Still punching: Redwood City boxing champs won’t let broken ribs and condo developers crush their Olympic dreams

Gladiator’s Boxing Gym was on the verge of displacement before regaining its footing to keep their top fighters on track for 2024.

Alexis Gomez (left) & Mariana Gonzalez (right) hitting bags during practice and showing off the photo poses they practiced during their USA Boxing Olympic qualifier experience. (Photos by Danny Acosta)

Gladiator’s Boxing Gym in Redwood City is a humble facility straight out of central casting.

An industrial steel sheet garage door provides entry to an interior that is not much wider than a few heavyweight wingspans. The ring’s size evokes a phone booth’s lack of spaciousness and is so low it’s almost at floor level. An abundance of wood, leather, metal and rope (plus a wealth of weathered boxing poster essentials) appear to all collectively push the front desk to the back of the gym. It’s bookended by two doors — one that leads to a tiny storage closet, the other that holds the gym’s locker room (which is not much larger than the storage). Between fitness novices looking for a game-changing workout and competition-oriented fighters, a scattered mash-up of thudding and rhythmic sounds emits from workouts concentrated on heavy and focus bags.

Whether in the ring or punching the bags, two exceptional talents are found consistently polishing fundamental and specialty skills alike: Alexis Gomez and Mariana Gonzalez. They are two amateur athletes — Gomez at 165 pounds and a sporting a 13–2 record; Gonzalez 112 pounds at 32–11 — who have both devoted professional calibre hours at Gladiator’s for the last few years under trainer (and owner) Tony Renteria’s guidance. In that time, they transformed from run-of-the-mill amateurs to viable contenders for the shortlist of Olympic hopefuls.

This past December, Gomez and Gonzalez brought home a pair of notable wins which Renteria calls centerpieces for the gym’s decades-old resume. Gomez placed third in the 2020 Olympic trials in Lake Charles, Louisiana, and Gonzalez fourth. It put Gladiators at a rare level — their fighters top five in the nation, seriously contending for a spot in the Olympics.

It’s the kind of benchmark Renteria felt could fend off exactly what happened next: the gym took a body blow as their lease expired and the building’s owners slated to tear it down to make room for more condos in Redwood City.

Ironically, the global pandemic COVID-19 has helped Gladiator’s regain its footing with their lease on their Arguello Street location being extended into the fall. And even without the gym being allowed to operate under the current rules of shelter in place, Gladiator’s emerging amateur stars are already training with their sights on the 2024 Olympics.

Owner and trainer Tony Renteria (center) with his students Mariana Gonzalez (left) and Alexis Gomez (right). Renteria is exploring possibilities for the future of Gladiator’s with a commercial realtor, still kicking around non-profit status, unsure about everything the future holds. (www.dannyacosta.net)

Rolling with the punches

“It’s gone for sure.”

In January, Renteria was staring down the imminent closure of Gladiator’s and not feeling optimistic about his options. “It’s all the memories,” he said. “I grew up in that gym.”

Renteria, a Redwood City native born down the street from Gladiator’s at Sequoia Hospital, joined the gym in its early days three decades ago. In time, he took over the gym from original owner Eloy Ramirez (who still coaches Renteria and the gym’s fighters alongside him).

Gladiator’s has always been both predominately Latin and classically blue-collar since it originated in the industrial corridor where it remains today. Even as the tech industry consistently forced the Bay Area’s cost of living to skyrocket, Renteria was not naive to the prospect of losing his lease. So when it finally happened at the start of 2020, he scrambled to move locations and even looked at non-profit status to protect the gym from other future shocks.

Then, the COVID-19 pandemic slowed everything to a near halt, including Bay Area’s ever-changing real estate landscape. Suddenly, Gladiator’s was off the chopping block…for now. Renteria can stay where they are until October. But who knows if or how training can safely resume there in that time due to the coronavirus, and if Gladiator’s won’t just be kicked out again because of gentrification during “normal” circumstances?

But if boxing has proved one thing in the American zeitgeist, it’s that dreams aren’t confined to borders or buildings, and hopefuls all over the world like Gladiator’s fighters are still training for the next Olympics regardless of circumstances.

Alexis Gomez (left) and Mariana Gonzalez (right) hit a water filled uppercut bag during their regular rounds earlier this year. (Photos by Danny Acosta)

(Olympic) trials & tribulations

“What I remember the most about the Olympic trials was the thrill of it,” Gomez recalled earlier this year after a weeknight training session.

Gomez was one judge’s decision away from making the Tokyo Olympics as an alternate (a bronze medal finish….if medals were handed out at the qualifying level). Gonzalez fell short at fourth, but positioned herself to be in the conversation as one of the toughest competitors to watch at the next Olympics trials.

“I was just thinking about how everyone’s made sacrifices,” Gonzalez explained. “My coaches, my family, my teammates, I thought about how hard we worked to get to here.”

COVID-19 has cancelled the summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. Yet the two young women from the San Francisco Bay Area have already staked their claim on amateur boxing’s national stage and still desire to represent the United States on the international front.

But the landscape has changed. Instead of sweating inside Gladiator’s, Gomez and Gonzalez have begun working toward the next Olympic cycle by training however they can at home via Renteria’s supervision on Zoom’s digital conferencing platform.

“All the serious fighters, the ones that are committed, still keep me busy,” Renteria said about training in the time of coronavirus.

Alexis Gomez found solace in letting USA Boxing “know who I am” during this first try for the Olympics. She plans for one more Olympic run and to then leave boxing competition behind. (Photo by Danny Acosta).

Even at 25 years old, Gomez only had ten amateur contests heading into the Lake Charles trials held last year. That’s a huge experience gap for amateur boxing, but she scored two knockouts in five fights in six days, and only lost to the women who qualified for the 2020 Olympics.

“It’s enough for me to have gone to that peak level of amateur boxing: the Olympic trials,” Gomez said. “It only happens every four years. It’s the best eight [female fighters] in the nation. I went there, did my thing. Now I’m really proud of myself.”

Looking ahead, there’s room for optimism: Gomez’s third-place finish puts her right on track for another Olympic bid.

Conversely, Gonzalez, just 20 years old, had more amateur experience in a busier weight class than her teammate, and fought her way to an even 2–2 record at the Olympic trials to rank fourth in the nation. It revealed to her she has more work to do.

“I feel like I’m not done yet, definitely,” she said. “I feel like I have a lot more to show. That was a step to getting to [the next level].”

The goal is to win a national championship when coronavirus subsides, kicking off her run for the 2024 Olympics in earnest and then eventually leave behind the amateur ranks and join boxing’s professional female stars still fighting for promotional visibility and equal pay at the highest level.

Gonzalez has cobbled together the experience necessary to make an honest Olympic bid despite boxing still lacking opportunities for women. That is, in part, to being skillful and respected enough to spar on one occasion with Seniesa Estrada, a pro champion and budding star part of Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions that has fought on major networks. The plan is to keep traveling, competing in amateur contests and professional rounds in sparring. (Photos by Danny Acosta)

A Sunnyvale native, Gonzalez is the oldest of three children (her two younger brothers, Nicolas and Leo, also train at Gladiator’s). Their father is a landscaper, who encouraged her in various martial arts on her route to boxing. Once Gonzalez arrived at Gladiator’s, it illuminated how boxing’s “sweet science” was a viable route to live her Olympic dream. It is a dream she still pursues while completing coursework at Foothill College, where she focuses on biology and neuroscience with hopes of going into the medical field after she transfers to one of the Bay Area’s state universities or USF.

For Gomez, unlike Gonzalez, training this seriously was never her goal. The South San Francisco native followed her brother Oscar to a fitness-boxing gym in San Bruno over ten years ago. She trained casually, but dropping fifty pounds led her to a new focus of becoming an adept boxer.

After completing undergrad work in sociology at UC Santa Cruz, she had no idea what she was going to do, but she loves the teacher-student lifestyle she’s developed at Gladiator’s that enables her Olympic hopes.

“The Olympic trials was really an eye opener of the politics around amateur boxing,” she said, “and how much I can push myself mentally, physically and emotionally, which was far more than I expected.”

Gomez suffered a broken rib in a sparring session after winning the semi-final qualifiers last March, only to then suffer an annular tear (where the ligament that connects discs to vertebrae disconnects like a hernia pain). That cut her preparation for the Olympic trials last December drastically short. She had to smile through everything to hide her anxiety at the unpredictability of what could happen in the ring after recovering from injury and training constrictions.

Gomez endured her first career loss, and second too, at the Olympic trials — both via decision. She still firmly believes she won those bouts and she’s not alone. Almost like a boxing initiation, fans and strangers approached her wondering aloud what fight the judges were watching.

She recalls one particularly enthused fan telling her: “You’re the best in the nation and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not, because you competed with these girls and whooped that ass and they still took that from you.”

Those words lifted her up, even as she was perplexed USA Boxing, the decision making body around amateur boxing, chose a much-lighter 155-pound fighter over Gomez to be the alternate in 165 pound weight class. Still, not a bad showing for someone who first competed in 2017 to land third in the United States.

Tony Renteria has been involved with boxing in Redwood City for decades. He added respectfully Gomez and Gonzalez proving the gym can produce Olympic caliber fighters eclipses the Golden Gloves and national champions — great fighters — Gladiator’s has produced in the past, “of course!” (Photos by Danny Acosta)

Still punching

Although Gomez wants to join Gonzalez in the 2024 Olympics, she doesn’t want to follow her teammate into the pros. The truth of amateur athletics, she acknowledges, is it’s a small window to be in the right time and place.

“I got this spark going on right now,” said Gomez. “After a couple of years, I won’t be able to have the same spark anymore. I’ll be older, really be an adult, have a family and things like that, so then everything changes. Right now I’m in a position where I can keep going, why would I stop?”

Despite Bay Area real estate’s squeeze on Gladiator’s and the coronavirus throwing sports and lives into flux, under Renteria’s coaching, they believe if it’s meant to be, it will be. That’s a mantra to accept the politics of boxing, a pursuit that is—paradoxically—won by your own hands but also out of your hands at the same time.

The female Olympic hopefuls at Gladiator’s agree Renteria fosters an environment that makes their time feel important and bolsters their self-worth through boxing’s discipline. They aim to be role models to everyone else in the gym — wherever it ends up — and to each other. That’s the teamwork that makes the lonely road of pursuing an individual, amateur (read: unpaid), Olympic-level sport (read: grueling) worth it.

“This is a thrill,” Gomez concluded. “It’s like my own movie.”

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Danny Acosta

100% Mexellence. Filmmaker. Writer. Photographer. www.dannyacosta.net

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