It takes place in Pomona at a Rocky-esque training gym known as the Fist of Gold Youth Center, and the warriors are two free-swinging, Vaseline-coated 8 year olds.
A fury of combinations full of tension and anxiety fill the two boys. A father and his 8-year-old son find a vacant seat. The lone warrior son remains standing while the father sits and applies the Vaseline to the boy’s nose, hands and eyebrows. The young boy’s pint-sized body somehow fits into the oversized boxing shorts lined with his name, Diaz. The father looks eager, like a young boy, as if re-living his competition days. The young boy seems poised—as knowing something no one else knows—as the waning moments to his battle approach.
As the youths enter the complex with passionate eyes, it seems like “Eye of the Tiger” should be playing on a loop in the background. Battle scars contort the young skin on their frail bodies. Looking militant, the young people are ready for action. Parents and children trickle their way into the complex and find their way ringside. The youths’ trainers, their fathers, prepare the customary pre-wrap adhesive and meticulously apply athletic tape to the warriors’ wrists and knuckles.
On this day, the Smoker, a youth amateur boxing tournament, sponsored by the Boys and Girls Club of Pomona, is going to be a battle with plenty of pride at stake for each of the young warriors as their friends and families cheer them on. Throughout the shadows, on the far side of the ring, brass trophies sit perched, the material prize for boxing supremacy. The young warriors’ eyes light up when they fixate on their possible reward.
The Smoker features amateur boxers from throughout Southern California plus a group from Las Vegas. The Fist of Gold Youth Center, an after-school gang diversion program and boxing center in Pomona that stages the event, has taught boxing as well as physical fitness for the past 11 years. The Center’s leadership wants to give children a “fighting chance” by helping develop self-discipline and self-esteem. Each week night, the Fist of Gold Youth Center serves more than 60 children from the city of Pomona and surrounding cities at the Pomona YMCA. Instead of just building better fighters, Fist of Gold concentrates on building better character, says Trainer and Director George Castaneda Jr.
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls,” says the announcer, as parents and children focus on the ring. “Please glove up.” These three words light up the crowd as the announcer reveals the names of the first bout. One of the first fighters, a small figure compared to the massive trainer next to him, sits in the crowd. The dwarfing trainer whispers in his young boxer’s ear. Preparation is over, and the time for action is at hand. But before anything can happen, the announcer requests a moment of silence for Claudette Leever, the woman known as “Grandma Boxer.”
George Castaneda Jr. met Claudette Leever in 1995. Leever, who died in November 2003, was an avid boxing fan and loved watching the children train. It was her goal for Fist of Gold to gain non-profit status, and it did. Castaneda says he wants to work harder to keep Leever’s dream alive. He vividly remembers “Grandma Boxer,” and his emotions convey his love. And although Grandma Boxer may not have a face to some, her dreams live on through their fists.
Throughout the silence, the bell is rung 10 times. In the corners of the ring, two small boxers stand with oversized gloves, headgear that covers more than needed for protection, boxing trunks that look like high water pants almost down to their ankles, and athletic shoes that look like Ronald McDonald’s famous red sneakers. The pint-sized boxers enter the ring with the help of their supporters. As the boxers are introduced, the crowd is reminded of their youth: “12-year-old, 83 pounds,” says the announcer. The towering officials give instructions to the young opponents, who walk back to their respective corners.
With a saunter that exudes confidence and determination, each boxer knows there can only be one winner. The ding of the bell sends the boxers out of the corners and at each other like magnets. Each child looks like he has a multitude of hands, as fists of fury blur through the air and connect with opponents. Each blow causes a more heightened reaction from the crowd. “Jab,” “Move,” yell the parents and coaches. As quickly as the round begins, it is over. One minute per round seems like an eternity as the boxers return to their corners, physically exhausted and wet with sweat. After the third round, Dave Rodriguez of the Pomona City Council presents trophies to the first and second place boxers. The tournament is over, and dreams are fulfilled or dashed, at least until next year. For those who have won, their material reward may mean little compared to the intrinsic bliss they have achieved. For those who lost, their work has not been in vain.
“The reason for this program is to keep kids off the streets,” Rodriguez says. The Fist of Gold Youth Center provides opportunities for hands-on experience by training young children and men all the way up to the age of 30.
Lavar Williams, a 21-year-old University of La Verne senior who began boxing at age 11 and ventures to Fist of Gold three times a week, feels this program is beneficial to him as well as the younger generations who are involved. “The children who come to this program get something for something,” he says. “They get a place to go, and they get to learn the art of boxing.”
The dream of Grandma Boxer and the supporters who continue to keep her memory and dream alive is a testament to the foundation of this youth program. Many have benefited, and many more will come, thanks to a dream and a “fighting chance.”