When the pandemic started shutting everything down in March 2020, Kayla Gomez, a youth amateur boxer, scrambled to figure out how to continue training. Gomez, a seventeen-year-old from El Paso who competes in the 112-pound flyweight division, was fortunate to be from a boxing family. She’s trained by her mother, who has a deep amateur boxing career of her own, as well as her grandmother, who coaches them both. So, when COVID-19 upended their plans, Gomez and her family adapted. Her mother built a ring in their backyard, set up a gym in the garage that included weights, punching bags, and an agility course, and they got to work.
Gomez was one of hundreds of fighters from Texas who traveled to Shreveport, Louisiana, at the end of March to compete in USA Boxing’s amateur national championships. Almost a quarter of the 1,475 competitors in the ten-day event hailed from Texas, one of the sport’s traditional hotbeds. But regardless of where they came from or their levels of experience, the athletes in the tournament were competing under conditions unlike any they’d seen before, due to COVID.
The pandemic completely shut down amateur boxing between March and July of last year. When USA Boxing tried to come back, the sport returned at a much slower pace compared to recent years. In 2019, the group sanctioned approximately 1,800 events and more than 50,000 individual bouts. In the period between July 2020 and the start of Nationals, USA Boxing oversaw roughly 100 events, with fewer than 2,000 individual bouts.
This slow return was due to worries that a tournament could become a super-spreader event. After the lockdowns lifted, sanctioned events were kept small, while USA Boxing tracked the effectiveness of its safety precautions. For Nationals, those measures included temperature checks, mask mandates, a process for disinfecting the ring between bouts, COVID-19 testing throughout the tournament, and restrictions on who could enter the venue. “You need multiple layers of defense,” said Mike McAtee, USA Boxing’s executive director.
Nationals had initially been scheduled to take place in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in December. Then, because of the damage wrought by Hurricane Laura, the event was relocated to Shreveport. Then, a nationwide COVID-19 surge forced the organizers to change plans yet again, which is how an event called the “2020 USA Boxing National Championships” wound up occurring in late March and early April of 2021.
For Gomez, the most difficult part of the past year was finding sparring partners to practice with. Health protocols were in near-constant flux, with each rise and fall in virus positivity rates forcing gyms into cycles of closing, reopening, and closing again, and health departments levying restrictions on public gatherings that varied by state and city and town.
With formal competitions shut down and a scarcity of potential sparring partners near their home in El Paso, Gomez and her mother hit the road. They visited other cities in Texas and neighboring states, even heading north to Connecticut and west to California—anywhere they could find an open gym and women willing to step into the ring and spar. Even though it wasn’t how she’d planned to train for nationals, Gomez tried to turn this impromptu barnstorming tour into an opportunity to make herself a more complete fighter. By traveling from town to town and facing as many different sparring partners as she could find, Gomez could expose herself to a wide range of opponents, whose diverse physical attributes and fighting styles all presented different puzzles for her to solve in the ring.
Such experience could be invaluable at Nationals, a single-elimination tournament where becoming a champion would mean defeating several different opponents, one day after the next, with little time to scout her rivals’ strengths and weaknesses. “If I’m not going to fight for a long time, I need that experience to keep my skills up,” Gomez said. Those include her timing, her conditioning, her ability to pressure adversaries, and her ability to remain calm as they try to evade her advances or pressure her back. “When you are sparring different people, you don’t know what they’ve got,” she added. This uncertainty acted as a substitute for what Gomez would’ve experienced at the official tournaments that were canceled and postponed last year. All that sparring kept her sharp.
For Jarvis Winn, a 27-year-old heavyweight from Houston, the loss of a friend during the pandemic brought him back to the sport after a long layoff. Winn had been to Nationals before, bowing out in the quarterfinals of the 2018 tournament and looking as if he had a promising future ahead of him in both the amateur and pro ranks. Then, in 2019, Winn was hit by a car and suffered injuries that sidelined him for a year. Just as he was completing his rehab exercises and preparing to return to full-contact training, the pandemic hit and gyms were shut down.
Then, last July, Winn’s trainer, Willie Savannah—a long-standing fixture in Houston’s boxing scene best known for guiding the career of former lightweight champion Juan “Baby Bull” Diaz—died. (Savannah had been battling lung and kidney disease for years before his death.) When Winn heard the news, that gave him the push he needed to return to competition. “The bond that [we] had gave me a lot of inspiration to keep going, and keep developing as a fighter,” he said.
Winn started boxing in his early twenties, soon after he finished serving in the Army National Guard, and he credits the sport and Savannah’s mentorship with helping him readjust to civilian life and overcome post-traumatic stress. When Savannah saw that Winn was riding the bus, then jogging the rest of the way to the gym, he started giving him rides. The week before Winn’s first fight, Savannah bought Winn his first pair of boxing shoes, a pair of all-white Everlasts. “I wore them until they wore out,” Winn said.
With the memory of Savannah fresh in his mind, Winn found a new coach and resumed training. His goal: Return to and win Nationals. Although there were few organized tournaments to join during the pandemic, Winn managed to shake off the ring rust from his long absence thanks to frequent sparring with other Houston-based fighters. “I take my craft seriously,” Jarvis said. “This is one sport you cannot play.”
When the last week of March rolled around and fighters from all over the country descended upon Shreveport, just about every hopeful young boxer in the tournament would have felt concerned that a year of unpredictable training conditions might have left them underprepared for Nationals. Many competitors arrived without having had a formal fight within the last year. The luckier ones—who either lived in or were able to get to large cities—might have had time for a couple of tune-up fights.
“My first fight, I’m not going to lie, I did get nervous because I hadn’t fought in a long time,” Gomez said. “I’m not used to getting nervous.” She wasn’t alone. Several boxers appeared affected by the nerves that come with returning to competition after a long break—yet some dealt with those nerves better than others. “There are some boxers who are amazing when they fight all the time, and they’re really good fighters still, but they go in there in shock—you could see them not throwing anything,” Gomez said. “You can see when a fighter is in shock. I know because I’ve been there.”
Gomez overcame her jitters once the bell rang to begin her first bout. She fought a succession of fast-paced, heated battles, eventually defeating an opponent from Missouri to claim the championship for youth female boxers in her weight class. The win qualified her to compete in the Junior Pan American Games this September, in Cali, Colombia. She hopes to compete in the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.
Winn faced a crowded bracket in the men’s “Elite” heavyweight field, with three competitors rated above him in USA Boxing’s most recent rankings. He beat two of them. In the quarterfinals, Winn got the better of South Carolina’s Devon Young, one of the pre-tournament favorites. Four days later, Winn toppled Delaware’s Ezri Turner in the finals. The bout highlighted Winn’s sharp reflexes and counter-punching skills, and he returned to Houston a national champion.
“Even now, in the ring,” Jarvis said, “I can still hear [Coach Savannah] saying, ‘Don’t wait on him! Jab! Jarvis, step to him. Keep going!’”