News 11's Cole Johnson steps into the ring for a closer look at the sports' culture
IMPERIAL COUNTY, Calif. (KYMA, KECY) - The Imperial Valley has made its mark with its deep roots of agriculture along the U.S., Mexico border but boxing has roots running deeper for the Mexican-American culture.
Yet, there’s another root that’s been long overlooked in the midst of economic inequality. A branch of talent that runs through some of the country’s best boxing rings.
The Imperial Valley has deep and rich history of agriculture and Mexican culture but it’s a place outsiders may view as simply a host to the border or a place unsafe or unfit to live in midst of the nationally coined term “crisis at the border.” It’s also a place often overseen by the disparity in wealth from its surrounding areas.
But unknown to outsiders are the beauties found within the valley that creates a very proud region.
“This kind of awareness of how these larger issues play out in this area, show people being proud of where they’re from and being in an integral part of the country where most people have never even thought of going to,” said reporter Max Rivlin-Nadler. “Especially with these bi-national communities, a lot of people don’t want to make the decision whether you’re Mexican or American. You are bi-national and from border. These folks identify that way as a third category instead of one or the other.”
Those binational roots were heard across the world in 2019 and just weeks ago when a new valley native hero not only rose to stardom but put one of Imperial Valley’s oldest roots back on the map by becoming the first Mexican American to win the heavyweight title.
The “Mexican rocky,” Andy Ruiz changing the course of the valley’s boxing scene and becoming an inspiration to the youth looking for a way to rise up.
An inspiration that has driven young boxers like Alex Guillen and Josue Valenzuela to new heights they didn’t know were possible.
Guillen taking the gold and Valenzuela taking bronze in a recent boxing tournament in Mexico city after their training at Baja Boxing Club in Calexico.
Baja being ran by owner, Raul Lao, who has been training many kids for years every night in the pursuit of another champion coming out of the valley someday.
“I started training here because there’s a lot of talent in Calexico and all in this area,” said Lao. “Andy Ruiz started out here in the valley and now he’s champion of the world and these kids want to follow those steps.”
Baja boxing is just one of the valley gyms on the rise. Another one is Sparta Boxing just 11 miles north in Andy Ruiz’ stomping grounds in El Centro.
It's a small gym but a gym with a lasting impact on the city and its youth. It’s a gym that works hard and is a symbol for the hard working people of El Centro who faces economic inequality and lack of funding for the sport of boxing. Something that makes it tough for young boxers to make the leap from amateur boxing to the pros.
“Boxing helped me see there was a lot of other things than just being stuck here in this little town and getting involved in gangs and drugs,” said Sparta Boxing Athletic Director, Jorge Munoz. “The valley is always known for good boxers but they get stuck because we’re from little town. Less sponsors and less people supporting you. You have to struggle a lot. Some of them struggle to get to next level but say ‘well if Andy made it we can all struggle and try to make it.’”
But it’s the struggle that makes it so special with Andy Ruiz and others being merely a symbol for prosperity.
It is success built on community and pride and it is proof that the valley is more than just border cities, but something much bigger.
“The sport is healthy in a place like the imperial valley in so much that it never really went away. That’s the edge the valley has. It’s always been popular and part of the ethos. It reflects a lot about what the region is about hard nose and feeling underappreciated,” said Rivlin-Nadler. “There are boxers that use to motivate themselves. If you’re fighting not only on behalf of yourself and your family for monetary gain, but you’re representing your region, that’s going to drive success.”