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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

A good time for a good cause was the goal at the Will Powered Golf Classic, held Monday, March 3, at Palm Desert’s Bighorn Golf Club, and the Desert Smash tennis tournament, held Tuesday, March 4, at the La Quinta Resort.

The events were hosted by actor/comedian Will Ferrell and cancer survivor Craig Pollard, the founder of Cancer for College.

Players competed in a “shamble” format in the annual golfing fundraiser, which has been funding scholarships for cancer survivors since 1994. The golf tournament kicked off Cancer for College’s 2014 Desert Showdown, which continued on Tuesday, March 4, with the Desert Smash tennis tournament, as well as a concert featuring Nelly and Boyz II Men at The Show at the Agua Caliente Casino Resort Spa.

Ferrell and Pollard were joined this year by Kevin Spacey, the two-time Academy Award-winning actor and star of the hit Netflix series House of Cards. Since 1994, Cancer for College has granted more than $2 million in college scholarships to more than 1,000 cancer survivors.

At an impromptu press conference on his way to tee-off on Monday, Ferrell touted all of the charity-centric activities included in this year’s expanded Desert Showdown. In particular, he expressed excitement about the concert at The Show, modestly called Will Ferrell’s Epically Awesome Desert Showdown Concert Extravaganza.

“I don’t think that Coachella music fest will be able to compare! And that’s a scoop, by the way,” he said.

Regarding the serious cause underlying the fun and games, Ferrell explained the perspective he and Pollard share.

“We use humor to kind of talk about cancer,” said Ferrell. “You know, it’s such a taboo subject, because people don’t want to talk about having gone through the disease, but we kind of mix it up. One of the best parts is hearing the recent scholarship recipients’ speeches, where they talk about everything they’ve gone through, and how motivated they are to make a difference.”

Moments later, just after the celebrity groupings were announced on the first tee, the crowd was told that Will Ferrell would face the No. 2-ranked tennis player in the world, Novak Djokovic, at the Desert Smash tourney on the next day.

“I’m going to be playing with my driver,” deadpanned Ferrell as he waved his golf club in the air.

On Tuesday, March 4, however, that driver was nowhere to be seen, as fans of tennis and celebrity star-gazing flocked to the La Quinta Resort’s tennis club. Desert Showdown Day 2 got under way with celebs and amateurs filling many of the back courts for short doubles matches. Comedian/actor Jon Lovitz, singer Redfoo, actor Joel McHale of Community and actor Timothy Olyphant of Justified were among the stars who participated.

In the afternoon, fans ringed the stadium to watch the featured matches. Ferrell decided serenade the crowd during his opening remarks with a flawed rendition of the Canadian national anthem. No. 2-ranked tennis pro Novak Djokovic, who was teamed with Ferrell in one of the most entertaining doubles matches, played while wearing a wig as an homage to Will Ferrell’s character Jackie Moon from the film Semi-Pro.

Also competing were Bridesmaids actress Rebel Wilson, two-time Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey, 2014 Australian Open winner Stan Wawrinka, the top-ranked doubles team of Bob and Mike Bryan, and former BNP Paribas Open winners Ana Ivanovic and Daniela Hantuchova, among others.

As play was about to begin, Will Ferrell told the crowd, “I’ve been practicing for this moment my entire life! Make sure you hydrate. I’m doing that by drinking a lot of tequila and vodka.”

The contests were frequently interrupted by impromptu fundraising auction events, the proceeds of which all went to Cancer for College. One highly successful auction was inspired by valley resident and WBO world welterweight boxing champion Timothy Bradley, who provided two ringside tickets to his upcoming bout with Manny Pacquiao. As bidding escalated rapidly, Kevin Spacey taunted his doubles opponent Ferrell to bid higher, saying, “Come on, Will! Anchorman did better than that.”

Ferrell responded by urging Spacey to pony up some of his earnings from his Netflix series House of Cards.

“Netflix only pays us in DVDs,” quipped Spacey.

It’s fair to say that a good time was had by all.

Scroll down to view a photo gallery.

Original version published at 10:45 a.m., Tuesday, March 4; updated version published at 10:15 a.m., Wednesday, March 5.

Published in Snapshot

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