Professional boxing in the United States may have fallen on hard times with the rise of mixed martial arts (MMA), the confusion of multiple titles and a lackluster heavyweight division; but here in Ventura County, the sport remains wildly popular. When Ventura’s Victor Ortiz steps into the ring next Saturday, he has the opportunity to become the second local fighter this year to win a world title. With the buzz reaching a frenzy for that fight, we thought it was the right time to lace up the journalistic gloves and take a closer look at a few of the many faces that help to make Ventura County a hotbed of modern pugilism.

2The contender
“Vicious” Victor Ortiz. The nickname simply does not seem to suit the man. The surfer, skater and local music enthusiast blends in effortlessly while sitting outside a downtown Ventura coffeehouse. With a massive smile and a surprisingly gentle handshake, “Happy Go Lucky” seems a more appropriate moniker for the well spoken and polite fighter. But ask any of the 22 men who’ve been knocked out by the hard-hitting southpaw, and they’ll be sure to disagree. With the most important fight of his career right around the corner, the Ventura resident, by way of Kansas, seems strangely relaxed; but with the fight he had surviving his childhood, it’s understandable that fighting in the ring is a welcome relief.

The harsh reality of Ortiz’s life is that as a young child, he was abandoned, first by his mother, at the age of 7, and a few years later by an abusive father, leaving a young Ortiz and his siblings to live in and out of a trailer that had no electricity in the freezing Midwest winters and little food to go around. Reflecting on the painful memory, Ortiz recalls, “We ended up like stray dogs for a long time, just roaming around hoping for a better tomorrow.”

Prior to being left to fend for himself, the self-confessed “fat kid who took piano classes” was forced by his father to go to a boxing gym at the tender age of 7; and despite hating it, there was no doubt he was gifted at the sport. After being left alone by both his parents, Ortiz understandably turned into a short-tempered teenager, drifting into trouble and landing in juvenile detention centers until he was placed in the foster care of John and Sharon Ford, who he credits with first helping to change his life’s direction as well as the late Garden City, Kansas, trainer Ignacio “Bucky” Avila.

His older sister then took custody of Ortiz and brought him to live with her in Colorado, where he was discovered, while training at a Salvation Army gym, by former heavyweight contender Ron Lyle, himself no stranger to a hard life. Lyle, a famed heavyweight who almost beat Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in both their primes, took an interest in the young Ortiz, nurturing his talents into an outstanding amateur career. It was during that time that Robert Garcia, Ventura County’s first ever world champion and burgeoning trainer, spotted the Olympic hopeful and offered to train and even take legal custody of Ortiz, who jumped at the opportunity to move to Oxnard, where he eventually received his diploma from Pacifica High.

Starting his professional career at the extremely young age of 17, Ortiz was off and running with an impressive string of knockouts, growing paydays, coveted cable television exposure and even being named ESPN’s prospect of the year in 2008. He was a superstar in the making until it all came screeching to a halt in the summer of 2009, when he fought for the WBA interim light welterweight title in a wild fight against the ferocious Marcos Maidana at the Staples Center.

Though a back-and-forth slug fest that saw both men hit the canvas, the fight was ultimately stopped by the doctor; and it seemed, in the eyes of the press and many boxing fans, when Ortiz didn’t complain about the stoppage that he “quit,” bringing up the still-nagging question of Ortiz’s “heart.” Ortiz is the first to admit that he was not focused prior to the fight, having family issues at the time as well as a severely injured wrist. To this day, he doesn’t even remember the majority of the fight or his comments in the post fight interview, nor has he watched it.

Prior to the fight, Ortiz also had a falling-out with his trainer, Garcia, and he relocated from Oxnard to Ventura to train with, of all people, Garcia’s brother, Daniel. Unfortunately, the bitter split ended up in a rumor-fueled, movie-worthy drama that played out in YouTube interviews and in the boxing press with some pretty heavy accusations by all parties involved. Since the loss, though, Ortiz has re-focused and been on an absolute tear, winning four fights and earning another shot at a world title when he moves up in weight to face the undefeated WBC welterweight champion, Andre Berto.

When talking about the upcoming fight, it’s only on the question of his heart, that Ortiz displays any frustration or agitation. The look in his eyes and the intensity he displays leaves one quickly rethinking any doubt about whether “Vicious” is an appropriate nickname as Ortiz insists there’ll be little question of his desire or heart come April 16.

Seconds later, though, a car passes by and its occupants shout out a greeting to the potential champion. Instantly, the big excited smile re-emerges and Ortiz waves back. With nothing but love and support from locals who stop him on the street for handshakes and high fives, it seems that after a long and difficult journey, Ortiz is finally at peace and at home.

3The champion
Brandon Rios was in trouble. The undefeated lightweight had worked his whole life for a shot at a world title, and there he was on Showtime for the world to see, being soundly beaten in his first chance at a title against Miguel Acosta. The tension at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas on Feb. 26 could have been cut with a knife as fans and friends from his current home of Oxnard, as well as Showtime’s broadcast team, worried that perhaps Rios wasn’t ready for the seasoned champion. Rios, who had spent his early career in and out of trouble outside of the ring (to the point he almost lost the backing of his powerhouse promoter, Bob Arum) had recently refocused his priorities, getting married and welcoming a new daughter into the world last year, insisting that he had “finally grown up.” Still, early on in the fight, it looked as though the storybook ending wasn’t meant to be.

Nonetheless, a smiling Rios seemed to know something that the announcers calling the fight certainly didn’t, and he kept moving forward. In one of the gutsiest performances in recent memory, an early candidate for fight of the year, the Texas-born slugger refused to be beaten and slowly but surely began wearing down the champion. Despite excruciating pain from a bruised hand he thought was broken, a fact that he kept from his corner, he bravely fought on and stopped a seemingly shocked Acosta in the 10th round with a barrage of unanswered punches. When his name was announced as the new WBA lightweight champion of the world, the heavily tattooed 24-year-old let out a high-pitched scream that was practically heard all the way back home in Ventura County.

The happy ending had come true for the outspoken fighter who pulls no punches when it comes to his often profane opinions on virtually anything and anyone. Despite the bad boy reputation, there is a softer side to Rios as displayed last week when he visited the Seventh Street Oxnard Boys and Girl’s Club. Admitting that he was “more nervous talking to a room full of kids than [he is] before a fight,” he provided a positive message and signed autographs with every single beyond excited kid, some of whom participate in the facility’s boxing program. In a classy and down to earth display, he gladly let the kids hold his prized world title belt and take pictures with it which as one hand wrapped young fighter summed up as, “the coolest thing I’ve ever done.”

As a new title holder and, perhaps, a new man, so to speak, Rios now has a bona fide shot at superstardom and the massive paydays that come with it. With the win, he also joined his trainer, Robert Garcia, and Rios entourage member and the most decorated and famed boxer to ever come from the area, Olympian “Ferocious” Fernando Vargas, as the third-ever fighter to bring a championship home to Oxnard. He’s not alone right now with his title, though. In the same city that Rios brought the belt home to, there’s another title holder who’s moved to town and happens to be one of the absolute best in the business.


The pound-for-pound king

Boxing writers and fans spend countless hours arguing about who is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. Pundits and fans usually agree that the top spot is a battle between the undefeated and flashy Floyd “Money” Mayweather, who is seemingly in constant legal trouble, and the Filipino powerhouse Manny Pacquiao, who is so popular in his home country, that he’s a successful recording artist, not to mention an elected senator. While everyone wishes the two would meet up and answer the question once and for all, the complicated and sometimes corrupt politics of the business side of boxing seem to get in the way. Close behind the two mega stars in the great debate is Oxnard’s new resident, undisputed middleweight king and recipient of the coveted Ring Magazine’s 2010 Fighter of the year, Argentinean Sergio Martinez.

Since the summer of 2008, Martinez has lived and trained year-round in the city. To put this in perspective for non-fight fans, think of it as the equivalent of a Tom Brady, Tiger Woods, Alex Rodriguez or a Kobe Bryant living in your relatively small town. He’s credited the move to the boxing-rich city as the catalyst to his career and newfound popularity in the United States. With a record of 47-2-2 , having a late start in boxing has not seemed to bother Martinez a bit, and the lean and mean knockout artist insists his goal is to be considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. If the two top dogs give him the opportunity, there’s a fighting chance (no pun intended), that the best boxer in the entire universe could be living in our backyard. Surprisingly though, he’s not trained by the man whose family has almost single handedly put Martinez’s new home on the boxing map, the previously mentioned Robert Garcia.

4The trainer
Trained by his father, Eduardo Garcia, who also trained Fernando Vargas, and working originally out of the famed and feared La Colonia gym in the heart of Oxnard, Robert “Grandpa” Garcia, born Roberto Garcia Cortez, won the IBF super featherweight title in 1998 and became the first fighter ever from Ventura County to win a world title. Though that’s enough of a claim to fame for most men, it looks as though he may be more remembered in the history books for his current profession.

After finishing his career with an impressive 34-3 record, he moved into training fighters and in the past few years, at only 36 years of age, he has vaulted to the forefront of professional boxing training with his name now mentioned in the same breath as the beloved five-time trainer of the year, Freddie Roach. Garcia’s large roster of fighters includes Rios, Nonito Donaire, considered one of the best fighters in the sport and also former two time champion Antonio Margarito, who trained in Oxnard for his stadium super-fight last year with Manny Pacquiao.

Though Pac Man beat the controversial Margarito, in the lead-up to the fight, Garcia was all over TV on HBO’s 24/7 TV series, helping cement his status as a young trainer who could relate to and befriend his fighters but still be able to take the reins and get them ready for the battle. He’s opened his own gym, Robert Garcia Boxing Academy in Oxnard, and he’s already planning to relocate to a larger facility, for the second time, due to its popularity with fighters of all levels. With multiple world champs under his tutelage, there are seemingly more on the way including Garcia’s younger brother, the undefeated featherweight Miguel “Mikey” Angel Garcia Cortez.

Mikey’s dominance last month on HBO over undefeated Matt Remillard in Atlantic City now leaves him first in line for a shot at one of the featherweight bouts expected to come later this year. Though currently fighting out of Moreno Valley, he was born in Ventura and still claims Oxnard as his hometown, even having graduated from the Ventura County Police Academy. If or more so, when the Mikey wins a title, that would solidify the Garcias as one of the all-time premier families of the sport, having won two major belts themselves and having multiple other champions trained by different members of the family.

While Robert and his family are more associated with the professional side of the sport, he also works with several fighters on the other side of boxing, the amateur world. Watching Robert, a man who could conceivably only be training world class professionals, throw on the mitts and work one on one with a 10-year old beginner during the daily after school rush at his gym, is inspiring. It’s no surprise that with all the activity and attention there’s even talk of a reality show based on the gym and the wide arrange of colorful characters that inhabit it.

Along with the famed Garcia, when it comes to teaching beginners and putting on amateur events in Ventura County, however, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who puts as much energy and heart into teaching the sweet science to youth and adult beginners as Ernie Gutierrez.


The mentor

Squeezed in between car repair shops deep in the industrial area, near the Target shopping center on Main Street, is the Ventura KO Academy. If not for the small sign on the door, you’d have no idea it existed; but when the gym is open, a massive garage door is raised to reveal a full-sized boxing ring crammed into a space that’s adorned with fight memorabilia displayed all the way up to the ceiling.

While boxing gyms are notoriously intimidating places and, sadly, sometimes far from welcoming to first-timers, Gutierrez insists, “No matter who you are or what you’re looking to get out of boxing, the first time you come to our gym, you’ll feel like you belong.” Sounds like wishful thinking but it’s the truth. At the KO Academy, men and women, everyone from doctors and lawyers who are just looking for a challenging workout to kids who weigh less than the heavy bag they’re pounding away on trains side by side. Everyone is friendly and respectful to each other and, most of all, encouraging. There’s no making fun of or disrespecting anyone, Ernie is quick to stress, “This is an upscale boxing gym, egos and attitudes are not welcome.”

The lifelong Ventura resident works one on one with each of his students, a rarity in bigger gyms where fighters may spend months with little to no instruction, or worse, be sent into the ring to spar with more seasoned fighters who take advantage of newbies. At the KO Academy, which has been in its current location for the past three years, Guitierrez proudly considers all who train and take lessons at his gym “champions.” Even the soundtrack is different.

Where a lot of gyms feature rap music all day nonstop, you’re a lot more likely to hear The Eagles blaring out of the speakers as Gutierrez is a self-confessed classic rock fan. It’s an interesting dichotomy to witness a man hitting another man to the strains of “Peaceful, Easy Feeling,” but charming in a way.

On a recent Saturday morning, 16-year-old Buena High student Roy Milbrandt, a tall and hard-hitting fighter who hopes soon to have his first amateur fight, worked out in the ring with 43-year-old mechanical engineer Chris Burau of Port Hueneme, a boxing fan who hesitantly joined the gym just three months ago and now trains twice a week, explaining, “I’m getting the best workout of my life, and the environment is incredibly positive.”

The secret to Gutierrez’s success probably lies in his day job. The married father of three and proud new grandparent has worked in law enforcement for more than 30 years. His emphasis on integrity, and his positive but serious demeanor is infectious, and his student base is growing at a massive rate. With plans to open a second facility in Camarillo, as well as continuing to hold his popular amateur bouts for fighters of all ages, the mentoring trainer also has plans to move into promoting professional fights in Ventura County. As with most trainers, Gutierrez’s dream is one day to have a world champion of his own, but he is adamant that “the fighter makes the trainer.” Though that may be true, just one trip to the gym and it’s easy to see that Gutierrez’ goal of “mentoring today’s youth for tomorrow’s challenges” is having a positive impact on the lives of virtually anyone who steps in his gym, including a local legend.


The veteran

It’s been a long time coming for Ray “Windmill” White, but it seems the former light heavyweight contender is finally getting the respect he deserves. The 72-year-old, who has lived in the same house in Oak View for more than 40 years, was a staple of the national boxing scene in the ’60s and early ’70s. A fan favorite due to his unorthodox and crowd-pleasing style, he invented several punches, including the infamous “behind the back punch,” which needs to be seen to be believed; and if you ask nicely enough, he’ll demonstrate. He was so popular in the Los Angeles area that he was a guest multiple times on late-night TV programs like The Merv Griffin Show and The Tonight Show, achieving a small level of celebrity in the process. Despite being a top-10 ranked contender and having wins over several notable fighters of the era, even appearing on a card with arguably the greatest fighter who ever lived, Sugar Ray Robinson, he never received a world title shot.

As he explains it, “Most of the promoters, champions and big fights at the time were based on the East Coast, and my connections in boxing were based out here. They didn’t want to take a chance on a West Coast guy.”

Another factor could have been that the tall and lanky White was purposely awkward as well as in great shape. He had the ability to make good fighters get sloppy and wear them down in later rounds. No promoter wanted to risk giving a show boating, West Coast-based, balding fighter the chance to upset a young champion. Despite winning the California light heavyweight title, there was more money to be made in the Ventura County construction business; and having to raise a large family on his own, he left the sport and the spotlight in 1974. Though he trained fighters here and there in his garage and at random gyms over the years, it wasn’t until Guiterrez reached out last year and offered White a training position at his gym that he returned to the sport. Since then, he’s become a staple of the KO Academy, teaching the sport to aspiring fighters and, in the process, being introduced to a new era of boxing fans.

This summer, he’ll be inducted into the California Boxing Hall of Fame as well as the Ventura County Sports Hall of Fame. Perhaps even more impressive, he was recently voted the No. 7 most awkward fighter of all time in the Boxing Book of Lists, written by the greatest journalist the sport has ever seen, Bert Randolph Sugar, and famed trainer and ESPN analyst Teddy Atlas. It’s a mention and honor that will assure White’s rightful place in boxing history. With enough asking, the elderly, but still incredibly in shape, White will sit on the back of his flatbed and break out his personal scrapbook. Filled to the brim with yellowed clippings of fight cards and articles from years past, he’ll take the listener on an exciting journey of his career but before you can ask too many questions, he’s off, headed back to the ring to put on the mitts to help train a teenage girl who attends the KO Academy for free as a resident of a group home.

When asked about the upcoming honors, White, who ended his career with a record of 41-14-5, let’s a sly smile escape and muses, “I’ll probably have to say a few words. Maybe even dress up a little.” As the gym comes alive with the sound of the young girl unleashing combinations on the mitts, a legitimate legend gladly passes on his knowledge to the next generation of boxers, helping pave the way for the sport’s continued prosperity in Ventura County, California’s current boxing capital.  


Get in the ring!

Here’s a list of gyms in the county that specialize in boxing and/or boxing-oriented workouts:
 
Agoura Boxing, Agoura, www.agouraboxing.com, 390-5152

Boys and Girl’s Club Boxing Academy, Oxnard  www.postiveplace4kids.org, 483-1118

Bu-Yah Boxing, Thousand Oaks, www.bu-yahboxing.com, 358-2096

Fillmore Boxing Club, Fillmore, www.fillmoreboxing.blogspot.com, 524-0891

Knockout Boxing and Fitness, Oxnard, knockoutoxnard.com, 486-2BOX

Knuckleheadz, Ventura, www.knuckleheadzboxing.com, 407-4367

Ko Boxing Club, Thousand Oaks www.koboxingclub.com 231-2836

La Colonia Boxing Gym, Oxnard, www.oxnardpalboxing.com, 385-7963

Mid-City Boxing Gym, Oxnard, www.oxnardpalboxing.com, 385-8256

Robert Garcia Boxing Academy, Oxnard, 487-7505

Ventura KO Academy, Ventura, www.venturakoboxing.com, 407-9184

World Crown Training Center, Port Hueneme, www.worldcrownsports.com, 832-7696

chris@armyoffreshmen.com