Bullies beware: The kids you like to push around are finding self-confidence – and a good left hook – at the Gladiators Boxing Gym.
Located in a converted warehouse on Arguello Street, just south of Whipple Avenue on Redwood City’s east side, Gladiators offers a low-cost alternative to the Peninsula’s pricier fitness clubs. And the kids there, mainly Latino, mainly from the neighborhood, are learning not only to defend themselves, but also to avoid conflict simply by walking tall.
“Our biggest class is our kids’ class,” observes owner Tony Renteria. “And most of them suffer from bullying at school, or (a lack of) self-confidence. So we kind of show them teamwork, and make them take the lead, so they feel important, so they feel like their voice is heard. And through boxing, they build confidence, knowing that they know how to defend themselves.
“And maybe because they go through intense workouts, it’s also an accomplishment. And after a while, they do controlled sparring, and that actually shows them what they’re capable of doing, without any fears. Their confidence level rises, they’re more sociable, and they stand up against people who are bullying them.”
Sitting within an auto-towing yard and dimly lit by occasional fluorescent lights, the gym is a long ways from luxurious. But like the humble upstairs dance studio in the Broadway musical, “A Chorus Line,” even if it isn’t paradise, it’s home.
More than 25 years’ worth of trophies line the walls. Speed bags and long, cylindrical heavy bags hang from the ceiling. Weight-lifting stations dominate one corner, and a heavy tire sits on the loading dock, waiting to be picked up and heaved against the wall. Also draped from the ceiling are a dozen flags from countries as far-flung as Kenya, Jordan, Germany, the Philippines and Peru, as well as the United States and Mexico. They all represent the home countries of boxers who have trained at the gym.
Then there are the centerpieces – two boxing rings defined by red-white-and-blue ropes. Two boxers – 19-year-old Omar Tapia and 27-year-old Esteban Zacarias – are wrapping their wrists, slipping into boxing gloves and heavily padded headgear, and adjusting rubber mouthpieces. An assistant, Hector Pardo, stands by with a video camera. The electronic bell clangs, and the three-minute round begins with Tapia on the offensive, coming after Zacarias with a combination of left and right jabs. Zacarias gives ground, bounces around the ring, then lands a roundhouse punch to Tapia’s headgear.
“Jab, jab!” Renteria hollers as the two boxers circle each other warily. “Keep your hands up!”
The round ends, and Zacarias and Tapia tap gloves. Neither plans a boxing career. Zacarias, who manages a computer system for the Palo Alto Unified School District, is at the gym for conditioning and weight-loss; he’s dropped 20 pounds in six months. Likewise, Tapia, who graduated from Woodside High School in June and plans to attend Cañada College, comes for the workout.
“It keeps me disciplined,” Tapia says. “Just coming every day, training hard, it keeps me in good shape, too.”
Renteria says most of his clients come for exercise and to learn self-defense. Others – particularly kids – want to acquire social skills. Children arrive as young as age six, although USA Boxing, the national organization that governs amateur fighting, doesn’t allow them in the ring until they’re eight. Until then, they practice footwork and work out on the bags while building confidence, strength and coordination. Just a handful of young people are currently competing against boxers from other gyms; as Renteria wryly notes, “You’ve got to be pretty special to get hit in the head.”
Which brings up an important question: Even at a recreational level, is boxing dangerous?
Renteria acknowledges the potential for injury “if the coaches don’t know what they’re doing. But that can be in soccer, too. That can be in football.” For its part, USA Boxing has certification requirements for coaches that focus on safety as well as professional competence.
Two young women who aren’t afraid to mix it up at the gym are Mariana Gonzalez and Alexis Gomez. While working out at Gladiators, both qualified in March for the U.S. Olympic trials, to be held this December in New Orleans. Gonzalez, 20, won her shot in the 112-pound weight class, and 25-year-old Gomez made it at 165 pounds.
For Gomez, especially, it’s been a long and ultimately satisfying road. Growing up in South San Francisco, she began boxing at age 15 to fight off – literally – the effects of childhood obesity. On her way to losing 50 pounds, she started sparring with a friend and discovered she liked it and was good at it.
Her first competition came in 2017; since then, she’s gone 10-0 with two technical knockouts. Because relatively few women fight at her weight level, she often finds it hard to get a match. Still, she says, her workouts provide an outlet from daily stress, and she believes she’s becoming a role model by being what she describes as a “strong-figured woman.”
Gonzalez, who lives in Sunnyvale and hopes to go to medical school (she’s currently majoring in biology at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills), credits her brothers, Leo and Nicholas, for her initial love of boxing. With the support of her family, she started training with Renteria and his own mentor, Eloy Ramirez, who founded Gladiators in the 1990s.
“When we’re training, we always push each other to the limit,” Gonzalez says. “It’s overall a great community because we all learn from each other, we all support each other and we all have a great time. But at the same time, we’re all working hard and trying to do the best we can.
“Tony’s great,” she continues. “He makes everything easier and enjoyable. He also teaches us how to have that mentality in the ring, where we can’t have anything affect us. He really does allow me and all the other fighters to have a clear mind. When it comes to boxing, people often think it’s who hits the hardest and who’s the fastest. But really it’s all about mentality more than anything, because you can go in there and be the fastest and strongest person in the ring, but if you don’t have the strongest mindset, then it really affects the whole game.”
Gomez, who started sparring and weightlifting at Gladiators last November, says Renteria was “very helpful and supportive from the first day I walked into the gym … Then I saw how much heart and how much love he put into all his fighters, when it came to getting ready for competition – the mitt work (practicing with a partner who wears a heavy mitt to absorb punches) and the different types of technical drills he did.”
In addition to working with Renteria, Gomez continues to train with longtime coach and former World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Martha Salazar of BabyFace Boxing in Pacifica, and with coaches Blanca Gutierrez at BabyFace and Eliza Olson at Gladiators.
Renteria understands that talents such as Gomez and Gonzalez come along only once in a while. As much as he loves competition, he realizes Gladiators’ main business is providing a workout and what he calls “a safe, natural high” for his clients.
“If you’re into working out hard, and you’re doing weightlifting and stuff, and you want to try something new, this is a good way of doing cardio,” he says. “It’s like running with your hands or your arms. You’re punching, punching, punching. Most of the time you’re just used to running with your legs. So if you combine the running with the punching – oh, man, that’s weight loss, for sure.”
For Renteria’s client Esteban Zacarias, the workout is undeniable. Sweat drips from his face as he steps out of the ring after his sparring session with Omar Tapia. He says boxing is a tradition in his family, and even though he’s doing it mainly for exercise, he also enjoys the rough competition.
“It’s good,” he says. “It’s very challenging.”
And now a new challenge awaits the gym. A Southern California development firm is proposing a large condominium project for the property and its surroundings. Renteria says he has until the end of next February to find a new location.
Will a 25-year-old Redwood City business be knocked out? Renteria has consulted a local commercial real-estate firm to find another place. But for now, at least, the home of Olympic hopefuls and newly confident neighborhood kids remains in limbo.
This story was originally published in the August print edition of Climate Magazine.