• The San Juan Daily Star

A shot to the jaw

By Randal C. Archibold

After months of sparring with a light pole, doing push-ups and crunches on the bedroom floor, pounding a punching bag hung from a tree, Brian Jiménez finally climbed into the ring for the first time and was punched in the face.

That first fight was in Mississippi, and he did his best to remember to crouch and bob and weave the way his coach had taught him. He is strong and hits hard, his coach said, but here it was, a right hook he didn’t see coming. His jaw caught it.

“It honestly wakes you up, if you weren’t already,” said Brian, who is 13.

Two things might happen after a young boxer first gets hit. They might decide that’s it, time for something else. Or, as in Brian’s case, they go straight back to the gym.

“I felt like I had to work harder,” he said.

Losing, after all, does not feel good, so on another warm afternoon, this time on Long Island, he stood in the ring against a 14-year-old who shifted from foot to foot and rocked his head side to side, the way fighters like to do.

The vibe in this humid storefront gym, in a strip mall that had struggled in the pandemic with a mandatory closure and then the loss of some clientele, could be summed up as follows: Finally, the chance to fight. After months of limitations, the freedom to test your limits.

Brian didn’t think he had any. He was going pro. Two years ago, Brian had met his sports hero, Mexican champion Canelo Álvarez, who visited the gym in Manhattan where he trains as part of a promotion for a fight. Brian had watched clips of Álvarez’s fight and that of another hero, Willie Pep, trying to absorb their every move.

“He’s very disciplined,” said his coach, Hernán Santa, a former amateur champion. “I think meeting Canelo inspired him. Nothing happens by accident.”

It was not mere chance that Brian ended up at the gym. His father is the parking attendant in the lot where Santa parks his car. They struck up a friendship and the father decided Brian was mature enough at 12 to take to training. He would pay his gym dues by helping to clean up.

For Brian, it was a release.

“When you hit someone or something, it relaxes you,” he explained.

Like many strong, young fighters, Brian leaned on his strength in sparring matches. But it was Santa’s mission to teach him the subtler art of boxing, finesse and strategy, and reading an opponent and knowing fully how to move your body.

“You need to learn to box rather than muscle through everything,” Santa said. “Once you learn that, he is going to have his way with a lot of people because he is strong.”

“He wants to be a world champion,” he added. “I told him, ‘First be an amateur champion.’ ”

And so here was Brian, climbing that ladder, seeking his first win. He had woken up more excited than nervous. He had eaten yogurt and a banana and stretched and tried to visualize victory.

“I was thinking how it felt to lose,” he said, “and that it did not feel good.”

His opponent was Robby Ball, who was 14 but a touch shorter and leaner. Everybody except the fighters wore masks in the humid gym. Outside, people pressed their faces to the glass storefront to watch.

The bell.

They circled. They jabbed. They got tangled up in corners. Their heads snapped right and left as punches landed, and their coaches called out the kind of direction that has echoed through gyms going back to the days when people fought bare fisted.

“Bring your hands up!”

“Keep jabbing him.”

“Straight to the face!”

The bout was three rounds of one minute, 30 seconds each. For the boxers, time went even faster.

The problem with the first fight, Brian had been told, was he was not aggressive enough, so he aimed to fix that with Robby. To the untrained eye, this looked a bit like a fight in a middle-school cafeteria, with head pads and gloves, of course.

But the punches were being counted and the score was absolute and accepted.

Brian, a good student, lost a year at school with remote learning. He lost a year without the atmosphere of the gym that imbues fighters with knowledge and savvy, making up for it with the improvised at-home training and bouts with light poles. He is sure he would have been further along as a boxer.

Now, among a sweaty mass of young fighters waiting for their chance, a referee brought him and his opponent to the center of the ring, clutched their wrists and hoisted one boy’s arm.

The outcome didn’t matter, really. For Brian, it was liberating just to be there, to hit and be hit, to lower his head and bull his way toward the future he wanted. It had been 4 1/2 minutes of fighting on his way to … who knew?

For now, it was his arm reaching for the sky.

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