This article originally appeared in the October 2017 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Kid Gloves.”
Jorge Monclova is a boxer. At fifteen, and as a freshman at Alpine High School, he fights in the 114-pound weight class. He is clean-limbed and strong, more panther than pit bull. He studies a teardrop-shaped bag in front of him, leans forward slightly, and begins battering the bag with a staccato series of punches. His feet keep a different time beneath him. When a bell dings, Jorge straightens up, shoves the sparring helmet higher on his sweaty head, and steps through the open door into the drizzle outside. “I like fighting,” he says. “With a good punch, I can feel my knuckles through my glove. And I’ve felt my knuckles a lot in those gloves.”
Jorge is a member of the Alpine Boxing Club. His coach is Jose Frank Guerrero, a genial, goateed grocery store manager whose last name, appropriately, translates to “warrior.” Guerrero lives in Alpine, but he grew up near Harlingen, going to fights with his dad. Four years ago, a couple of kids started hanging around a gym in town where Guerrero worked out. “I never meant to coach,” he says. “Those kids walked in one day—they were curious and wanted something to do—and it went from there.” Word spread, other boys and girls found him, and his casual coaching grew more serious. Guerrero started attending clinics to learn the technical aspects of the sport. He learned to teach the mechanics of conditioning, the punches, and the mental game. Along the way, he became an official for USA Boxing.
Guerrero started the boxing club in a metal barn tucked in a south-side Alpine neighborhood. Next door, a man listens to Tejano music on the radio while tidying a Buick in his driveway. Matching tan Chihuahuas nap in the middle of the street. A tangle of bikes leans against the clubhouse. Inside the open door, six boys, ages six to eighteen, work individually at different stations: jumping rope, swinging at Guerrero’s mitted hands, pounding on a variety of punching bags. A sparring ring is roped off on one side of the gym. The timer dings every three minutes, signaling the boys to rotate. A table near the door displays half a dozen large golden championship belts. “That’s the latest one,” Guerrero points out. “Jorge just beat the kid who’s the state champ.”
The club’s membership is a loose confederation of fighters who meet at the gym for a couple afternoon hours every Monday through Thursday. Dues are $50 a month, but if a family can’t pay, that’s okay. Sinking grades, smoking, drinking, or breaking the law are cause for suspension from the club. Fighting outside the boxing ring is firmly prohibited. “Boxing kids are not always the best kids in the school or the community,” Guerrero says. “You get kids with anger issues. Some are from broken families; they come from hurt. We help them.”
The goal for most of the boys and girls who train at the Alpine club is to compete in recognized USA Boxing bouts. Some of Guerrero’s boxers have had dozens of matches—Jorge, for instance, has fought more than thirty times—while others, like Victor, another fifteen-year-old, are prepping for their first fight. “I’m a little nervous,” says Victor. “But I think it’s going to go pretty well. I’ve been training a lot and practicing with Jorge, who’s a good fighter.”
Alpine is pretty far from most competitions, though that doesn’t stop the team. Once or twice a month they hit the road, to Del Rio, El Paso, Midland, or even Arizona or New Mexico. Jorge fought at the 2017 Junior Olympics regional tournament, in Dallas, and while he didn’t advance to nationals, that’s already the aim for next year. Guerrero and his wife fund most of the travel. Sponsors help, and the club hosts plenty of brisket burrito sales.
One nearby contest, the Big Bend Brawl, occurs in Fort Davis every May, in a ring under a covered pavilion behind the town square. This year’s event was a highly orchestrated pageant of fighters in brilliantly colored silky shorts, some of them still in elementary school, most of them not yet eighteen. Just like a pro fight, the boxers launched at each other at the bell. A ref moved around the fighters, looking for illegal blows, breaking up a clinch, and watching for disorientation. It was a shouty affair. Coaches offered a running patter from the corners, and parents and team members roared constant encouragement and advice from the stands: “C’mon, mijo!” “Dig in! Get in there!”
Despite their protective headgear and gloves, the sight of two skinny eight-year-olds pummeling each other can be disquieting. Younger fighters often follow a furiously fast, more-is-better strategy of punching, not too dissimilar to siblings squabbling in the living room. The older teenagers fight with deliberation and tend to look their opponents smack in the eye before throwing an uppercut or jab.
Everyone at the Big Bend Brawl fought three rounds that lasted between one to three minutes each. Sixty seconds doesn’t sound like a long time, but it is. Time slows considerably in boxing; the effort of making contact, absorbing a punch, seeking relief in the ropes, or surging forward often seems very great. Legs get weary. Arms grow rubbery. Jaws slacken. There’s sometimes a little blood, stanched with a goop of Vaseline. Guerrero’s fighters report that the only thing they hear amid the howling din is the sound of his voice. That’s a good thing. “When they listen, they win,” Guerrero says. “When they do their own thing, it can get hairy.”
Judges score fights based on volume of punches, aggressiveness, and how well a fighter handles himself or herself. Coaches have different methods of achieving that balance of lightness, power, and drive in their charges. Guerrero is old school. “I believe anyone can beat anyone with a one-two, one-two,” he says. “That way you can defend yourself all the time.” Not every boxer instinctively follows this approach. Take Jorge’s fourteen-year-old brother, Diego, for instance. “That guy’s a brawler,” says Guerrero. “I try to teach them to move around, but Diego doesn’t move—he likes to sit there and go to war. His brother is more tactical.”
According to Guerrero, folks often think that boxers, even boxing kids, are bruiser thugs, when actually, sportsmanship and discipline are centerpieces of the sport. Opponents touch gloves before the bout, and they congratulate and console each other afterward. Young fighters greet opposing coaches, and since they often see the same teams when out on the road, friendships blossom, even among boxers who meet occasionally in the ring. If Guerrero can’t make an event, a coach from another team will oversee the Alpine squad for the day and vice versa. None of that comradeship is lost on his team. “Lots of people think fighting is just getting in there to kill each other,” Jorge says. “But that’s not it. Fighting makes yourself better and your opponents better too. It’s all about who has the heart.”
At a few minutes before 6 p.m., the boys spill out of the Alpine gym. Guerrero points at a bike. “Tienes un flat! ” A pump is procured and the bike is fixed. Trucks pull up and the boys climb in. “He did real good today,” Guerrero says through each window. “Real good.” The rest of the boys pedal home, calling out goodbyes to their teammates and their coach.
Guerrero has penciled in upcoming bouts for the Monclova brothers in El Paso and New Mexico, and he’s looking at entering Victor in his first fight, in Alpine, at the end of this month. They might go to Del Rio after that. Maybe San Antonio. Guerrero is willing to drive the boys wherever a good, fair fight can happen. “Regular people can’t do what they do,” Guerrero says. “It takes a special person to get in the ring in front of three hundred screaming fans. In football or baseball, you have a team. In boxing, you’re by yourself. I’m there to motivate and get them to try again. Because you’re not going to win every fight.”