Five years ago, Joaquin Romero was holding mitts for his friends in his garage, which he'd turned into an “unofficial” boxing club. The trained boxer and martial artist had set up a ring and some punching bags, and was teaching different combinations and sparring techniques as a sort of “hang-out” hobby — until one of his friends expressed an interest in fighting a Golden Gloves amateur fight.
“I told him that if we actually want to fight, we can’t do fun boxing anymore and we have to actually train,” says Romero, who notes that this was the turning point for his coaching career. “Slowly, a few people caught wind that we were doing real boxing training, and suddenly I had close to twenty people coming to my house every night.”
Romero knew he needed to expand, but it was important to stay in Athmar Park, where he'd grown up. “Everyone told me, ‘Don’t go into your neighborhood,’ and I just didn’t want to listen to all these naysayers because I felt and still feel this is a good community to be in,” the now thirty-year-old Romero says. “One of my old friends who I used to train with before gave me advice that I didn’t really understand at the time, but I get it now. He told me, ‘If you’re going to open up a hot-dog stand, you go to Coney Island, because that’s where people buy hot dogs.’ I wanted to be where people want to box, and that’s here.”
In 2013, Romero found a 1,000-square-foot unit with vacant space next door at 2710 West Alameda Avenue, where he opened Topeira Boxing Club. “I figured if this flops, then I don’t lose much," he recalls, "but I told my landlord that if it works out, I wanted to knock down that wall in a year to expand next door.” It was only ten months before the wall came down, and since then he’s trained three Golden Gloves champions.
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Topeira Boxing Club is equipped with eight heavy bags, two double-end bags, two speed bags and a full-sized ring. Romero offers classes for professional boxers and would-be contenders as young as six, with classes for kids and level-one and level-two classes. He says that what makes his boxing gym different is the community aspect: His members take care of one another.
“When a new student comes in, I try to pair them up with someone a little more advanced who can teach and say, ‘I remember when it was my first day and I was just as scared as you — let me show you,’ and they can have a little laugh together and they both really like that,” Romero explains. “I’m the orchestrator during class. It makes my job easy, because I can sit back and let the magic work; the magic of the community that’s already tight can just do its thing.”
Romero says this process can be a bit challenging as students advance from level one to level two, but he emphasizes that Topeira Boxing Club isn’t about throwing beginners into the ring to see if they’re “tough enough,” which can happen at other gyms. “As students go from level one to level two, they’re going to start to spar, but I’m not going to put them in the ring with someone who’s going to kill them,” he says. “It starts from the beginning again, like when level-one students have someone holding the mitts for them and showing them the jab; that’s how it is when they start to spar. They have someone showing them the ropes, teaching them how to move their head, how to move around. You want to be in there with someone who’s going to kind of take care of you.”
Romero is the only coach at Topeira Boxing Club; in fact, he's the only full-time staffer. Though he has the help of a few of high-schoolers, he's the only one calling out drills to a room full of students, giving tips to pros, teaching kids respect and boxing simultaneously. He is the coach, the handyman, the first-time boss and the teacher.
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“When I opened my boxing gym, I didn’t do it for the money, and I still go back and forth about raising the price,” Romero says. The gym currently charges a $5 drop-in rate and a $50 unlimited membership fee; he's planning on increasing his drop-in fee to $10 for those who don’t have equipment, but keeping it at $5 for those who have their own wraps and gloves. “My true love is training fighters. I love being around people who like to fight,” he adds.
Romero says that while he wants to be a part of the amateur boxing community for as long as he can, he also wants to give back to Athmar Park and its youth for as long as he can.
“I love teaching and seeing this learning process with youth,” he adds. “There’s nothing like teaching them that if there’s a challenge in front of them — no matter how difficult — if you work hard and do everything you’re supposed to do and have the support you need, you can overcome it. It’s one of the most amazing and thrilling things I’ve ever had. Taking a kid who can’t even jump rope and making him a two-time Golden Gloves champion? There’s no words to describe that. No money can buy that.”
Visit topeiraboxing.com for more information.