Ronny

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").

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.

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."

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.

*   *   *

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 Bañuelos; 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 Bañuelos, 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."

*   *   *

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.

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.

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.

*   *   *

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.

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.

"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."

*   *   *

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."

Ronny went outside and gave him a hug. "He's still the same. He looked old. I just hugged him. I was just talking to him, like, regular," he says. "He was like, 'How come you guys don't call?' I was just like, 'I lost your number.' He gave me his number but I haven't called him back."

Ronny didn't ask his dad why he hadn't called all these years. "I just felt awkward. I just wanted to leave. I don't want to start seeing him every week. Why is he going to come back into our lives after he left? So that's why I don't call him. I don't care if he comes back or not," he says.

"I mean, I'm fine just the way I am right now. I'm not a troublemaker. I'm not in jail. I didn't kill myself. I'm not a weird kid."

When Sal came out and their father tried to hug him, Sal stepped back, says Ronny. "He said, 'Naw, I don't want to hug you.'" Sal then told Ronny they had to go and they left. They haven't spoken to their father since.

Salvador Sr. has never come to one of Ronny's fights and Ronny says he wouldn't want him to come. "It would feel awkward. I mean, why show up now?" If he ever did, Ronny would kindly tell him to leave.

"Like, okay, let's say I do become like, big, okay, which, I never think about that, but let's just say I'm fighting like at a big stadium and he just shows up and he says, 'Hey what's up?' I'm not really gonna talk to him," he says. "I'll probably like, if he tries to ask me for some money, I'll probably give him some and say, 'Here man, just get out.'"

Ronny says he felt kind of sorry for his dad when he saw him in December. "He looked all old and used up. You could just tell in his face that he'd been through a lot," he says. "But that doesn't mean that I want to start hanging out with him. It's been too long already."

Ronny says he left his father's phone number on the table in the dining room that day and hasn't seen it since. Neither he nor Sal ever programmed it into their cell phones. Attempts by the Weekly to reach the elder Salvador Rios were unsuccessful.

*   *   *

It's at least 110 degrees in the desert and Lopez has packed Ronny, his wife, Erica, and their two young daughters into the family's white Chevy Tahoe. He's arranged for a prime sparring session for Ronny at Barry's Boxing Center in Las Vegas against several fighters who mirror the kind of styles Ronny needs practice against before the Olympic Trials.

While he makes his way along the hot, dusty highway, Lopez notices something out of the corner of his eye. It's a pickup truck that is tumbling and flipping down I-15 in the opposite direction. Lopez screams and pulls over. He runs out of the car with Ronny and across the divider to the other side of the highway. The truck finishes its tumble upside-down. "All I could see were clothes and blood scattered along the highway," Lopez says later.

They approach the truck, along with other passersby who have stopped to help and find three women trapped inside. "I had to stay calm," says Lopez later that night.

"You weren't calm!" says Ronny, laughing. "You were like, 'Oh my God, oh my God!'"

The boxer and his coach help pull two of the women, one of them four months pregnant, out of the truck. The third woman, who is trapped between the small back seat and the two front seats, they don't move. They leave the scene when a doctor arrives.

As they approach Vegas, Lopez is still shaking. Ronny is thinking about a car accident he was in a few years ago. His family's Suburban flipped on the freeway when Delia's boyfriend clipped the back corner of a car that had come to a stop. None of the boys had their seatbelts on. Ronny remembers being asleep and then waking to the strange and quiet sensation of being catapulted upside-down and then closing his eyes again. When he awoke, the car was still and right-side-up. He scrambled out. The only person he checked on was his mom.

By the time they reach Barry's Boxing Center, Ronny is more than ready to spar and Lopez is more than ready to coach. But Ronny's sparring partner, Teddy Padilla, is in Coachella at a tournament. His coach forgot to call Lopez to cancel the session.

"We came all this way," Ronny says wistfully. Lopez seethes. Ronny's head drops. "Let's at least get a workout in," Ronny says to Lopez. He wraps his slender, boyish hands and finds a corner where he can shadow-box. Lopez tries to cloak his frustration as he calls the boxer's coach—in vain. He gives Ronny instructions quietly. "It's okay," he says, "We'll see if we can find someone for tomorrow."

Ronny punches and lunges methodically in the corner. Unlike those of the other boxers his strokes are clean, crisp. Some of the other fighters notice.

"That's Ronny Rios?" a boxer says to Lopez. "He can use the ring if he'd like to," he says, signaling to one of the three massive rings in the gym. Ronny shakes his head no. He's okay in the corner. He focuses his jabs at Lopez, who has mitted up and works quietly, diligently, without looking at anyone else around him.

*   *   *

When a boxer decides to go pro, and if he's good, Las Vegas becomes a kind of second home. "This is where the money is, as far as professional boxing, my God," Lopez says.

The heat retains its melting effect later that evening. Ronny is holding Lopez's two-year-old daughter's hand as they walk through New York, Paris and the other oversized replicas that crowd the famous Vegas strip. When they reach Caesars Palace, Lopez's eyes gleam. "This is it, Ronny, this is where you're gonna be one day," he says smiling.

It's here, in Las Vegas, that the pro boxer will be televised, adored and showcased. Like the white tigers, Cirque du Soleil and other glittering Las Vegas acts, the pro boxer will become a unique and exotic entity unto himself, stitched into the fabric and excesses of this modern-day World's Fair.

Scouts and recruiters for top professional promotion agencies already know who Ronny Rios is. They attend all major amateur matches and look for boxers the same way a college basketball scout keeps an acute eye on every promising high-school hopeful. The difference is that boxing recruiters are also looking for a boxer's marketability in the pros.

"We tell recruiters to bring us fighters who they believe will be a world champion someday," says Lee Samuels, publicist for Top Rank, one of the biggest boxing promotion companies based in Las Vegas. (Oscar De La Hoya was signed by Top Rank; now his Golden Boy Promotions is a major competitor.)

"After a recruiter brings him in, a matchmaker has to like him, see what kind of energy he has, if he can talk to the press.

"It's a long process. It's not easy, but the rewards are great for those who make it."

It also matters what city a fighter is from, he says, both to see if the fighter has a hometown fan base and because a majority of pay-per-view sales are concentrated in California—Los Angeles being No. 1 above all states and cities—Nevada, Texas and New Mexico. And they're not necessarily looking for a string of gold medals, he says. "We look at a fighter's style," he says, "his energy."

Lopez knows all too well what can go wrong if a boxer isn't managed properly. "Ronny needs to mature before he goes pro," he says. "Both as a fighter and physically."

Lopez says the dream scenario is to win at the Olympic Trials, qualify to go to Beijing and then go pro when Ronny returns in 2009.

Ronny says he wouldn't trade Lopez in for a different coach down the road. "A lot of good fighters lately have been staying with the same coaches for a lot of years, like 'Winky' Wright, Hopkins, I think Ricky Hatton, they've stayed with their coaches their whole career. That's how I want to do it."

Plus, he says, it's hard to know what a coach's motives are once a boxer has shown potential. "Hector trained me before, when I was nothing. Why am I going to switch off with some famous coach that wasn't even around, who never paid attention to me when I was nothing, you know? Why does he want to coach me now when I'm at the top?"

"This is my favorite," Lopez says looking up at the grandiose columns and decadence that make Caesars Palace one of Vegas's most overwrought spectacles. The hotel and casino has hosted some of the best-known, pro boxing matches of all time, including three bouts between Evander Holyfield and Riddick Bowe, Mike Tyson's heavyweight championship match, headliners including Michael Moorer, Oscar De La Hoya and "Sugar" Shane Mosley and the famed, racially charged Larry Holmes/Gerry Cooney bout.

"They have fights out here?" Ronny says, pointing to the outdoor bleachers and mini-Coliseum replica. "It's too small."

"Naw," says Lopez. "When they get those spotlights on and set up the ring, it gets packed. It's incredible," he says.

The next morning Ronny is up running through the sweltering Las Vegas heat at 8 a.m. Lopez managed to secure a last-minute spar session with brothers Diego and Jesse Magdalena. Like Ronny, Diego is ranked No. 1 in his weight class—132-pound, two steps above Ronny. He's beefy, with shiny, green eyes and a crew cut. He's full-grown and is probably about 20 pounds heavier than Ronny on this day. He's also a southpaw, which can make for a tangled match for a right-hander like Ronny. On the ride over, Lopez reminds Ronny to be careful.

"He kind of jumps a lot, so get him in-between when he's jumping. Just jab and push him back a little. But as far as banging with him, don't sit there. He's too heavy."

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."

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. "Estás 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."


To view our slideshow of images, click here.

daltan@ocweekly.com

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