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

In the gym, Ronny is antsy. "I just want to get in the ring already," he says. "This is the part I hate, the waiting." He's never sparred with Diego Magdalena, so he's eager to feel him out in the ring. "When you're gonna spar with someone you've never fought or sparred with, it kind of makes it more interesting."

Early on in the match, the two boxers knock heads because of their mirror stances. Lopez watches and begins talking without raising his voice from the corner. When Magdalena lunges forward, the weight of his body translates into an uppercut and several hooks against Ronny's lighter frame.

"You okay?" Lopez says after the first round. "He's gotten you a couple times with that hook. . . . His hook's coming here, your ass should be here already sticking a jab. Don't stand in front of him."

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

Ronny nods. "Right, okay, right."

The air in the gym is stagnant and hot; Ronny is already panting. He's fighting with his shirt off and in Nike sneakers because he left his boxing shoes at home. Magdalena is wearing a T-shirt and has hardly broken a sweat. The two boxers continue at a steady pace, watching, moving and then landing sudden, surprising, clean blows.

Because of the heat, Ronny goes three rounds instead of five with Magdalena and then immediately goes two more rounds with Magdalena's younger brother Jesse, who is 15 years old and fights at 119 pounds in the junior division.

Once Jesse steps into the ring, everything changes. The young fighter charges at Ronny in a way that Ronny later says reminds him of his former self. He's aggressive, uncalculated, frenzied.

The younger Magdalena collapses onto Ronny's body several times, squeezing him then jabbing at his ribs. After the first round, Lopez is irritated. "You're getting caught all over the place. That was sloppy, I'm telling you, all right?" Ronny nods. "EstŠs esperando [You're waiting]. . . . I need better than that, all right?"

Ronny nods. "Okay. Okay." Ronny tightens up, but his exhaustion is palpable by the fourth round. Lopez urges him to get to Jesse's body. "He's getting a little crazy now," he says of Ronny. The final bell rings and Ronny pulls his head gear off. "I can't fucking breathe," he says. He shakes hands with his opponents and trudges to a far corner to finish his workout.

The Lopez family and their temporary adoptee meander through the Miracle Mile mall, a cavernous thing attached to Planet Hollywood, where Ronny and Lopez's family are sharing a room. Earlier, he and Lopez had a chug race with bottles of Coke (his diet still allows this).

In a couple of weeks, Ronny will need to weigh 119 pounds. The week before he steps into the ring his diet will be stricter than ever. He'll have three boiled eggs, some almonds and water for breakfast. At lunch, he'll whip out an oversized protein bar, down some almonds and drink water. For dinner, he'll devour a small portion of salmon, water and a few chips. No Hot Cheetos with chili and lime on top, one of his favorite things to eat—tied with cheesecake and steak.

In those and so many other ways, Ronny Rios is your typical 17-year-old. Right now his favorite movie is Transformers. A few weeks ago, it was Knocked Up. He has no time for girls but he likes them. There's a pretty girl, with big "regular" (brown) eyes and long dark hair who Ronny has been "on again, off again" with for 9 or 10 months. They're friends. Well, more than friends. But they rarely see each other. Mostly she and Ronny text message and fall asleep every night with the phone attached to their ears. After Vegas, he plans to go to the Orange County Fair with his best friends, Sal among them. "No matter what, that'll never change," he says. "It's good times with them."

"If you see him on the street, would you think he's the number one ranked bantamweight in the U.S.?" asks Lopez as Ronny scoops up Lopez's youngest daughter, Alyssa. Ronny carries the 2-year-old through the casino. He cradles her and kisses her on the cheek, the same way he kisses 10-month-old Angel when he comes home every evening. It's hard to imagine the potent, methodical boxer who earlier traded heated blows with a tough champ like Diego Magdalena.

"That humility is why I think he's so good," says Lopez. "He doesn't think he's bigger than the sport."

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