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Young Shon had started out with the usual team activities — soccer, football, baseball and basketball — but at the age of eleven, he told his father that he was bored with them. "He was real quiet, and in sports, he was a hide-behind-the-team kind of guy," says Shon Sr. So his revelation that he wanted to box came as a surprise.
Boxing had always been a family spectator sport: Shon's great-grandfather, John Ulibarri, had been an integral part of Colorado Golden Gloves, serving on the board of directors and even as executive director of the organization before he retired. Shon had seen plenty of fights in his life, and his parents recall Ulibarri putting young Shon in the ring, fists up, for photos. But when Shon decided that boxing was his sport, he didn't realize how deep the tradition ran in his family.
Those family ties were what connected him to Baca. "I called my grandfather, who's been in this for years and knows all the coaches," remembers Cassandra. "I said, 'Hey, Grandpa, Shon wants to box. Who do you think will be the best coach for him in Denver?' He thought for a minute, then he said, 'Honestly, there are a lot of good coaches, but I would recommend Robert Baca. He's out of 20th Street. You should go try him out.' At that point, we went to 20th Street, and we never looked back."
Like Shon Mondragon, Robert Baca started boxing when he was a kid. And like Shon, he had his first amateur match at the 20th Street Gym, where the words "House of Pain" hung above the door leading to the second-floor ring.
Baca was fourteen when he began boxing in 1971, when the sport had a lot more clout. "Parishes and rec centers — everyone had teams back then," he recalls. "We started our team in the basement of the church at St. Dominic's. We built from there."
That led to bouts at 20th Street and also Denver Elks Lodge No. 17, the first lodge established between the Mississippi River and the Golden Gate Bridge. The gym at 14th and California streets was known as the "Punchbowl"; it had been hosting boxing tournaments since the early 1900s. The last one was in 1974; the lodge was later scraped and replaced by a parking lot.
"That building was the best spot in the country for boxing," Baca says. "It was an intimate arena — you could be right on top of the action." He remembers competing in tournaments that lasted six days, sometimes fighting twice a day, because hundreds of athletes would sign up. "To win a state championship back then was really something," he adds.
And he did win them, taking the B Class and the Open Class A championships in 1974. Those wins brought him closer to his goal of competing in the 1976 Olympic Games.
"I made a lot of sacrifices in my life to do that," says Baca. "I went to Regis Jesuit High School; it was hard academically, but I still boxed. In my senior year, I worked all the way through. I walked the walk and talked the talk."
After taking the Open Class State Golden Gloves Tournament, Baca won the Light Middleweight title at the 1975 regional Olympic trials. The Open Class was an unusual victory for someone as young as Baca, who was just eighteen and fresh out of high school; it usually attracted much older boxers.
"Everybody in the five-state area knew me; everybody knew that I was going to the Olympics," recalls Baca. "I used to knock guys out cold. I'm not ashamed to say that, because it just proves my technique. When you go in the ring, you go in to test your skills. You offer yourself as a test to your opponent. That's where the respect comes from."
His Olympics hopes ended when his opponent head-butted him.
"We didn't wear headgear in those days," Baca remembers. "I suffered a really bad concussion. Even though I won the match, I couldn't continue boxing. My doctor strongly advised that I needed to quit for a while. That was the end of my dream, right there."
Baca took a few years off from boxing, got married and started a family. He returned to the game when he was 23 and won the 1980 Colorado Golden Gloves title, but the sport proved too time-consuming for the new father. Instead, he threw his energy into his work, building a career overseeing IT departments for MCI and Eastman Kodak and ultimately earning six figures annually. But even after two and a half decades of success in the private sector, he never forgot what it felt like to be in the ring.
And then his eighteen-year-old daughter, Amorena, told her father that she wanted to box. Baca said he knew of some good coaches he could take her to, but Amorena refused. She wanted her dad to teach her the ropes.