HOW’S THIS DIFFERENT FROM other boxing programs?” Ray Ybarra says with a laugh as he watches teenagers spar in a ring set up in the back yard of his home in Anthony, a tiny town off Interstate 10 partly in Texas and partly in New Mexico. “I run it out of my own pocket. Other programs have the Police Athletic League helping them out, or organizations like the Optimists. Out here in the middle of nowhere, we can’t get help.”
A Fort Bliss respiratory therapist who went 47—7 as an amateur fighter in the seventies, 38-year-old Ybarra has been training young boxers for two years now, and it hasn’t been easy. He set up shop as a response to street crime on the New Mexico side of town, which is where he lives. “I’d say about eighty percent of the kids around here carry weapons,” he says. “I’d rather have them shooting punches at me than shooting bullets at me.” With a yearly budget of only $1,500—all but 10 percent coming from him and his wife, Sylvia, a waitress at an El Paso steakhouse—he has had to buy cheap equipment across the border in Juárez or rely on hand-me-downs. Officially, he trains only ten fighters, ages 8 to 22 (all but one from Texas), though as many as thirty may show up and get in the ring. With no travel budget, Ybarra chooses matches close to home; when his fighters must travel overnight, they sleep in rented sleeping bags in his van.
But today, finally, Ybarra’s efforts are paying off. Sometime soon, his outdoor ring—where in summer fighters can’t train until the sun starts sinking, and in winter their blood ices on their faces—will move into a former church building that has been donated by an El Paso businessman on the Texas side of town. Even better, the first of Ybarra’s pupils has turned pro: In July eighteen-year-old bantamweight Jacob Gomez parlayed his punishing right cross into a unanimous decision in a state-regulated contest. The speedy El Paso native was 11—2 with eight knockouts as an amateur; his only losses came in the finals of his first El Paso Golden Gloves championships (which he entered with just three days of training) and in this year’s Olympic regionals. “There has never been a champion from this area,” says Gomez, who rises at five every morning to run ten miles in the West Texas heat. “I want to be the first.”
Ybarra wants it too: Gomez, he hopes, will be his—and the new Ybarra Youth Boxing Center’s—ticket to the big time. “The only thing I can see stopping him,” Ybarra declares, “is that once you start getting good, you got your groupies following you. I went to pick him up today and there were four girls outside his house waving their arms off at him. That’ll get to you. It’s what got to me.”