The 20th Street Gym boxing program is fighting for its future

The 20th Street Gym boxing program is fighting for its future
Anthony Camera

Coach Robert Baca is ready to fight. He's all business — calm and poised, dressed in slick patent-leather dress shoes, pressed slacks and a blazer, his signature stone face looking out at the crowded community room — but the name of the game peeks out from beneath his jacket, where a T-shirt emblazoned with the words "20th Street Gym Boxing" stretches across his chest like a yet-to-be-fully-revealed superhero's uniform.

“He’s only number two because we haven’t fought the number-one guy. Once we fight him, we’ll be number one.”

Baca is here to fight for his team: 20th Street Gym Boxing, a legendary Denver institution that's lasted for nearly seventy years in the century-old 20th Street Recreation Center. But the future of the program is now in jeopardy, as the city is restructuring all of the fitness programs housed in Denver Parks and Recreation facilities. Boxing is viewed as a "niche" program, and since it's not offered citywide, there's a question of whether it will continue at 20th Street at all.

The community has gathered at the Glenarm Recreation Center, close to 20th Street, to discuss the possible restructuring of the boxing program. In one corner are Baca and his students, in the other representatives of Parks and Recreation. Councilwoman Judy Montero, who represents District 9, where 20th Street is located, is here to referee.

The members of the Mondragon family — Shon Sr., Ariel, Shon Jr. and Cassandra — have boxing in their blood.
Anthony Camera
The members of the Mondragon family — Shon Sr., Ariel, Shon Jr. and Cassandra — have boxing in their blood.
Coach Robert Baca.
Anthony Camera
Coach Robert Baca.

Although the city is definitely a formidable opponent, Baca's team has the power of the 20th Street Gym's reputation. Heavyweight champion Sonny Liston worked out at 20th Street in the early 1960s, when he lived in the area; former lightweight champion Stevie Johnston started out there. So did current welterweight contender Mike Alvarado. It's more than just a downtown gym; it's a place where history has been made — and where Baca wants to make sure that history doesn't end. But this fall, when the 20th Street Recreation Center was closed for renovations, he learned that the competitive boxing program might be knocked out of the ring.

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Shon Mondragon was 20th Street's rising star until the boxing program was shut out of the facility this fall. Baca found a temporary home for his team at a Colorado Golden Gloves boxing gym a few miles away in Wheat Ridge, but a lot of his young athletes — many of whom took the bus to downtown Denver from Park Hill and other areas — didn't have a way to get to the western suburbs.

Shon did. His parents, Shon and Cassandra Mondragon, are with him at every practice and every fight, and will drive their son wherever he needs to go in order to be with his coach.

Sixteen-year-old Shon is slight for his age, but his power is undeniable. He's also polite, well-spoken and gracious: He walks right up, shakes hands with a firm grip and introduces himself. He has a complete understanding of what it takes to be a fighter, inside and outside of the ring. He's ready to be a champion.

"He's had a lot of disappointing decisions," says Baca of Shon's early boxing career, "but we've just kept plugging along, and I think it has really built Shon's character. He's never been discouraged, and now he beats guys, no question."

Come January, Shon will be back in the ring, competing in the seventeen-to-eighteen-year-old age group of the Youth National Team Open in Reno. If he wins, Shon will go on to become part of a national team that competes all over the globe. He's currently second in the nation for his age and weight class; Baca says the only reason Shon isn't on top is because he hasn't had the chance to prove himself yet. "He's only number two because we haven't fought the number-one guy," Baca points out. "Once we fight him, we'll be number one."

Baca says this as though the fight were already in the bag, but he's got the numbers to back up the boast. Shon's 2013 record is nineteen wins and two losses; overall, he has forty-two wins and twelve losses under his belt.

Shon started boxing four years ago, in October 2009, just before he turned twelve. Baca has been his only coach, 20th Street his only gym. "He started from scratch; he didn't know a thing about boxing," Baca says. "He didn't even know how to stand, throw a punch, anything. I brought him from scraps to number two in the country."

"When Coach Baca first took Shon, after a couple of practices, Coach looked at me and said, 'Within two years, you'll have a national champion,'" Cassandra Mondragon remembers. "As a mother, it's like, well, that's great to hear, but you don't want to get too..." She pauses. "But, sure enough."

Sure enough, Shon delivered, and became the star boxer Baca had envisioned.

"I love boxing," Shon says, grinning. "It gets me out of trouble."

Shon Sr. marvels at his son's dedication. "I don't know any other fifteen-, sixteen-year-old who takes off and does what he does — not just because he's my son," he says. "But he just takes off and does three-and-a-half-, four-mile runs on his own every night before practice. It's hard to believe. I mean, me as a fourteen- and fifteen-year-old? I would have never done that."

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