Since boxing was legalized in Puerto Rico in 1927, the island has produced dozens of world champions and even more casual enthusiasts. A photo report by John Francis Peters for The New York Times, with text by Justin Porter.
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In the beating heart of Puerto Rico, there are two arenas: the baseball diamond and the boxing ring. Emilio Lozada, 35, found his calling in the ring.
“It’s obviously embedded in our culture,” said Mr. Lozada, the director of Monterrey Boxing Academy in Bayamón. “Even the people who don’t actually box, they’re so intrigued by the sport.” (Ricardo Figueroa, who manages Mr. Lozada’s fighters, translated for him.) Mr. Lozada said that many Puerto Ricans identify with the chance to come “out of nowhere” and fight for their dreams.
Since boxing was legalized in Puerto Rico in 1927, the island has produced dozens of world champions, beginning with Wilfred Benitez, who in 1981, at the age of 22, became the youngest world champion in the sport’s history. Since then, many fighters, including Felix Trinidad, Miguel Cotto, Héctor Camacho and Amanda Serrano, have captured the attention of fans and of young boxers.
Orlando Gonzalez, who fights out of the Atlantic Gym in Aguadilla, a town in the island’s northwest region, sees boxing as a familial rite, a kind of inheritance.
“For me it’s like a legacy, because my father, my cousin and my uncle were professional fighters,” Mr. Gonzalez, 23, said. “My uncle went to the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.” By the age of 5, Mr. Gonzalez was already in the gym and competing in exhibition matches.
“When little kids start fighting in Puerto Rico, they’re not looking for a gold medal in the Olympics, they’re looking to be world champions,” Mr. Gonzalez said. With world titles comes money and a chance to change one’s fortune.
Training gyms encourage professionalization, but they also serve a secondary function as community centers. Many of them, Mr. Lozada said, began as self-started organizations in D.I.Y. spaces. In Mr. Lozada’s case, it was a basketball court in Villas de Monterrey in Bayamón, a low-income housing complex.
A boy who had watched Mr. Lozada training for one of his fights was the first to approach him about learning the sport. More young students followed, until space and location became an issue; Mr. Figueroa said some of the would-be boxers were deterred by the housing complex.
So Mr. Lozada’s fighters, their friends and their family found a new place to train.
In a process that Mr. Figueroa says is called “invadir” on the island, “to invade,” people enter a building that has been abandoned or ill used and claim it for themselves, cleaning, improving and refurbishing it.
The building that Mr. Lozada’s gym would come to occupy had been a drug hangout. After much cleared debris, paint, and time and care, it became the Monterrey Boxing Academy, a bright space lined with mirrors, filled with equipment and young athletes training hard.
Champions all? Perhaps one day, but that’s not the top priority for Mr. Lozada, who said he prefers to create “campiones de vida,” or champions of life, and if one of those champions should go on to conquer the ring as well, all the better.
“Very few gyms have world-class fighters that they’re really making that type of money,” Mr. Figueroa said, adding that most of it is volunteer work, especially working with children or young men, who are not charged for their training.
But as children from the neighborhood come there to work out, and usually step into the ring themselves, Mr. Figueroa says that then the government will often take notice and provide some financial assistance.
These smaller boxing clubs begin nurtured by the community, and youngsters with their heart set on the sport. Dedicated coaches organize the space, help procure equipment and even, for example, get all the kids into an old church bus and drive them to local tournaments where they can test themselves against other young competitors.
After the fights, Mr. Figueroa said, that same bus often ferries the group to get pizza.
In addition to cultivating communities, these boxing gyms are also the sites of deeply personal transformations.
“It saved my life,” Mr. Lozada said. For those born poor on the island, he said, the temptation to earn a living illegally is ever-present. Sports offered him an escape, and he hopes that boxing can offer the same alternative to the young people he trains, should they find themselves in the same position.
When Hurricane Maria devastated much of the island a year ago, many gyms were abandoned or forgotten, with fighters and coaches scattering to look after their families or heading to the mainland to seek a fresh start. But as Puerto Rico has begun to recover, its boxing clubs have, too.
The process has been bolstered by people who seem less intent on fighting professionally than they do on being healthy. These boxers visit their local club not only to admire the sport’s star fighters up close, but also to use the training methods of boxing to get into shape. That, Mr. Lozada said, makes him very happy.