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Fighting chance: ‘Everybody has a story’ in south OKC boxing gym

Amateur boxer Emilo Castillo stretches his arms out March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]
Amateur boxer Emilo Castillo stretches his arms out March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

If you’re looking for a fight on the south side of Oklahoma City, just stroll down the alley behind 25th and Hudson and look for the first open door.

Walk in and you’ll be greeted with a steep climb to the top, which is fitting for a sport where nothing comes easy.

There’s no heating or cooling at Rival Boxing Gym, and that’s just the way they like it. Anyone can dream of becoming a world champion. Putting in the sweat equity is an entirely different story. And there’s no doubt about it — if you’re going to make it in that ring, your sweat better be seeping out of the concrete.

“They’re literally fighting to survive,” said Nikki Burleson, who is one of two coaches at Rival.

On the south side, kids filter into to gyms like Rival for numerous reasons — to chase a dream, to escape a harsh reality, to find a belonging or to just practice that sweet science. Most of them are Hispanic, but people from all backgrounds are welcome.

“Everybody has a story here,” said Burleson, a 36-year-old former soccer player at Southern Nazarene who hopes to become the first female trainer of a world champion.

Hardships?

There’s a 7-year-old with an imprisoned father practicing his footwork in the corner.

There’s a teenage boy whose mother was deported. Burleson, a physical therapist assistant by day, took him in as her own with the blessing of the boy’s father, who was struggling to raise a family working multiple jobs.

“You come in here, it’s a mecca to keep these kids off the streets,” esteemed trainer Abel Sanchez told The Oklahoman in June at the Azteca Boxing Club a little over a mile away from Rival.

The coaches at Rival do attendance and grade checks of their kids at school just as if they were on any other organized sports team.

“You wear many hats,” said Eric Puente, who has been running the gym at 25th and Hudson ever since a friend handed him the keys about six years ago. “You’re a coach, a counselor. …”

There’s a family atmosphere at Rival. The 18 kids on the competition team travel together to places such as near as Winfield, Kansas, and as far as Atlantic Canada for bouts.

Obstacles remain

Still there are challenges.

From finances: Rival’s gym is named after the boxing equipment company, which provides the gear.

To just getting kids to show up: Burleson said she will mix up the training schedule so that the kids never know which day will be packed with running or spent working the punching bags.

And then there’s the relative lack of exposure for a sport that has receded into niche status on the sporting landscape in recent decades.

“In Oklahoma,” Burleson said, “I don’t think people think boxing exists.”

True, there’s little history of boxing being relevant in the area. Oklahoma City does have a world champion to claim, though, in Sean O’Grady, who won the WBA world lightweight title in 1981. O’Grady went 81-5 in his career, often squaring off in bouts in the city.

Alex Saucedo helped raise the city’s boxing profile in 2018 with a pair of bouts at Chesapeake Energy Arena. He won one of the bloodiest bouts of the year with a June knockout of Lenny Zappavigna. That earned him a WBO world junior welterweight title shot in November, but champion Maurice Hooker survived a second-round scare and dealt Saucedo his first defeat in 29 fights.

Saucedo’s path to fame was paved on the south side at the Azteca Boxing Club.

“Without the gyms, without the coaches, we wouldn’t have any superstars,” said Sanchez, who trained Saucedo for his two big bouts in OKC and has trained numerous world champions in his three decades in the sport.

Superstardom sounds great, but just improving a kid’s life is the most important goal at places like Rival.

“It’s rewarding,” Burleson said, “to see them succeed and change.”

Related Photos
<strong>Amateur boxing competitors stretch out and get warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]</strong>

Amateur boxing competitors stretch out and get warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman]

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-d612a69ed522e8b88c5979813ac7e561.jpg" alt="Photo - Amateur boxing competitors stretch out and get warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Amateur boxing competitors stretch out and get warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Amateur boxing competitors stretch out and get warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-7653efc01ddf22e3e846e04416c25d66.jpg" alt="Photo - Amateur boxer Yolanda Flores gets warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Amateur boxer Yolanda Flores gets warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Amateur boxer Yolanda Flores gets warmed up March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-e3b86ba03ebec0b2c62d1dc882db3a2a.jpg" alt="Photo - Gavin Estes takes part in the boxing fitness class March 12 at Rival Boxing Gym. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Gavin Estes takes part in the boxing fitness class March 12 at Rival Boxing Gym. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Gavin Estes takes part in the boxing fitness class March 12 at Rival Boxing Gym. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-146ea500386aaff979e576e2ddf0d8b4.jpg" alt="Photo - Amateur boxer Cain Fierro gets warmed up before the start of class training March 12 at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Amateur boxer Cain Fierro gets warmed up before the start of class training March 12 at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Amateur boxer Cain Fierro gets warmed up before the start of class training March 12 at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-28ee25bd6d706ce94b72c34d02ecb04b.jpg" alt="Photo - Amateur boxer Emilo Castillo stretches his arms out March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] " title=" Amateur boxer Emilo Castillo stretches his arms out March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] "><figcaption> Amateur boxer Emilo Castillo stretches his arms out March 12 before the start of class training at Rival Boxing Gym in Oklahoma City. [Chris Landsberger/The Oklahoman] </figcaption></figure>
Jeff Patterson

Jeff Patterson is the sports editor of The Oklahoman. A native of Lexington, Kentucky, he allegedly once told his father on a childhood trip passing through Oklahoma that he would one day live there. He doesn't recall this, but he fulfilled that... Read more ›

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