Santa Ana teenager Ronny Rios has fought his way into contention for the U.S. Olympic boxing team. He didnt do it alone

The Carson Boxing Center is airy and modern, a far cry from the windowless TKO Boxing Club back on South Center Street in Santa Ana, where Ronny Rios walked in as a skinny, pubescent kid three years ago, never having donned a pair of boxing gloves.

"Don't rush it; you have five rounds," coach Hector Lopez tells Ronny in their corner of the ring. Lopez's eyes are big and focused. He looks Ronny straight in the eyes. A small radio plays salsa just below the ring; a few people casually look on from their treadmills and stationary bicycles.

On this warm afternoon in mid-July, Ronny and Lopez have made their way to Carson for Ronny's first sparring session in weeks. "Now you know we're serious," Lopez said earlier of the pre-Olympic Trials sparring sessions that will be a regular part of Ronny's workouts until mid-August. Today he faces nationally ranked 112-pound flyweight David Gaspar, known as "La Flecha" ("The Arrow").

Santa Ana's Ronny Rios. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Santa Ana's Ronny Rios. Photo by John Gilhooley.

When asked before the fight about his own nickname, Ronny demurred. "Naw," he said, "I don't have one."

Although Ronny Rios is still relatively unknown to local and national boxing fans, this year he has fought his way into contention for a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team. In his first year fighting in the men's division, the newcomer is 15-0, and has secured both the prestigious National Golden Gloves championship title and the U.S. Championships title. Today, 17-year-old Ronny is ranked No.1 in the country in the men's 119-pound bantamweight class. In a few weeks, Ronny, who is a senior at Saddleback High, will attempt to outbox seven other top-ranked U.S. boxers at the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for a chance to go to Beijing in 2008.

Today the sinewy Gaspar weighs in at probably around 120 pounds; Ronny is at about 128, a pretty good match. "Any coach is gonna tell you some of the best wars are during sparring," Lopez says. Gaspar is 20 years old and has been boxing for 10 years. He is narrow and Gumby-like, with a small head, high voice and long arms. He's right-handed, like Ronny.

"In here, Ronny and David have had a couple of wars," Lopez says. "I think the first time we ever sparred with David it was right around October or November 2006. And obviously David, you know, he's probably thinking, who's this kid? And he kind of got crazy and Ronny bloodied him up. And I could tell he was upset."

The bell rings; the first of five three-minute rounds begins. The two fighters dance around each other, sizing each other up. Ronny says he's learned to scrutinize his opponent during the first round, looking for weaknesses and openings.

He sees something. Ronny fires two fast left jabs (his bread and butter, Lopez says) and then a lunging straight right just below Gaspar's ribs. "Bring it right to the belly after that," Lopez tells him calmly from the corner. Ronny immediately thumps Gaspar in his gut.

"Nice, son," Lopez says coolly.

Ronny is not as thickset as some of the older, full-grown fighters in his weight class. But because he's still growing, he must battle the weight his lean frame wants to gain as he gets taller. He has settled at 119 pounds and looks, at first glance, like a hearty 15-year-old. Averting his yellow-green eyes if too much attention is drawn his way, he smiles easily. His voice, raspy and warm and not yet entirely deep, hits an occasional high note when he laughs.

In the ring today, cheeks pressed between headgear, his eyes lock on to his opponent. Gaspar is quick and airy, zigzagging around and forcing Ronny to throw a few missed hooks. Ronny gets excited.

"Don't jump in, walk in with him," Lopez snaps.

"There you go son, nice jabs."

The bell rings.

Gaspar's nose is bleeding. Ronny comes heaving to the corner. Lopez wipes his face gently and begins: "When he's rushing you, don't go straight back and don't bring your feet together because then he's got you leaning back."

"Lean forward?" Ronny asks.

"Yeah, lean forward," Lopez says, "then go for the body.

"Calm down on the hook, all right? Just work, work—don't panic. Don't put your head down and start getting all crazy. . . . And keep your fuckin' hands up, though, all right? You're dropping your hands a little. Don't panic."

"Right," Ronny says in between breaths. "Right, right."

"I can whisper and he can hear me. How crazy. It's like we're both on the same page," Lopez says quietly when the second round is underway. Ronny is following Lopez's instructions to a T. He keeps his head and hands up and goes in for clean, methodical left jabs and then—boom—right crosses to Gaspar's body. Both boxers eye each other carefully, landing swift, clean punches. They rarely clinch.

As the session wears on, Ronny continues to spear Gaspar in the body. Ronny's finesse emerges: He is tiring Gaspar out by calculating every punch and doing exactly as Lopez tells him, when he tells him.

"He'll take you. He'll frustrate you. That's what he does," Lopez says.

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