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05 Oct 2020

Punching Out of the Pandemic: Legendary Boxing Trainer Lee Espinoza and Star Pupil Citlalli Ortiz Keep on Fighting as Best They Can

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Citlalli Ortiz smiles with her father and trainer, Alex, during the 2018 Mexico Nationals. Citlalli Ortiz smiles with her father and trainer, Alex, during the 2018 Mexico Nationals. Courtesy of Citlalli Ortiz

More than 40 years ago, Coachella resident Lee Espinoza started training local youngsters in the art of boxing—while also teaching the character traits required to form the foundation of a successful career, like discipline, determination, good health practices and mental focus.

For more than 20 years, the Coachella Valley Boxing Club building, on the north edge of the park on Douma Street, has served as Espinoza’s headquarters and schoolhouse. It’s where he has supervised or hosted the training of pugilistic luminaries including former pro world champions Pancho Segura, Julio Diaz, Sandra Yard and Randy Caballero.

But this past spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept into the Coachella Valley, Espinoza—who is slated to be inducted into the West Coast Boxing Hall of Fame—reluctantly shuttered his boxing refuge.

“The governor told us that we had to close it, and so we did close it for a while,” Espinoza said during a recent phone interview. “We’ve just barely opened it back up again, and for now, it’s only (by appointment), so you can come and train at this time, or that time. They don’t want too many people inside at once.”

While the gym was closed, the aspiring champs of today were relegated to training outdoors in the summer heat of neighboring Bagdouma Park, or in the garages and backyards of their family homes. While Espinoza wasn’t involved in this day-to-day training, he made sure the equipment from his gym was available to anyone who needed it.

Among the young fighters who are now back at the gym and training are several men and women who have won national and world amateur championships under Espinoza’s mentoring. One such decorated amateur is 20-year-old Citlalli Ortiz of Coachella.

The Independent first met Ortiz back in 2016, as she was preparing to enter the Desert Showdown boxing tournament at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. In the four years since then, Ortiz—who already held titles as the 2016 Junior and Youth National Champion, the 2016 Junior Olympic Champion and winner of the 2016 WBC Belt at the Beautiful Brawlers Show—added the Gold Medal at the 2017 Women’s Youth World Championships and became the 2017 USA Youth National Champion and the 2017 Mexican National Champion in her 152-pound weight class.

But 2018 brought a host of unexpected obstacles. The notoriously chaotic influence of international boxing politics entered her life and career when Team USA Boxing inexplicably decided not to include her on their team competing at the 2018 Youth Olympic games, considered a necessary stop on the road to the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Ortiz—who had established dual citizenship in both the United States and Mexico—went so far as to contact the International Boxing Association (AIBA) directly to ask what steps she could take to qualify for the 2018 Youth Olympics.

“They said that if Team USA let me,” Ortiz explained, “I could fight in the Continental Tournament (at 155), and if I won there, I could automatically go to the Youth Olympics. So I told Team USA what AIBA had said, but they still didn’t want to do it. I kept trying ways to convince them (to let me fight at 155 pounds in these two tournaments), but finally I told them that I wanted to go with Mexico, who keeps telling me they want me to fight for them. I told Team USA that I only had one chance to fight in these tournaments, because I’d only be 18 once.”

But Team USA had even more bad news for Ortiz. “They told me that I’d have to wait for two years before I could fight for another country.” Ortiz said. “But I said that Mexico told me that Team USA could make a deal with them if the USA would say that I wasn’t going to fight for them anymore, and sign an agreement. They told me they wouldn’t (give me permission). They said that they’d rather have me fighting for the USA then against it.”

At that point, Ortiz decided to link her fortunes to the Mexico national boxing team, and begin the two-year prohibition on her competing for Mexico internationally. But there was little competition to be found in Mexico for a woman boxer in 2018.

“That’s when I became a little inactive,” Ortiz said. “While I was waiting for those years, I started fighting a little in Mexico, and I kind of made a comeback in 2019. I ended up winning the nationals in Mexico, and I won the Olympic trials for Mexico. Then, in March of 2020, I was already on my way to Argentina to fight in the pre-Olympic trials when COVID-19 struck. I’d been living in Mexico for a few months, but when COVID happened, I just had to go home (to the U.S.). Now I’m stuck (deciding) whether to turn pro, or staying amateur and waiting for the Olympics.”

Is she ready to get back in the gym yet?

“Lee (Espinoza) told me that the gym had re-opened,” Ortiz said, “but I started working, so I couldn’t go yet. With my dad (her father, Alex Ortiz, is her manager and trainer), I’ve been training from like 6-10 a.m., and then I come home, eat and take a nap before I have to go to work. So there hasn’t been time for me to go to the gym. But I had a day off the other day, so I was able to go see Lee and find out how things are going. So now I’ll probably start training right in the boxing club, before I go to work.”

Espinoza will welcome her back to the fold, but Ortiz shouldn’t look for him at the gym come March 14, because—the pandemic permitting—he’ll be in Los Angeles enjoying the banquet and induction ceremony staged by the West Coast Boxing Hall of Fame. The banquet was originally scheduled for Oct. 4, but was delayed until March.

Espinoza will join a group of inductees that includes world-class boxers Oscar de la Hoya, Michael Nunn, Gabriel Ruelas, Rafael Ruelas, Johnny Tapia, Robert Diaz and Sue “TL” (Tiger Lilly) Fox, as well as referee Richard Steele.

“A long time ago, I got a call and they said I was going to be inducted.” Espinoza said. “Then they sent me a flier. So that’s it. Oscar (de la Hoya) is going to be there and is getting inducted, and a lot of other people I know are going to be there, too. You know, they started selling tables (for the banquet), and we sold seven tables. And they said, ‘Oh my god, Oscar de la Hoya only sold five.’”

Back in the gym, although Espinoza is happy to see his boxers reconvening, he knows the championship-caliber women boxers who are coming back to train face even more challenges.

“Right now, they don’t have anything going on,” Espinoza said. “There are no shows, no nothing. You know the ladies have nothing. But they’re all still working.”

How does Ortiz feel about her boxing future?

“You know, most of the time, I just think I should stop,” Ortiz said. “But after all I’ve been through, I keep on it—you know, I keep going. I believe that some boxers who didn’t have that mentality would say, ‘I’ll just stop,’ after all these challenges. But I don’t want to be saying to myself, ‘I was so close, and I just let it go.’ I’ve been practicing for 12 years and competing for five. So sometimes I think I just want to hang up the gloves and let it go. But, I can’t do that.”

Her hopes of competing at the Olympics have not been extinguished, either.

“With the pandemic going on, no one is sure if the Olympics will even happen next year,” Ortiz said. “And if they don’t take place for another couple of years, then I feel like I still have a chance. So it’s kind of weird that I see the pandemic, in my boxing career, as having created a chance that I can still go to an Olympics, which I always wanted to do. But in my personal life, it’s been another obstacle. All those months, I couldn’t train or work—and things start catching up to you.”

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