Johnny Quiroz calls me sir, an address that you seem to get these days only when buying something. He has no tattoos, wears a crucifix around his neck and beams a big smile. He has the eyes of a shy, gentle person.
From now on, he can only go down in my estimation.
But the smile is about to vanish, which is a big part of this story.
He’s 19 years old and was raised in the Oceanside barrio where many of his friends were ganged-up. He had every opportunity to embrace a lifestyle that’s frowned on by people who carry handcuffs and who don’t congratulate those they invite to wear them.
Johnny stayed out. He graduated from El Camino High School and now has a glamorous job busing tables for minimum wage at the Jolly Roger restaurant in Oceanside. Then, in pursuit of his ambition to become a cop, he drags himself out of bed after a late shift to attend a full load of classes at MiraCosta College. Difficult though all this is, the smile persists like a birthday party snapshot.
Johnny is small of stature but big of resolution. He’s 5 feet, 2 inches and 117 pounds. For such a small man to get other men to reflexively step aside, there are two certain ways: Be a boss or a boxer, and you can be a boxer younger.
Johnny is a professional boxer — a flyweight. Standing before me, he’s 30 minutes away from his fourth pro fight. That’s the reason the smile has taken flight. He’s swapped it for his fighting face: a purse-lipped glare. It’s a combination of nerves, determination, and yes, fear.
He knows that in an adjoining room, a fellow his size is focused on making sure Johnny hurts too much for the smile to return, at least until morning.
Johnny is 3-1 as a pro and was 40-10 as an amateur. He didn’t just start doing this yesterday. He was 10 when he first tried “the manly art of self-defense,” as it was called back in John L. Sullivan’s day.
Johnny is one of half a dozen fighters and their entourages in a large conference room that serves as a ready room. It’s in the Four Points by Sheraton Hotel in San Diego, where, in an adjoining arena, tonight’s six bouts will take place. Johnny’s four-rounder is the second on the card.
The fighters busy themselves by half-listening to trainers’ instructions, gazing fretfully into space and getting hands taped and gloves laced on. Their opponents are in the next room doing the same. Aging fight guys wander around in silk shirts. Damon Runyon would miss the cigars, the sawdust on the floor and the faded posters on the wall, but he’d still know it as the fight game.
We’re marking time, so I look around. Off in one corner is a female boxer — Araseli Tinoco of Ramona, standing alone with a towel around her neck, looking around like she just stepped into Oz. This is her first pro fight. I’m intrigued and go over. She is curious about her opponent from Mexico City, Lupita Gutierrez, also 19. I tell the young boxer I’ll go next door and check her out.
I’m back in two minutes to tell Araseli that I just saw the other woman and she was yawning, and that I don’t know if that’s a good or bad sign. However, Araseli’s not in a joking mood. I wish her luck, which is not to wish Lupita bad luck.
Later, following Johnny’s bout, Araseli and her opponent enter the ring. The women fight three two-minute rounds, one minute less than the men. These two strangers whale on each other like Frazier-Ali. After three windmill rounds, Araseli, with a fair-size mouse swelling over her eye, is judged the winner and does a little dance in the ring. She has her first victory, and a professional fighter is born.
Johnny’s manager and trainer, Bernie Nevarez, is also his stepfather. Nevarez is a restaurant manager who, on the side, handles several fighters out of Rhino’s Boxing in Vista. He shows fatherly affection for his young fighter, but right now, he’s all trainer.
Johnny warms up by punching Nevarez’s open palms rapid-fire: Whack, whack, whack. You think a flyweight couldn’t hurt you? Whack, whack, whack.
“This guy he’s fighting, Javier Barragan, he’s a tough Indian from Indio,” Nevarez says. “He’s had three fights, won two, but all three were knockouts in the first 50 seconds. He can punch, but how’s his endurance? I think Johnny can wear him down.”
Based on that, Nevarez formulates his strategy: Johnny is told to stay away from the guy for the first round, then, in the second, pick up the pace and use his presumed superior skills to wear the fellow down. That’s the plan, anyway.
I ask Nevarez how closely a trainer’s instructions are followed. “About 70 percent,” he says. Obviously, trying to avoid becoming separated from your senses is not the time to consult a checklist.
Johnny spent his first few years in Brooklyn. He doesn’t remember his father, who skipped out when he was 2. His mother worked two jobs but still struggled, so she moved with Johnny and his little sister to North County to stay with an aunt.
There, living in the front yard of a tough part of Oceanside, he managed to be a mama’s boy, but in the muscular sense of the word. From age 5, he watched over his little sister, studied and palled around with the neighborhood guys but knew when to bow out and go home.
The fighters are in the ring, dancing nervously. Johnny’s opponent doesn’t look Indian, but he does look tough. Nevarez hastily repeats his instructions, and then the bell rings.
Johnny promptly ignores those instructions and goes right at Barragan. His reward is a right hand that dumps him on his butt. He bounces up and, chastened, starts to box defensively. But he says later he learned one thing from the knockdown: “This guy can’t really hurt me.”
In round two, Johnny starts boxing and staying away, but gradually bores in, getting his punches in quicker and punishing the body. He ups the pressure in round three, banging away at the body like a kettle drum. “Kill the body and the head will die,” Joe Frazier counseled, and tonight Smokin’ Joe is a prophet.
At the end of round three, Barragan’s corner throws in the towel. Enough. It’s over, and Johnny throws up his arms in triumph.
Johnny is handed a check for $850, which is his $1,000 purse after the cost of a mandatory annual blood test is deducted. From the remainder, his manager-trainer will get 30 percent, leaving him $595. Before taxes. Easy money, you think?
In the days that follow, Nevarez turns down a six-rounder in Las Vegas with a purse of $3,000. He’s also turned down fights in Puerto Rico and Florida. He is determined to bring Johnny along slowly and not over-match him. He says Johnny’s next fight is scheduled for May 24 at the Del Mar Fairgrounds.
Johnny has spent most of his life in territory claimed by Oceanside’s Center Street Gang, a no-nonsense outfit (depending on your definition of nonsense). Naturally, he befriended gang members; he grew up with them, went to school with them. He says the gang guys respect his ambitions and take pride in a neighborhood kid being a professional boxer. But it’s still up to him to resist the temptations.
“Drugs and alcohol are available. I see people doing stuff on the street — drugs and fighting — and I say, ‘Why?’ Fighting with people you don’t even know is pointless.” (And for no money, he should add.)
He says that when he tells them he plans a career in law enforcement, “They just laugh.”
Does boxing build character? I think boxing builds flattened noses and cauliflower ears. If a boxer has character in the ring, he brought it in with him. Johnny’s character comes from within, and it fortified him to walk away from the winking tempter of the streets and to do the grunt work — busing tables and cracking books — to make something of himself.
The making of a boxer is less important than the making of a man.
Oh! I beg your pardon, Araseli Tinoco. Or a woman.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at [email protected]