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LORDS OF THE RING

Like most other serious boxers, Joe Silva has discovered that his time isn't his own. Five evenings a week he meets his coaches at a gym in a Thornton strip mall. He stalks and feints his way through shadow boxing, first righty, then southpaw. Later, he stages furious rounds against the hand pads and the heavy bag. The sessions end with stomach crunches, calisthenics and a long run to loosen up. On those weekends when he doesn't have scheduled bouts, he spends an hour fending off Ping-Pong balls thrown at him by one of his coaches. Brushing them aside seems to improve his reaction time.

Joe began taking his boxing seriously three years ago. Now, a veteran at age nine, he has compiled an impressive record, fourteen wins against only four losses. Recently he traveled to Arizona to fight in a Junior Olympics tournament and won his weight class.

"This kid eats, drinks and dresses it," says Dennis Nelson, a former professional trainer who last year agreed to coach Joe full-time. "I have no doubt that he will be a champion of the world someday if he doesn't get burned out."

Or if he doesn't get burned by U.S.A. Boxing Colorado, the private organization that oversees amateur boxing here. Three months ago, Joe was not allowed to fight in one of the area's biggest tournaments, the Rocky Mountain Invitational. The reason was not that he was out of shape or unqualified--he'd been training specifically for the tournament all summer. Rather, the snub was the result of a long-simmering feud among the state's local amateur boxing clubs.

Joe's father, Louis, recently filed a discrimination complaint with the state Civil Rights Commission that was settled when Joe Garcia, U.S.A. Boxing Colorado's registration clerk, agreed to write a letter to Joe Silva admitting that he had made a technical error. The incident was only the latest one to rattle the state's amateur boxing system.

In recent years U.S.A. Boxing Colorado has fractured. The fault line seems to run directly through Garcia, whose feisty personality has the state's local boxing clubs lined up either with him or against him. In addition to heading the state's amateur boxing association, Garcia coaches the Rude Rockers, one of the most successful clubs in the state.

"I don't like to say anything bad," begins Ken Borchert, a sand-voiced man who has coached Grand Junction's Western Slope Sharp Shooters for eight years. "But we've had a major falling out. Joe's a prejudiced, egotistical man. Everything's his way or no way. There's no Robert's Rules of Order."

Among many state coaches, Joe Garcia stories are traded as freely as body blows in the corner of the ring: officials refusing to work fights in which Joe's boxers are fighting. Garcia screaming at and berating other coaches, sometimes igniting physical confrontations. The intimidation of judges and referees.

Garcia counterpunches the criticism. The split, he says, is overrated and is mostly because of professional envy over his club's success. "There is some jealousy among coaches," he explains. "There is some hatred."

He also defends his leadership of the state's boxing program. If there were any problems, he points out, then he wouldn't have been voted U.S.A. Boxing's state president for three two-year terms.

On the other hand, if Garcia's stewardship of Colorado's amateur boxers weren't a problem, Jerry Dusenberry probably wouldn't be concerned. But Dusenberry, who lives in Portland, Oregon, and who is president of U.S.A. Boxing, which oversees the country's amateur fighters up to and including Olympic fighters, is worried about the state of boxing in Colorado.

"There are problems," he concedes in a phone interview. "Colorado has some internal dissension. It's been an ongoing battle for several years."

Interest in amateur boxing seems to wax and wane in four-year cycles. Dusenberry says that the number of registered fighters climbs as the summer Olympic Games approach and then falls off again in the period directly following. Right now the sport--with 23,000 registered athletes in 1,800 clubs across the country--is in a pre-Olympic upswing.

(About 300 registered boxers are girls, and in 1993 U.S.A. Boxing held its first girls' program. Barriers remain, however. Last spring a female referee wrote a letter to local Colorado clubs complaining about the use of the briefly clad "ring girls." One official recalls, "We took care of it. We told the girls to wear T-shirts instead of bikinis. And we wrote [the female referee] a letter telling her she wouldn't be invited to any more tournaments. We don't need troublemakers.")

Despite the high profile and unbelievable purses earned by some professional fighters, the sport's training grounds more resemble Little League baseball than black-tie nights at Caesars Palace. Most kids fight for tiny local clubs that tend to live and die with the success or dedication of individual coaches. If they do well enough in state tournaments, the fighters move on to regional contests and then the nationals. Several Coloradans--Shane Swartz of Fort Collins is one--enjoy high national ranking.  

Ninety-nine percent of coaches and trainers who guide young fighters (children are eligible to fight in sanctioned bouts when they turn eight) through the rigors and discipline demanded by boxing are volunteers for whom it is not unusual to put in twenty-hour weeks. Many are ex-fighters who remember the exact time, place and blow that ended their active boxing careers.

Jess Mora started fighting in 1958, for the local Elks Club, when he was twelve years old and when nearly three dozen Denver boxing clubs battled for local ring supremacy (there now are five). His last fight was eleven years later. By that time he had moved to the Denver Rocks, a now-defunct club sponsored by cable magnate Bill Daniels, a former amateur middleweight whose big discovery, Ron Lyle, danced briefly in the spotlight when he floored George Foreman twice during a 1976 bout and who for six years in the mid-1970s was a top-ranked contender.

Mora remembers the Last Fight with clarity. "I boxed a guy from St. Louis. He hit me, hard, in the ribs. I was the only guy who lost that night." The blow proved to be more devastating than a simple fight-ender, and after several more poor showings, Mora reluctantly quit the game.

He now spends his days working the counter in his East 45th Avenue Grocery and Cafe and his nights coaching young fighters and helping administer the state's various boxing organizations. (With an occasional break: A couple of years ago Mora was booted from the sport for one year after an ill-advised argument with a national official. He was accused of being drunk at a Colorado Springs tournament and was hauled off by the military police. "Yeah, I had a beer with a sangwich on the way down," he says. "But I wasn't drunk.")

Despite most boxing clubs' modest surroundings, their rings still encase dreams. Lucius West trains at the recently renovated 20th Street Gym, a city recreation center whose boxing programs date back to the early 1900s. On a recent night he works the pads with his coach, Raul Luna, whose hunched figure in the ring gives him the appearance of a human bowling ball. West's punches smack Luna's hand pads with loud fury.

West is seventeen years old, a welterweight. He already has faced 100 opponents, winning more than 80 percent of the bouts. He is strikingly handsome, with a long face, tight, curly hair and lanky arms. Tonight he works out in baggy street pants, a striped shirt and suede sneakers.

Lucius's dad, Lucius West Sr., was a boxer; Lucius Jr. began fighting when he was eleven. In the past six years he's traveled with his father to 29 states, from California to Mississippi to Michigan. He estimates that he misses an average of forty school days each year because of training and fighting and traveling. Travel costs are considered a family expense.

"I don't work," he says. "This is my work right here." But Lucius West believes the long hours will pay off. "I think it will all be worthwhile," he says. "I think I can make it big."

The same vision came to Dennis Nelson in 1967, when he won the local light-heavyweight Golden Gloves championship. He was six feet, four inches tall, carrying a 24-0 record, 19 of the wins by knockout. "I had people calling me from California wondering when I was going to turn pro," he recalls.

A year later his career was over, after a street fight turned serious and Nelson caught a pipe to the head. He tried fighting after he recovered from the wound and says he even managed to spar with Ron Lyle. But he quickly discovered that blows to his head ignited intense migraines worse than any punch, so he stopped. He was nineteen years old and began drinking.

"I jumped into the bottle real bad," he says. "I just felt like my life was gone." Eleven years ago he checked into a detox center and hasn't had a drink since.

He also returned to the sport, this time as a coach. Again he thought he glimpsed the summit. Nelson remembers: "I had one kid, Tony Duran--he fought the champion of the world, John John Molina. It was in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was on ESPN, HBO.

"He had the champion of the world in trouble for a while. He had him cut over the left eye. I told Tony between rounds, `You got him cut. Don't give him any chance to get out.' But he was stopped in the seventh round."  

Nelson returned to his job as a hazardous-materials handler at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal. (The job-related risks don't bother him. "I like walking that line, anyway," he says. "That's why I'm in boxing.") Last year he attended the state Golden Gloves tournament at the Auraria campus, where he met Louis Silva.

Silva, a short man with a round face, boxed at 106 pounds as a kid in Washington state. He enjoyed moderate success, winning several local tournaments before quitting at age seventeen to enter the service. Like many other fighters, he is proud to have faced off against a good boxer, and such losses end up in his personal scorecard's win column.

"I fought Robert Shannon three times," boasts Silva, "and he went on to the Olympics." (Shannon was a lightning-quick southpaw who fought at 119 pounds. After becoming the only member of the 1984 U.S. team not to win a medal, he compiled an 18-6-2 professional record. He retired in 1990 to Washington, where he is now a barber.)

Silva had heard of Nelson and had seen him around local tournaments. At last year's Golden Gloves, he gathered himself and approached Nelson to discuss Joe, who was showing signs of talent.

"Lou Silva came up to me," Nelson recalls. "He said, `My son'--and every father thinks his son has all the tools--he said, `Could you just come out and see if my boy has what it takes?'

"I went and watched this kid work out. He was a southpaw. Now, most kids his age, if you watch a match, it's just pitty-pat punchin' and runnin', tying the guy up--scoring points, more or less. The pro game is more like a chess match; you set a man up for a KO in the later rounds.

"But little Joe's left hook is his biggest punch, and that's the money shot in the pro game. And for his age, his workout is just as strenuous as a professional's. This little kid works his butt off. I wish some of the pros I had worked like this boy, lived like this boy. He's got the desire. He's sure got the tools to go someplace."

From its tuxedoed promoters and ring announcers to the quaint term "smoker," which is used to describe club fight cards, boxing strives earnestly to maintain a feel of nostalgia and sophistication. The simple truth, though, is that the game is stocked with guys for whom fighting is a very serious hobby. Boxing enjoys--and to a degree even promotes--more than its share of quirks and spats and feuds. This appears to be particularly true in Colorado, where the state's boxing clubs recently have split into two distinct camps.

Inspiring the rivalry, whether he likes it or not, is Joe Garcia, a coach who runs the boxing program at the city of Denver's Rude Recreation Center. He has also headed U.S.A. Boxing Colorado for three two-year terms as president. The organization's bylaws prevent any one person from holding the title more than three consecutive terms, so last year he simply switched places with the association's registration clerk. He says he probably will run for president again in June.

At a recent evening at the Rude Rec Center, a crowded building in the shadow of Mile High Stadium and McNichols Sports Arena, Robert Thomason waits for Joe Garcia. He has brought his son, a broad-faced preteen with freckles and dark hair, to begin training. "If he wins some fights, that'll be great," he says, watching his son run around the nearby basketball court. "But mostly, I want him to gain some speed. I'm trying to get him ready for baseball."

Thomason, who is from Arvada, adds, "I brought him here because this place is the best. This is the best club in the country. Joe Garcia is the best coach."

Moments later Garcia arrives. He is short, with slicked-back hair. He's wearing a green windbreaker with the words "Rude Rockers" on the back. Although he never boxed himself, both his daughter and son have enjoyed tremendous success fighting. A storage closet tucked into the corner of the gym and crammed with jump ropes, heavy bags and shelves of boxing gloves and wraps doubles as his office.

Garcia dismisses the feud among the state's local boxing clubs. "There's only 5 or 6 clubs out of, what, 25 or 30 in the state that don't like me. They can do whatever they want. All the guys you talked to aren't up-front guys. They like to jerk you around."

He adds: "Some people are always going to complain. I'm not here to injure the sport. If I'm hurting the sport, why do my boxers always show up? Other coaches are always losing fighters. My guys always come back. I have the winningest team in the state. There's a lot of personal jealousy."  

Although many coaches spare no invective in describing Garcia and his alleged misdeeds, what seems to gall most in Colorado's boxing community is his explosive personality. "It's a real sensitive issue in the boxing world here," says Bruce Clark.

Clark, of Colorado Springs, has been around boxing for more than three decades, mostly as a referee. His obsession is a family affair: His wife also is qualified as a fight official, and his daughter frequently works as a time-keeper at matches.

Last year, however, Clark abruptly quit the sport. He says he had the misfortune to be working a fight in New Mexico that pitted a Colorado boy against a New Mexico fighter, with Joe Garcia in attendance. The Colorado boxer lost in a 3-2 decision.

"Joe came up," Clark recalls, "and lit into me about how I should have supported the Colorado boxer because I was from Colorado: `I don't know why I bring you fucking people here if you're going to vote against our guys.'" (The irony, Clark adds, is that he was one of two judges to vote for the Colorado fighter.)

The incident turned into a shoving match. That night Clark quit. "For ten months I didn't go to any shows," he says. "I was disgusted. I don't need this." Although he began working fights again two months ago, he remains bitter. "U.S.A. Boxing Colorado has lost considerable respect because Joe Garcia's behavior is not what it should be," he says.

Betty Roybal won't argue. Roybal also works local fights as an official. Her husband, Mike Torres, is the boxing coach at the nonprofit Brighton-Falcone Center. Last May Roybal refereed a fight in which Garcia's teenage daughter lost a 4-1 decision to a boxer from Grand Junction.

"She just had a fit," Roybal recalls. "She threw chairs around, threatened to punch me. Then Joe walked by saying stuff to me. I told him, `If you can't take losing, go home. We don't have pink panties in boxing. There's no crying.'"

She concludes: "If it were my choice, I'd like to see him removed as an officer of U.S.A. Boxing. Instead of enjoyment, it's become a chore."

To Walt Wolff, such complaints are familiar. As chief of officials for U.S.A. Boxing Colorado, he knows the incidents have become common. "Fights sponsored by Joe Garcia are impossible to get officials to work," he admits. "We have to just find the same ones."

Although many coaches mutter darkly about Garcia controlling officials, the best evidence that anyone can muster is that Rude boxers seem to do remarkably well in local tournaments. Dickie Woods, who coaches at Colorado Springs's 3-D Boxing Club, cites last month's senior state championships, held at Rude's home ring, Globeville Recreation Center. That's when U.S.A. Boxing Colorado's board named the state's outstanding boxers for the year. Of the eight top boxers named in each weight class, six fought for the Rude Rockers.

"The whole crowd was just laughing," Woods recalls. He adds, simmering, "I've got two nationally ranked boxers fighting for me who weren't named. And how they didn't recognize Shane Swartz, who earned a silver medal in the Goodwill Games, is beyond me." (Garcia responds that many of those fighters spent too much time boxing out of state to merit consideration as outstanding Colorado boxers.)

Because of such shenanigans, Woods concludes, the quality of the state's amateur boxers is plunging. "We used to be one of the strongest teams in the country," he says. "If we're going to regain that, we've got to get our poo-poo together."

Despite the complaints and the fact that many coaches don't have difficulty resurrecting their own up-close-and-personal clashes with Garcia, most say they've learned to simply tolerate his abrasiveness. "We've had our problems," says Mora. "I've ended up calling him an asshole, and he understands that."

Two years ago the discontent over Garcia proved too much for several clubs, however. Convinced that he was mismanaging the sport, clubs in Grand Junction, Greeley, Fort Collins and Brighton decided not to attend any more fights put on by Garcia.

The unofficial boycott sparked more hostility. Not surprisingly, considering the topic, the spat occasionally has turned physical. Jim Barnes, who coaches the United Boxing Club in Thornton, which joined the boycott, recalls attending a U.S.A. Boxing Colorado meeting last spring, where he was attacked by the son of another coach who sits on the state board with Garcia.

Barnes says he expected the confrontation. "I was in unfriendly territory," he says. "The kid pushed me twice and hit me in the arm. None of it hurt. The problem was that Joe just stood there and watched."  

Complains Mike Torres, of the Brighton-Falcone Center, "Now the kids are worried about their coaches fighting all the time. It's too bad that as adults we're always arguing."

It's a pleasant winter weeknight in Thornton. Inside the World Fitness Center, Joe Silva is intently stalking his reflection, stringing straight-armed jabs and hooking upper cuts into four- and five-punch combinations. He wears black sneakers with lights in the heels that flash red each time he shifts his weight to throw a punch.

"Okay, Joe. Time," says his dad, Lou. Joe drops his hands. "How do you feel? Work on keeping that elbow in. Do you want a drink?"

Joe begins another round at the mirror. Lou watches proudly. "For fifty pounds, he can hit," he whispers. "I'll show you when we get to the heavy bag. I used to box, and I'm telling you, I don't have half the talent he does.

"Time, Joe."
As sharp as Joe looks, Lou says he has looked better. "Last year he was looking sharp, he was getting ready for the tournament," Lou says. "But since he wasn't allowed to fight, he's lost a lot of interest."

Last fall, when Lou hadn't received a registration form for Joe to enter the Rocky Mountain Invitational, which is hosted by the Rude Rockers, he approached Garcia and asked him why. "He told me he was not going to allow Joe to participate," Lou recalls.

Joe Garcia says that if the Silvas--who last year were affiliated with the United Boxing Club, one of the teams boycotting Garcia's tournaments--couldn't make it to the previous year's tournament, they didn't need to participate in this one, either.

Lou says he and Joe weren't boycotting but were simply out of state at another tournament. Garcia isn't listening. "There's some clubs that don't come to my tournaments, and that's their priority," he says. "I'm not going to waste registration stamps on people who don't show up. What I did wasn't meant to hurt Joe. It was towards the club."

Two months ago Lou filed the civil-rights complaint. (He has since asked U.S.A. Boxing to investigate Garcia in greater detail, alleging mismanagement of the state organization. Unfortunately for Silva, the complaint must first be evaluated by Colorado boxing officials, which means that Garcia has to rule whether the complaints against him have any merit. Silva says he is not confident the charges will stick.)

In the complaint, Lou Silva charged that Garcia did not allow Joe to fight because he was white. The commission didn't address whether racism was behind the snub. To U.S.A. Boxing president Dusenberry, however, the reason Joe was excluded is beside the point.

The whole purpose of amateur boxing, Dusenberry points out, is to encourage kids to box. "This sort of thing tears away at the fabric of what we're trying to do," he says. Adds Luna, the 20th Street coach, "How do you explain to a nine-year-old kid that an official for U.S.A. Boxing uses tactics like this?"

In mid-December the state commission asked Lou Silva what he would like from Joe Garcia. He asked for a letter of apology to his son. Garcia refused but agreed to write a letter acknowledging that he had made a mistake by not including the words "by invitation only" on advertisements for the tournament. "It was an invitational tournament," he says. "I can invite who I want.


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