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

By the fourth round, those working out in the gym have stopped to watch the two boxers. The flurry of movement punctuated by the surprising, skillful thud to the body or to the head makes for an intoxicating afternoon display. The final bell rings. The two fighters touch gloves and shake their opponent's coach's hands.

After the fight, Ronny and Gaspar, who have become friends since they first began sparring, catch up, comparing the differences in their six-packs when they're on and off their training diets.

"I did bad," says Ronny, a short time later. "I wasn't moving my head that much. I could tell my condition's a little bit off. I got kind of lazy in the last round. I just started blocking."

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

He says he did his best to follow the instructions from his corner, from Lopez. No matter how quiet, "I can always hear his annoying voice," he says, smiling.

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The door and windows are thrown open one warm mid-June evening at Ronny's house, a compact mobile home in Santa Ana. Ronny plays with his 10-month old brother, Angel, on the floor while his mom, Delia Quezada; cousins Tonia and Rosie BaŮuelos; and older brother Sal watch the finale of a novela, La Fea Mas Bella, on a big-screen TV in the living room. "This is why our family has so much drama, you guys all watch the same damn show," Ronny says.

Sal asks a question about one of the female characters on the show. "You know about this show!" Ronny says. He changes the channel to The Simpsons during commercial breaks; the women protest.

Soon, he and Sal are playing BB guns around the house.

Salvador Rios Jr., 20, is tall, burly and dark-haired. He smiles warm and big like Ronny; he's one of his younger brother's best friends. They started out boxing together, and although Sal no longer competes as an amateur, he still drives Ronny to the Jerome Center, which houses the TKO Youth Boxing Club, every day, watches him as he trains, usually critiquing and teasing him, and occasionally gets in the ring to spar.

"For his first piece of criticism after a fight, he goes to Sal and asks, 'How did I do?'" says Ronny's uncle Ramiro Quezada.

When it comes to his boxing life, Ronny's immediate and extended family operates like a cadre of mini-managers, biggest fans, best friends, coaches and media critics. Ronny's oldest cousin, Tonia BaŮuelos, coordinates family bout trips (about 30 family and friends will be spending their vacations in Houston for the Olympic Trials) and is vigilant about how Ronny is portrayed in the media.

"Why do they always get this stuff wrong?" she asks during La Fea Mas Bella. The local Spanish-language weekly Miniondaswrote Ronny up as a 19-year-old who attended junior college, confusing him with the gym's other boxing star, Luis Ramos.

During the rare tournament when no family member can attend, Ronny gets homesick. "They feed me with energy," he says of their ringside presence. After every fight, the first call Ronny makes is to his mom—if she's not in the audience.

"I'm not doing this for the money, I'm doing this for my mom," he says of his boxing goals. "Like, the more I see my mom struggling, the more it pushes me to work out harder because I want to buy her that big house that she's always wanted. I want to make her happy—like she has [made me] during my life."

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It's July 3, and on a night when a lot of teenagers Ronny's age are probably out with friends, Ronny rides in the family's Suburban next to his mom. He's doing what he's been doing since he was in elementary school: going with her to the office she cleans twice a week. They joke and talk in the front seat. Delia Quezada teases him about the girl who is his "on-again-off-again" "friend." Her bright-green eyes dart over at Ronny and she smiles. Her red hair is pulled back in a loose bun; she speaks to him only in Spanish.

Quezada came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 7, with her family. She met Ronny and Sal's father, her ex-husband Salvador Rios Sr., in Santa Ana as a teenager. The slightly older Salvador told her that she didn't need to study or work because he would take care of her. She dropped out of high school when she was around Ronny's age and married Salvador at 19. The couple separated when Ronny was around 3 or 4 years old.

Although they settled on a child support agreement informally, Quezada was forced to go to court when Salvador refused to make payments, she says. The couple fought over full custody and Quezada won. Salvador made scheduled visits at first, but then gradually dropped off, not visiting or calling his sons for years at a time, she says. Quezada moved the boys from Compton, where they were living, to Santa Ana to be near her family. For a long time, before Quezada met the father of her two youngest children, her life revolved around raising Ronny and Sal alone.

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