A week before Christmas, and Luis Yanez is hardly in the mood for peace on earth. If anything, his resolution for 2008 is to wreak some havoc—on the Chinese, the Cubans—the entire world.
On this chilly December night in Oak Cliff, in a drafty warehouse-like gym, the first boxer from Dallas ever to qualify for the Olympics is watching the action in the ring. Tonight, the pint-sized Yanez, who stands 5 feet 3 inches tall and weighs just 106 pounds, is not boxing. He's dressed in his expensive jeans, his spit-shined dress shoes and a jacket that looks like it came straight out of the box. As he watches the two fighters go at it, their heads dripping with sweat, he bobs his head to the music coming from the boombox across the room, occasionally singing along to the music.
This is a brief respite from the daily grind of an Olympic athlete, but come Monday, Yanez will be back at it—jumping rope, working the heavy bag, dancing around the ring. For the last four months the Oak Cliff native has been living in Colorado Springs, and in just a few months, he will be traveling to Beijing, where he will be one of the favorites to take home an Olympic medal in boxing. In the last five years, he hasn't lost a fight in the United States, and last summer Yanez took home gold in the Pan American Games in the light-flyweight division, the first American to do so. If Yanez does take the gold this summer in Beijing, it will be a triumph for this entire gym, a gathering place of sorts for Oak Cliff's Hispanic community. And for Yanez, it will be the ultimate vindication for all those who ever doubted him.
Yanez's long path to local celebrity began 11 years ago, when his father brought him to Dennis Rodarte's boxing gym hoping to instill some discipline in the hyperactive child. At first, Yanez showed little promise, and Rodarte was told he was wasting his time with the boy. Instead, Rodarte took to Yanez like a second father, and it wasn't long before Yanez started finding his way in the ring.
If Yanez had one obstacle to overcome, it was trouble at home. When he was 12, Rodarte said, Yanez asked his mother, who had never seen the boy fight, to come to a championship boxing tournament in Dallas. Rodarte says Yanez's mother told him no. Yanez asked her why she wouldn't come. As Rodarte recalls it, Yanez's mother looked at her son and said, "Cause you ain't shit and you're never going to be shit."
When Yanez was 14, his parents split up. He started acting out in class, compiling more than 30 disciplinary referrals until Rodarte finally sat him down and gave him an ultimatum. Straighten up, he said, or no more boxing.
These days, Yanez doesn't speak to his mother, hasn't in years. If anything, the bad blood between them has only made him stronger. Ask anyone who knows Yanez—from the pro Hector Beltran, who works out in this gym, to Rodarte's assistant, a former fighter named Red—and they will tell you that the most difficult thing Yanez ever had to deal with was the divorce of his parents. But learning how to keep his personal issues out of the ring is what gave him his greatest strength.
"My mind is my greatest strength," Yanez says. "My focus, my confidence, my determination."
Yanez still winces when the subject of his mom comes up, but for the most part, he's put her behind him. He has a new host of doubters who don't make much of his two Golden Gloves National Championship rings, or his Pan Am Gold. Taking care of fighters in the Western Hemisphere is one thing, they say. The light-flyweight division in the United States is soft, they say, which is the reason Yanez can cut Superman poses in the middle of fights, or wink at his trainer before delivering a crushing body blow. The bigger challenge for Yanez will be beating fighters from countries where it is common for a man to stop growing at the size Yanez is. To prove their argument, they point to the world boxing championships held in October, where Yanez lost in the quarterfinals to a fighter from the Philippines.
Yanez has watched the tape of that fight repeatedly, and he thinks he won, an assessment shared by his coach. Regardless, he shrugs at the critics and insists there is nothing about his fight style that needs to change.
He may be cocky, but he's got plenty of believers. His teammates on the men's national team elected Yanez captain, even though he is the smallest man on the team. Spend any time with him and it's easy to see why. The 19-year-old commands respect.
Tonight, at the GTO Gym, all eyes are on the neighborhood hero. Young boys come up to pay their respects. And when an up-and-coming amateur steps out of the ring, gasping for air, Yanez rushes over and encourages him to fight the final round. The fighter, who must have 50 pounds on Yanez, doesn't even put up an argument. He simply does as Yanez says.
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Rodarte watches from ringside, amazed at what this gym has become. When he took Yanez in, he had just two or three other fighters. Now there are 30 to 40 boxers, from school children to young fathers, who fight under the GTO banner. All of them are from Oak Cliff, where there are two other popular boxing gyms.
"I think for a lot of kids in this neighborhood, boxing is seen as a way out," Rodarte says. "And obviously boxing is very much a part of the Latino culture."
The last sparring match of the night now over, Rodarte exhorts Yanez to put on a show for the reporter in attendance. Yanez takes off the gaudy rings on his fingers—two for his Golden Gloves national championships, one for his Golden Gloves state championship—and steps into the ring. The club's prized prospect, Beltran, takes the mitts as Yanez dances around the ring. Yanez looks over to where the reporter is seated, and with a grin he says: "Don't blink." And then he unleashes a rapid-fire succession of blows, ducking and weaving around Beltran's mitts until everyone around the ring—fighters working speed bags, a dad holding a baby, a teenage girl in a Mavs T-shirt—are grinning in amazement at the boy's speed.
"If Luis won the gold medal, wow, I don't even have words for what that would mean to all of us," says Ulises Beltran, a former fighter at the gym who still comes to help out. "It would be such a great thing for this community, to show these kids what they can do, that like Luis they can overcome anything."