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."