Photos and Text by Mamta Badkar
Video by Shreeya Sinha
Javier Baez, a 17-year-old boxer from the World Class Boxing Gym in Soundview, walked into the Theater at Madison Square Garden shrouded in darkness for his bout with 19-year-old Luis Cruz. His trainer, Luis Olmo, stood behind him while coach Ron Gibson massaged his shoulders as he waited for the announcer to call his name.
Having won the 2009 Metropolitan Championships in the 132-pound novice division and beaten two worthy opponents at the Golden Gloves this year, Baez had arrived at the tournament finals.
The annual tournament tests young boxing hopefuls around the city, yet no one at South Bronx Prep knew about Baez’s fight — the high school senior intentionally kept it quiet to avoid inviting trouble. “They might want to fight,” he said. Waleska Roldan, the wife of his trainer, suggested another reason. “He’s very reserved,” she said of Baez. “He comes in, says hello, changes and gets to work.”
Baez is uncommonly mature for a teenager. “I don’t really wanna be like anybody else,” he said, admitting he has no idols. At the gym, it is hard to hear him over the ricocheting speed bag and the buzzer that sounds every three minutes keeping the boxers rotating through their warm-ups. While other kids earn reprimands from Roldan, Baez keeps at the bags, rotating through them. He exhales heavily every time he makes contact, occasionally scrutinizing himself in the mirror to ensure his stance is right, that he’s pivoting and hitting the bags the right way.
“He serves as a mentor for the younger kids here,” Roldan said. One of them, Ivan, gushed about jogging with Baez, being in the dressing room with him and helping him wrap his gloves at his last fight. “I look up to him. I call him my brother,” he said, before turning to Baez. “I call you brother, don’t I?” Baez nodded and returned to his bag.
Watching him closely at the gym was his grandmother, Marguerita Fuentes. She has a heart condition and underwent surgery when Baez’s older brother, Jaime Stewart, won the Golden Gloves. “I like that he’s in here boxing and not out in the street,” she said, sitting in her usual ringside spot wearing a blue Yankees bomber jacket.
Fuentes acts as Baez’s driving force. “I want to win my fight for my grandmother,” he said. “She’s asking me to win. I can’t let her down.”
Baez is part of the “Adopt a Boxer” program at the gym and his membership and training fee is sponsored by Roldan. He used to train at Betances Boxers in The Bronx before it closed down, while Olmo, who put his savings into World Class Boxing Gym, used to work for the New York City Housing Authority teaching young people at the community center how to box until he was let go in February 2009. With a number of Police Athletic League boxing programs shutting down and the fire at Morris Park Boxing Club, the Bronx community was in need of boxing gyms for amateurs.
Olmo opened the gym Aug. 1 with a ring and a few punching bags. There were no mats or mirrors at first, but equipment started to follow after he received donations and grants awarded by Assemblyman Marcos Crispo and State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. The gym has a family feel to it, and Roldan said she felt sick watching Baez fight describing it as her “mother hen syndrome.” She looked over at Fuentes and laughed, asking her to bring in her pills for the actual match. “I’m proud as his sponsor,” Roldan said. “He has so much on his plate at such a young age. He’s doing it very gracefully.”
Roldan said she checked her boxers’ report cards, didn’t let them cuss, made sure they dressed appropriately and was pleased to see them help out in keeping up the gym. “We close at 9 and they’re still sitting here,” she said. “It’s like a safe haven for them. I’d rather them be sitting here than be out on the street getting into trouble.”
She recognized that this is a tough neighborhood and wanted “Javi,” as she calls Baez, to win because it would keep the other young boxers training hard. But she could not attend his match at Madison Square Garden because she had to pick her daughter up from dance practice.
“When I fight, I only think about winning,” Baez said during a training session, without a trace of arrogance. Even at 17 he has a quiet determination about him.
At the Garden, it was hard to tell if Baez was nervous beneath his head gear. His eyes seemed focused on the ring. He climbed in, did a quick round kneeling at the corner and crossing himself, threw a few uppercuts into the air and retired to his corner.
After the opening bell, Baez threw a jab at Cruz and missed. He dodged one punch and then ducked to deliver a blow to the stomach. The fighters remained at arms length for most of the fight, but Cruz seemed to be landing more punches. Baez received penalties for ducking and holding before referee Jihad Abdul Aziz stopped the match.
“He kept ducking low and after the warning he ducked again,” Aziz said. “They train hard to get here and the last thing I want to do as a referee is stop a match. I am disappointed he didn’t follow the rules because he has experience.”
The dream was over for this year, but Baez said he planned to continue boxing at the World Class Boxing Gym because he didn’t want to leave his trainers. He wants to box until he is 28, and he is applying to study business at colleges in New York.
“It’s also because of his grandmother,” Roldan said. “It’s hard to go to college and not have your family there.”
Additional filming by Dan Fastenberg