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

When he was around nine, Ronny insisted that his mom needed "a man" to protect her while she mopped and emptied garbage cans at a foot-prosthetics office a few evenings a week. "I didn't want him to come," says Quezada. "He had his homework to do and I wouldn't ever make my children work with me." But Ronny insisted and threw a fit.

"I used to watch Jason movies and I was worried something would happen to her," he says.

His worries have always extended to everyone in the family, Quezada says. "He acts like the oldest. He always wants to make sure everyone's okay," she says. So, at age nine, he packed a backpack full of toys and went along with Quezada, securing a spot behind a large garbage can and discarded foot prosthetics from which to keep watch. "I felt better," he says. "I felt like I could watch over her." He's gone with her ever since.

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

When he was around 12, he decided to start helping her out. "It would take like three hours for her to clean by herself, but, like, one and a half when I would help her," he says. Now it's a weekly ritual between him and Quezada. Tuesday nights after his workout with Lopez, he'll come home, eat dinner and ride with her to the office. He takes the bottom floor, mopping and sweeping, while she takes care of the upstairs. After they work and he gets home, he goes for a 5-mile run.

"Recently, before I had a big fight, she lied and told me she was going to the store because she didn't want me to have to work," he says. "I called her and found out. I put on my running shoes and ran to the office to help her." He's never been paid for helping her out and has never considered it. "I just help her," he says. "It's not about the money."

In early June, after winning the U.S. Championships in Colorado, Ronny walked over to his uncle Ramiro Quezada, took off his gold medal and placed it around his uncle's neck. Quezada had urged him to win, and teased Ronny that the medal was what he most wanted for his birthday. On his official USA Boxing profile, Ronny lists Ramiro Quezada, who's 33, as one of his biggest influences, "because he motivates me."

Ramiro says he does what he can to keep Ronny focused. "I always say to him, 'What's your backup plan?' You gotta have a backup plan because you can't box forever." It was he who first brought his nephews to TKO.

When the elder Salvador Rios stopped visiting his boys, Delia Quezada's brothers became like big brothers to Sal and Ronny. Sal was getting into fights at school and Ramiro decided that boxing might be a way to temper his aggression. Sal says his other uncle, Joaquin, was the first one to take him to a boxing gym with a paid membership. Ramiro had long been a fan and collected boxing magazines, which the boys used to leaf through. Ronny wanted to go too; Ramiro found TKO at the Jerome Center in Santa Ana, where his daughter took dance classes.

TKO was free for all kids and Hector Lopez, the aggressive-yet-friendly coach with big eyes and a strident stage voice, seemed committed to training every kid in there, however young or old, skilled or not.

"I thought he was going to be a great coach," says Ramiro Quezada, "because it wasn't just that he trained them, he also paid attention to how they were doing in school, not just with Ronny but with all the fighters.

Ronny tagged along and met Lopez, who took in both boys and began to train them intensely. Sal lost weight and learned a hard right hook. Slender Ronny, though, would learn much more.

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Hector Lopez has been coaching kids at the raggedy TKO gym in Santa Ana for free for about 12 years. He shows up, rain or shine, every day and operates as a volunteer coach, along with assistant coach Andrew Olivares. Lopez, who boxed as an amateur when he was in his late teens, has long harbored the dream of coaching a champion boxer from the ground up. Before TKO he briefly managed pro boxers but hated it because he felt he had no control.

"I was basically working in the corner as an assistant," he says. "I said, 'I'm gonna go back to the amateurs and make my own Olympic champion.' People thought I was crazy," he says.

He works as an account manager for a health group during the day and obsesses over his fighters' opponents in the evening. He's also many of the kids' makeshift healthcare provider. "Go get your shot," he told Ronny late one afternoon after Lopez noticed he was exhausted. He sent him to the clinic to get a Vitamin B shot; and he's taken Ronny and other fighters in, on other occasions, for minor surgeries and after injuries. Doctors who are a fan of his volunteer work do favors for him. Like a lot of the kids at the gym, Ronny doesn't have health insurance. "I am their health insurance," says Lopez.

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