CVIndependent

Fri11272020

Last updateMon, 24 Aug 2020 12pm

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.”

Published in Features

Close to 1,000 young boxing hopefuls and proven amateurs this week are congregating at the 15th Annual Desert Showdown at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio—all in search of a title in their weight and age class.

For one local girl, the tournament means a return to the site of her first sanctioned bout and victory in her thus-far undefeated career.

“My first fight was when I was 12, and it was at the Desert Showdown four years ago,” said Citlalli Ortiz, of Coachella, during a recent training session at her boxing home, the Coachella Valley Boxing Club gym, run by the valley’s elder statesman of pugilism, Lee Espinoza.

Ortiz started boxing because she was dragged to the gym while her sister got into the ring.

“It was my older sister, Brenda, which was funny,” she said. “I would say, ‘No. I don’t want to go,’ when she went to the gym to train.”

Citlalli—pronounced “seat-lolly”—has been trained and managed by her father, Alex Ortiz. He explained the unlikely path taken by his younger daughter to the 2016 USA Boxing National Junior Championship at 154 pounds.

“It was not intended for Citlalli to be here at this moment,” he said. “My oldest daughter, Brenda, kept bugging me to bring her (Brenda) over to the gym so she could try boxing. Citlalli just came along because we had no one to leave her with.”

Citlalli eventually entered the ring because there were no other girls around to train with Brenda.

“Citlalli would get in the ring with her older sister and be like the punching bag,” said Alex Ortiz, who works as a substitute teacher. “And then one day, my dad brought some friends over to the house, and there were two boys about her age. They found boxing gloves lying around in the house, so the boys put them on, and they were both punching her. I got really upset watching her covering up, and not punching back. So I said, ‘You guys want to box? Let’s go out into the yard.’ I told her for the first time, ‘Just do the one-two. Left, then right.’ She knocked both of them out. One of the kids even spun around as he fell down. That’s when I realized that she really had potential.”

Those earliest boxing experiences with her older sister had a lasting impact on Citlalli.

“There’s a six-year difference between us,” she said. “But I tried every time, and even if I wanted to do something different, she would always have something better to do. I guess that’s how she helped me learn, and I was able to take a beating from anybody after that.”

Citlalli has not taken any beatings since she began her sanctioned boxing career. Still undefeated, Citlalli in the past year has won championship belts and medals at the 40th Annual Gene Lewis Invitational Tournament in Mesa, Ariz.; the 2016 USA Junior and Youth Boxing Championships in Reno, Nev.; and the 2016 USA Boxing Junior Olympic, Prep National and Youth Open Championships in Dallas. In the latter two events, she defeated former national champions to claim the titles.

Despite her undefeated record, Citlalli has definitely faced some challenges since she started boxing—including a battle with her weight.

“I was over 200 pounds when I started boxing,” she said. “So every time I would ask somebody to train me, they would say they couldn’t train me, because I wasn’t going to lose the weight.”

However, she has lost a lot of weight; all of her recent title victories have been in the 154-pound weight class. Still, Citlalli and her father believe her boxing future will be brightest if she gets down to 145 pounds. When does she hope to make that goal? Like ... immediately.

“I’ve been 154 for a while now,” Citlalli said, “but for the (Desert) Showdown, my goal is to be 145.”

Citlalli’s father also teased her about the fact that she’s trying to slim down for her upcoming quinceaneara.

“She wants to go down to 141,” he said. “So that’s another motivation for her. I told her she has to be at the weight (for the tournament), because if she tries on the dress she wants now and then loses 10 pounds, that dress is going to be too big for her.”

Once she makes her target weight, what will the rest of her future look like?

“I’ve heard that they’re going to let professionals compete in Olympic boxing, and if that’s official, then we want to go pro and then go to the Olympics (in 2020),” Citlalli said. “If it’s not true, then we would rather go to the Olympics.”

As she enters her junior year at Coachella Valley High School, Citlalli is aware of the importance of her education.

“I know I have to keep up with my grades,” she said. “I know boxing is not forever, so I’m going to have to look for a career that I like. But for now, I really want to focus on boxing.”

Citlalli’s father noted that her mother has always been wary of boxing. “But she’s been seeing Citlalli’s results in the ring, and that’s what makes her say, ‘I know that you’re good at this, but just don’t forget school.’ And we’ve got to respect that. I feel that way, too. I know it’s important and that you have to have that Plan B and be prepared. Time flies.”

Published in Features

Brandon Viloria, 8, was running wind sprints in 95-degree weather at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday (July 10) outside of the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. His mother, Shannon, was by his side.

What would possess a kid to do such a thing? Turns out Brandon is the current California boxing champion in the 8-to-10-year-old, 55-pound bantam weight class, and he was slated to compete at the 12th Annual Desert Showdown tournament at Fantasy Springs this weekend.

“He’s got to drop 1.4 pounds right now so that he can make his weight limit at the weigh-in,” explained his father, Dominic. “We’re trying to become the Desert Showdown champion now.”

Brandon’s commitment and determination is typical of the aspiring boxing champions who have converged on the Coachella Valley in July to compete in boxing coach and promoter Ralph Romero’s dream event. As the USA’s second-largest amateur boxing tournament, the Desert Showdown has become a normal step for many amateur boxers as they try to climb to the top.

Beyond the roughly 600 participating fighters’ skill level, the fact that they are learning the discipline and focus required by a boxer’s demanding lifestyle can be a valuable reward in itself.

“With this tournament, everything’s for the kids,” says promoter Romero. “They’re the ones who take the hits. I’m just here to guide them—help them do right, get through high school, go to college, make a career. School first, boxing next. That way, if they get out of boxing, they’ve got something to fall back on.”

Director of the Coachella Valley Boxing Club, Lee Espinoza—who trained the world champion brothers Julio and Antonio Diaz, and has 22 fighters competing in this year’s tourney—concurs.

“I started training kids 33 years ago, and I had just three boys to work with,” recalls Espinosa. “Today, guys I trained when they were 6 years old have 6-year-old sons. They’re doing fine, and that’s great.”

As Thursday’s weigh-in drew to a close, one happy competitor stepped off the scale. With tired smiles and “No. 1” hand signs, the Viloria family celebrated their chance to capture a Desert Showdown belt: Brandon had made his weight.

Scroll down for the photo gallery, and watch this story at CVIndependent.com for more photos throughout the weekend.

Published in Snapshot