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

Lopez met Ronny three years ago when Ronny was skinnier and shorter than he is now and had never boxed in his life. "When he started he was green, like most kids," says Lopez. "He was just a little different, he was a little gym rat. He was the first one to come in and the last one to leave. He would work on it and work on it and work on it."

But Ronny also fought the way a lot of talented young boxers do when they're just getting started: frenzied, forceful and without a shred of technique or tactics. "He was wild," says Lopez. "He didn't listen at all." But Lopez noticed Ronny was quick and caught on fast, with the potential to become a champion fighter.

In the junior division, he began a winning streak despite his lack of experience. His weakest moments were during "106"; Ronny insisted he could fight at 106 pounds and basically starved himself weeks before a tournament.

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

"He didn't eat. It was bad. He was ready to pass out," says Lopez. "I blew it. He really struggled."

"You could see shadows under my eyes," says Ronny. "You could see, like, every bone in my body. That's a gross weight right there."

Once he settled at 119 pounds in the Junior Division, Ronny began winning bout after bout. When he turned 17 this year, he became eligible to fight in the Men's division.

"I was mostly overpowering my opponents," Ronny says of his wins in the junior division. This worked for a while when he was fighting juniors his size or smaller. But when began to fight in the men's division, he realized he couldn't rely on raw strength.

When it came time to fight, he says, "I would get really hyper because I used to load up on a lot of caffeine." He would have a Red Bull or two, Skittles, or maybe grab a handful of sugar half an hour before a fight. But he quit all of that when he graduated to the men's division.

"This year I was like, naw, you know . . . I gotta change it. I gotta be smart," he says. "That's when I really started listening to Hector. It's mostly all about your fight plan."

At the National Golden Gloves tournament in May, he stunned veterans when he outscored well-known top boxers to walk away with the national championship belt.

After the fight, while the winners in the other weight classes displayed their belts across their chests, Ronny laid his belt and trophy down on the bleachers behind him and waited for the festivities to die down.

He then catapulted through the U.S. Championships in June to find himself ranked, suddenly, as the No. 1 boxer in the country in his 119-pound weight class. His record in the Men's division is 15-0. If he wins the Olympic Trials, which begin Aug. 20, he will head to the World Championships qualifying tournament match in which most U.S. boxers place well enough to go on to the Olympics.

The key, says Lopez, is to beat out the top boxers Ronny will face at the Trials. "It's huge. That's our goal. It's been our goal since day one," he says. "We're a step closer, but like I told Ronny, we haven't done anything yet. . . . It never ends. You just have to keep getting better and better and better."

"The first guy I'm gonna fight in the trials, I'm just gonna move," Ronny says. "I'm not gonna try and get crazy. I'm just gonna look at how he throws his punches, how fast does he throw them? What side does he move to more? Does he have a slow speed? An awkward style? After the second round, Hector will know what to do."

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Ronny says he doesn't like to think about being famous or big. It's hurt him in the past, says Sal, when he was younger and getting attention for his winning streak. "All the dads and stuff in the gym knew that he was a badass and they were always telling him that he was a badass. So it got to his head," he says. "Now I'm very critical of him, telling him stuff he needs to do to improve, instead of just telling him, 'Aw, you're bad.'"

The only dad who has never commented on Ronny's boxing style is his own, Salvador Rios Sr., whom Ronny and Sal hadn't seen for five years before last Christmas Eve, when he showed up unannounced and found them both home alone.

It was just weeks before Ronny would turn 17 and begin his winning streak in the Men's division. It was also his father's birthday. Although Salvador Sr. lived in Long Beach or Orange (no one is sure anymore), the Rios brothers hadn't seen him for years. "Last time I saw him was when I was in sixth grade," says Ronny. "He's got another family now."

That night, the sun had set and the rest of Ronny's family had left early to go visit relatives. "Someone knocked on the door, and I told my brother, 'I bet you that's my dad,' and he started laughing like, 'Yeah right.' Then I opened the door and I was like, 'Hey, I told you, it's my dad.' He didn't believe me."

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