A fighting chance

The USC boxing club creates opportunities for determined local athletes.

It’s 10 minutes into a Friday night practice and Jeff Sacha is already sweating. He squats, hands behind his head, and demonstrates how to execute a “duck walk” up a small ramp.

Behind him, a scattered group of 20 kids watch, outlined by the lights of the Pico-Union Boxing Gym. The makeshift gym is tucked in the back corner of the Pico-Union Housing parking lot, smeared with graffiti, enclosed by concrete and barbed wire fences. It’s easily missed, a single slim doorway spilling light into the dark lot.

This is Sacha’s home. For five years, he’s taught boxing lessons here to local kids for free. As part of a partnership with the USC Boxing Club, Sacha, who is pursuing a doctoral degree in sociology, spends six hours a week training more than 50 local kids.

He knows every kid by first name, bumping fists with them as they straggle into practice, asking about their math tests and their parents. Five years ago, he built this gym with his own hands, laying the floor, tearing down walls, hanging mismatched punching bags. When he was married, he signed up for a $600 registry for boxing equipment rather than silver and crystal. For his five years at USC, this has been the most important thing in his life.

But in a few short months, he’ll leave it behind to become a professor at UC Davis. Sacha is unsure what this means for the club, for his athletes — and that scares him. Without their primary coach and without any funding, the Pico-Union club is at an uncertain turning point.

“It’s hard to think about leaving this behind,” Sacha says. “Near impossible, really. I don’t want to go. If I could stay here, right now, training these kids — I would do it.”

Before wrapping his hands and putting on gloves, Sacha goes through the basic technique of a new combination with one of his older athletes.

 

The gym started as an experiment, when the USC Boxing Club didn’t have a gym. The Pico-Union Housing Company offered to provide the club with three abandoned garages, along with $1,500 in support. The organization provides Section 8 public housing to more than 300 residents in the Pico-Union neighborhood, one of the highest-crime neighborhoods in Central Los Angeles according to the Los Angeles Times. PUHC asked that in exchange for free rent, the club open the gym to the neighborhood.

At the beginning, turnout was minimal — a handful of kids, maybe 14 or 15 a week. Now, Sacha can count on 20 to 30 athletes each day. Those athletes have become family to him, and he doesn’t want to leave.

But Sacha doesn’t have that choice. Instead, he focuses on this moment, coaching an athlete’s mother on how to properly squat, showing her how to keep her weight over her toes.

Maria Macedonio, 28, has been boxing alongside her nine-year-old daughter for the past week. It’s been over a year since she worked out, and Sacha’s intensive core workouts leave her out of breath and exhausted. Next week, she’ll go on the group four-mile run. Today, she shakes out her legs and smiles as her daughter takes off at the front of the group.

Sacha has a strict rule for the gym — no boxers under 12 years old. But he broke that rule for Macedonio’s daughter, a talented young athlete who he works in the ring after her run. He holds up foam punching sticks and tells her to give ten quick jabs.

The stance is natural on her small frame as she hoists her bright pink Everlast gloves. Every punch connects with a satisfying thump. She shyly looks up at Sacha, a smile curling the corners of her lips.

“It builds up her little nine-year-old self esteem,” Macedonio said. “She’s very self conscious about her height, so seeing that she can come in here and do everything right alongside the big kids, I think that’s very good for her. And whatever is good for her, or makes her happy, that’s what I want to do, too.”

Increasing confidence is one of Sacha’s greatest focuses in training his athletes. Only one day of Sacha’s week is spent sparring with his athletes; the rest of the gym’s schedule consists of running, strength exercises and technique training.

 

Before coming to the gym, physical fitness had not been a part of most of these kids’ lives. They don’t know how to do a push-up or a squat. Their P.E. classes in school consist of walking around a track. For safety reasons, girls are encouraged to stay inside after dark.

This means that many athletes come to Sacha overweight and uncoordinated. But in the first few weeks of training, they’ll drop weight visibly. A key part of Sacha’s boxing workouts involves jumping rope, running and strength training. In weeks, his beginner athletes will improve from being unable to run for half a mile to keeping up with older athletes on three- or four-mile runs. This type of improvement is one of the most rewarding parts of Sacha’s role as a coach.

 

“You see kids come in and they’ve never worked out in their lives,” Sacha said. “They have no idea how to do it. We don’t just teach them how to box, we teach them how to take care of themselves, how to train to stay healthy and improve their lives as a whole.”

 

Most of the athletes at the gym are beginners when they come to the gym. That wasn’t the case for Adrian Cruz, 21, who had been fighting for years before coming to Pico-Union. He sits on one of the benches against the wall, hunched as he carefully wraps his right hand.

 

The white fabric is unraveled on the floor, resting at the feet of Sacha’s wife, Caitlin. She’s grinning at him, lightly shoving his shoulder. They’re recalling Cruz’s fight back in November. It’s two months later, and they’re still recalling that fight.

Cruz is the star of the club.

 

When the gym hosts its first home fight on May 29, he’ll be the headliner, the center of attention. But that meant nothing to his competition at the Rivals in the Ring fight at the Los Angeles Athletic Club last November. Walking into the fight, he was expected to be an easy target — a “walk in the park,” in the words of his Berkeley competitor. The only people in the room who believed in him were Sacha and Ramon Espada, head coach of the USC Boxing Club.

 

The fight went three rounds, and the superior fighter was never the question — Cruz won by unanimous decision. As he lifted his gloves, he grinned.

“Nobody in there thought anything of me,” Cruz said. “I proved them all wrong. That’s why I love it. Boxing is the one thing in my life that I haven’t given up on and that hasn’t given up on me. I come in here and feel like I’m good at something, like I’m important.”


 That feeling of importance is something that Cruz, along with other boxers, attribute to the personal attention Sacha gives every single one of his athletes. In the ring, Stephanie Varela is next up to take her turn training one-on-one with Sacha. She throws a right hook and he taps her left elbow.

“Watch that elbow.” He taps it again. “Act like you’re pinning a tennis ball under there. It’ll keep your arms more clean.”


It’s been two years since the 17-year-old first started coming to the gym. At the time, she wanted a new way to train. She’d been an LAPD cadet since she was 12, and she’d known that she wanted to be a cop even longer than that. Boxing was a different outlet to train for that future, and the Pico-Union gym was close by and completely affordable.

It was different than she expected. As a cadet, her training was supervised, driven by having commands yelled at her constantly. At the gym, she set her own pace. If she wanted to push it, she had to find that drive within.

“It’s hard at first, training yourself to really push yourself and put in that extra effort,” Varela said. “I didn’t know how to do that at first, but I’ve learned to push myself and get just as much out of it as when I have someone on my back.”

Varela is a senior in high school now. She’s been accepted to one college already, and she’s toured several more in the Bay Area. Going to school will mean leaving behind the gym and the bonds she’s made there, but she knows she will take the discipline of boxing with her wherever she goes.

What Sacha loves about this space is that it takes an action that is seen as destructive in the outside world and transforms it into a positive influence. Before coming to the gym, the only experience his athletes have with throwing punches are fights at school and domestic abuse at home.

In this gym, fighting means discipline. Many of the athletes are scared or angry or just overwhelmed when they get hit for the first time. They have to learn to use those emotions, to harness them into something more effective. To Espada, this is why boxing goes far beyond its violent stereotype.

“A great boxing match is like a great game of chess,” Espada said. “You have to think, you have to act with your head. Boxing isn’t about going into a ring and just punching the other guy out. You win with discipline. You win with your head.”

The coaches have seen discipline carry over to every aspect of athletes’ lives. Their athletes perform better in school; they are accepted into community colleges; they find time to balance school and jobs. This is the ultimate goal of the club — to make its athletes better people. And it is part of Sacha’s ultimate goal to see one of his athletes become a USC student.

That hasn’t happened yet. But it’s a goal that Sacha believes isn’t far away. He’s seen athletes progress from high school dropouts to college students, and that gives him hope for the future of their education. His dedication in the ring translates into athletes’ success in the rest of the world.

 

“Alright, now I want a double jab, then slip, then left, right, left.”

Sacha holds the padded sticks upright in both hands. A high school sophomore named Eric circles him. Eric slams two jabs, then ducks beneath the stick that is swung at his head. As he straightens he throws a left hook, then follows it up with two more jabs.

“Good!” Sacha grins, and Eric grins back, flashing the green and red of his Mexican flag mouthguard.

Compact and wiry, Eric is one of Sacha’s most promising Pico-Union boxers. He took martial arts classes for several years growing up before it became too expensive for his family. When his mother, who teaches Zumba classes across the street, stumbled upon a free boxing gym, she leapt at the opportunity to get Eric back into fighting. Two years later, he’s almost ready for his first fight.

Sacha tells the boys to start sparring and trades the sticks for gloves. He hops in with them, barraging each boy with light jabs, laughing as they swing back, pointing out when they need to tuck in their elbows and pull their shoulders back. The final bell rings, signaling the end of practice.

“Hey, touch gloves, touch gloves,” Sacha shouts, and the boys tap gloves before clambering out of the ring. It’s a matter of respect — at the end of the day, Sacha wants his boxers to see each other as family, not enemies.

“I miss my days of competing,” Sacha sighs, leaning heavily against the ropes. He was 6-3 in college amateur fights, the first USC boxer to qualify for the national championship. He laughs, wiping sweat from his forehead with his forearm. “Now I’m married and boring.”

 

He watches his boys as they split off, some doing extra pushups, others putting in reps on the bags. Some of these kids, he says, will stay for almost an hour after practice, putting in 100 push-ups at a time, holding bags for each other to practice a new combination.

Sacha didn’t teach them that, he says. He didn’t teach them how to be so brave, so persistent. When he leaves, they will still have all this — the same space, the same hours, the same dedication.

What they won’t have is a coach. Espada comes from six to eight to train the USC fighters, but he doesn’t have time to work the Pico-Union boxers. There are plenty of boxers in the club who have the skill level to coach, but they don’t have the time or the freedom to volunteer for six hours each week. Sacha has even thought about asking one of the older boys to lead lessons in his absence. None of it feels right. None of it feels good enough.

And if finding a coach wasn’t hard enough, the influx of new boxers means that Sacha and Espada need money — more than the $1,500 from five years ago, which was used up long ago in the expenses of boxing equipment. With less than four months left in Los Angeles, these concerns are rising for Sacha and his club.

The club has always found a way to survive, even a way to thrive. But with Sacha leaving, the future of the Pico-Union gym is still an unanswered question.

“This means so much to me, so much more than any of these kids know,” Sacha says. “But at the end of the day, I’m just not sure where it’s going to go. At the end of the day, I’m just not sure at all.”

 

It’s a Wednesday night in Pico-Union. The rest of the boxers have left for a run, leaving Jason Garcia, 21, alone in the dimly lit gym. He circles a bag, lightly swatting at it with his left hand before throwing a jab with his right. The hood of his black jacket is up. An earbud blasts music in his right ear. The other is tucked inside his jacket. He dances, jabs, shuffles, jabs again.

In the day, Garcia attends classes at El Camino College and studies at home. At night, he makes the 12-mile train ride from Compton to the Pico-Union to train at the gym. Between the two, there isn’t much time for slacking.

He was 19 when his friend Chucky brought him here for the first time. After a few practices, Garcia was hooked. Now, he rides that train to Pico-Union and back three times a week with the other boys from Compton. Today, however, he’s alone.

“They bailed on me,” he laughs. “Too tired out from Monday.”

Garcia can name a laundry list of buzzwords that the gym has taught him. The word that comes first is commitment. Commitment of his time, of those extra hours he spends on the train every week, cheek pressed to the dark window. Most importantly, commitment to his gym. Garcia tries not to miss a single practice. He learned from Sacha early on that the gym was not a place that would take attendance, but it was a place that required dedication in order to succeed.

“Jeff won’t even hand you handwraps until you’ve been coming to a few weeks of practice without missing any,” Garcia says. “When he handed [them] to me, it was like he was saying that he trusted me, he was investing in me. So now I have to do the same, give that same trust to the gym every day I come out here.”

He speaks of Sacha as a mentor, as a leader. This man taught him to train, to fight, to keep his elbows in tight and keep his head pulled back from an opponent’s swing. This man taught him discipline. When he speaks of Sacha, he speaks with respect in his voice.

But his success comes from somewhere different. Not from another man telling him what to do but from the voice in his own head that demands he comes early and stays late. Not from any outside motivation, but from a singular drive that Sacha helped him unearth. Sacha didn’t give him his discipline, or his commitment, Garcia says. He helped him find it.

Garcia knows what he wants out of life. He’s going to compete in a few fights. He’s going to become an electrical engineer. And eventually, he’ll open his own gym, closer to home in Compton. Whether or not Sacha is here, he says, he’ll find a way to make it happen. The people here always do.

For now, he focuses on the bag in front of him. He takes a few hits, dances backwards, then lunges forward for another hit.

For now, this is enough.