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The Desert Sun - March 05, 2007
The Desert Sun - February 04, 2007
Max Boxing - February 01, 2007
The Desert Sun - January 21, 2007
The Desert Sun - April 12, 2006
Los Angeles Times - May 11, 2003
Bob Hope Chrysler Classic
Palms Spring Life

The Desert Sun

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DACE seeks help for Coachella Boxing Club

By Michelle Mitchell
March 05, 2007


Desert Alliance for Community Empowerment (DACE) is holding a walk-through of the Coachella Boxing Club Wednesday at 3 p.m. to help solicit donations.

The boxing club is still seeking assistance for a 4,000 square foot expansion that is being built and funded exclusively by volunteers.

The club provides supervised activities and scholarship money for local youth and is the home of hundreds of champions, including the recently crowned IBF Lightweight Champion, Coachella native Julio Diaz.

DACE is looking for donations to help fund a drop-down ceiling, roofing and flooring at the club, 51-310 Douma Street.

For information, contact Katherine Mejia at 391-5050, Ext. 229.

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The Desert Sun

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Diaz speeds to title
Coachella boxer retains IBF belt after opponent injures knee

By Thomas St. Myer
February 04, 2007


Julio Diaz proved prophetic Saturday night in front of a sellout crowd at Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Fla.

In pre-fight interviews, the Coachella fighter promised to control Jesus Chavez in the ring and hand him his first loss by knockout. Diaz backed up his words with an unconventional knockout of Chavez 22 seconds into the third round to reclaim the IBF lightweight title.

"It's unfortunate with whatever the issue is, but I showed before that that I'm too strong," Diaz said.

In control of the bout through two rounds and with Chavez slow on his feet, Diaz (34-3, 25 KOs) followed the advice of his trainer Lee Espinoza and attacked in the opening seconds of the third. Diaz lunged and threw a straight right toward the body of Chavez who backed up, and with his legs spread wide, suddenly crumpled to the canvas. Chavez (42-4) grabbed his right knee and cringed through a 10 count.

"I told him he's too slow, now's the time to get him," Espinoza said. "He would've really embarrassed him if it hadn't stopped like it did."

Chavez, who - on an ominous note for Chicago Bears fans - wore a Rex Grossman jersey into the ring, apologized to the national television audience afterward and said, "It was kind of weird. My knee just sort of went out. And this is my good leg. The only good leg I have to stand on."

An aggressive fighter prone to take the action to his opponent with overhand rights and left hooks, Chavez fought defensively against Diaz, who held the advantage in size, strength and speed.
Julio Diaz Image
"I was being a little defensive while trying to maintain being aggressive," Chavez said.

Diaz stayed in the center of the ring and stuck his left jab to control the opening two rounds. Chavez threw wild, looping rights but connected on just one in the opening two rounds.

Chavez dominated the super featherweight division where he held the WBC title, before he moved up to lightweight to fight Leavander Johnson for the IBF title in September of 2005. Chavez overpowered Johnson and knocked him out in the 10th round. Five days later, Johnson died from head injuries he suffered in the bout. But Diaz provided Chavez a sterner challenge.

Over the past two years, Diaz matured from the boy that Jose Luis Castillo pushed around the ring into a man with the strength to push back.
                  (Julio Diaz)

Diaz held the IBF title from May of 2004 through February of 2005 before he relinquished the title to fight Castillo. He then won the interim title with an unanimous decision over Ricky Quiles last May. Saturday night, he overpowered Chavez through two rounds and, in the third round, dropped the interim from his title.

"From my point I did my job," Diaz said. "I told everyone this is not his weight class. I'm a bigger, stronger guy. I'm on top of my game."

Moments after the bout, Diaz called out WBA champion Juan Diaz in his televised interview with Showtime analyst Al Bernstein.

"I'm hoping Juan Diaz (a student at the University of Houston) finishes his homework and comes out and play," Julio Diaz said. "There's too many Diaz's in the weight class."

Juan Diaz (31-0, 15 KOs) fights WBC champion Joel Casamayor (34-3-1) on March 3 in a unified title bout and Acelino Freitas holds the WBO title.

Julio Diaz reiterated Saturday night his desire to unify the titles.

"I want to unify the titles so that there's only one champion," Diaz said. "That's the most important thing in boxing for me."

Diaz took 6 minutes and 22 seconds to win the IBF title. The main event lasted nearly 30 minutes longer.

Undefeated Chad Dawson (23-0) defeated Tomasz Adamek (31-1) by unanimous decision to win the WBC light heavyweight title.

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Max Boxing

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Diaz Will Use His Boxing Skills to Defeat Brawling Chavez

By Brett Conway
February 1, 2007


When two fighters with different styles and different builds meet in the squared circle, each expects his advantages will trump the advantages his opponent brings to the match. In the 1970s, Muhammad Ali thought his movement and speed and jab would make Joe Frazier look foolish, while Frazier thought his pressure would force Ali to fight in close, something the Greatest was never very good at. After three fights, it’s still hard to see who got the better of the other. A few months ago, welterweight champion Carlos Baldomir believed his size would handle the flashy Floyd Mayweather, but Mayweather thought his speed would take apart Baldomir and expose him as a typical brawler. In that case, Mayweather was right. These kinds of fights attempt to answer the eternal boxing question: which is better? A brawler or a boxer?
Julio Diaz Image
On Saturday night, another fight pitting a boxer against a brawler will argue that question, and one fighter believes his boxing skills will hold the answer. Interim IBF lightweight champion Julio Diaz believes he will defeat IBF lightweight champion Jesus Chavez when they meet in Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee, Florida in a fight to be televised on Showtime. Diaz is bigger, he is younger, and he is the better boxer. These advantages, he told Max Boxing, will make for an easy night.
    (Julio Diaz on the right with Lee Espinoza.)

Julio Diaz began his career in early 1999, stopping Carlos Rodriguez in the first round. From then on he built a reputation as a versatile boxer with sharp punches, being voted the USA today boxing prospect of the year in 2000. When he faced Angel Manfredy in October, 2001, he had a record of 23-0 with 17 knockouts. Losing a close decision to Manfredy and then getting knocked out by Juan Valenzuela in the first in 2002, he has come back, losing only to Jose Luis Castillo in March 2005. This loss was nothing to be ashamed of since he did what the top fighters do. He took a chance, giving up his IBF lightweight title to face Castillo, the WBC champ. His tenth round knockout loss hasn’t fazed Diaz.

Diaz came back with knockout wins and then a decision over Ricky Quiles for the interim IBF title, a title he’s holding for champion Jesus Chavez, who was out with a shoulder injury. They will decide who holds the deed to this title in their Saturday tilt.

This is an important lightweight battle since twenty-seven year old Diaz, 30-3 (24) is ranked number two in Ring and thirty-four year old Chavez, 43-3 (30), number four. Whoever wins this fight will have a mandate to go after number one contender Juan Diaz or Ring champion Joel Casamayor.

Diaz knows this should be an exciting fight since it features a boxer against a brawler. He also knows Chavez is tough and strong and aggressive, but he feels Chavez’s advantages are tailor made for him.

“I will see a typical Chavez,” he told Max Boxing. “He will keep coming forward to try to tear me apart.” Diaz feels Chavez is too predictable for him, while he has the ring savvy that comes from years of honing his craft. He recites his advantages as one would read a shopping list: “I have speed, height. I can fight conventional. I can fight southpaw.” He also has confidence: “I’m good at what I do,” he says. Although called El Matador, Chavez, Diaz suggests, is that in name only.

Diaz has trained and fought with the consistency of a real professional, fighting as lightweight throughout his career. Chavez, on the other hand, may have won more titles than Diaz, but he has done it in different divisions -- the featherweight, super featherweight, and lightweight. And anyone who has seen pictures of Diaz and Chavez together prior to training camps may wonder whether Chavez, who has had a layoff of well over a year, can even get down to the lightweight limit. Because Chavez is only five-foot-five, Diaz believes he should be able to play the matador and bully the bull.

“I’m the better fighter. I’m a bigger guy, stronger. I’m stronger than he is,” the five-foot-nine Diaz says. Diaz doesn’t know what else Chavez offers than his relentless aggression.

Diaz is a real professional who knows even with his natural advantages, he can’t take Chavez for granted. He has had a strong training camp and believes he will be in great shape for the fight.

“I was in camp for two months. It was a very good training camp with hard training – hard,” he says, emphasizing the last word. “It was a strong camp, more intense. I worked on more resistance.” Summing up his training camp with the best words possible, he says, “I left all the bad habits in the gym.”

Diaz feels he will have an easy time of it on Saturday, but he also knows with their contrasting styles this fight is a showcase for both him and Chavez. “This should be a great fight. It’s what people want to see.”

He’s right. It’s one fight people want to see, but there are others down the road. The lightweight division has a lot of big names and good talent: Joel Casamayor, comebacking Acelino Freitas, Zahir Raheem, and David Diaz, but if Julio Diaz defeats Chavez, he says he want to go after the guy who has separated himself from the rest of the pack: Juan Diaz, the non-stop punching machine. Now that’s another fight people would want to see, a fight pitting a boxer against a brawler, the Kid against the Baby Bull. Their nicknames alone will sell it. Now, on Saturday, against Chavez, we’ll see if Diaz can make that fight happen and again answer the eternal question: who is better, slugger or boxer?

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The Desert Sun

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Boxing club turning young lives around

By Michelle Mitchell
January 21, 2007


On the spectrum of sports, golf and boxing seem about as far apart as Mozart and Metallica.

But without golf - specifically, charity tournaments such as the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic - the Coachella Valley Boxing Club may not have become the life-changing organization it is today.

"If it wasn't for them, you never would have seen this," said Lee Espinoza, 58, founder of the nonprofit boxing club, gesturing around the room so crowded volunteers have begun building a 4,000-square-foot addition.
Don King With Lee Espinoza Image
"They were the first guys that believed in what we are doing here."

The Classic first donated $2,500 to the club in 1991, at a time when Espinoza said he paid for the club by buying cows and auctioning them off for about $1,000 a week.

After that, it became easier and easier to find sponsors.

Though the numbers from this year's Classic aren't available, the
             (Lee Espinoza with Don King.)

boxing club has received around $20,000 the past few years, said Dawn Suggs, director of administration for the Classic.

"We certainly believe in their mission," Suggs said. "They've done an excellent job in shepherding their funds and providing badly needed services in Coachella for young people."

Boxing is often billed as a violent sport, but it has actually been attributed to decreasing juvenile crime.

A 2004 report by Fight Crime: Invest in Kids California connected a decrease in youth crime statewide with increased participation in organized activities such as boxing.

"It's a good sport and you get to travel a lot of places," said Ryan Caballero, 12, of Coachella, the sweat from a recent workout dripping down his face.

Ryan, who started the sport when he was 6, said if he wasn't boxing, he'd probably just be "staying home."

Statistics aside, Espinoza just needs to look around at the sweaty faces in the club and the grinning pictures on the wall to see success stories.

"Instead of breaking windows and being out there with the wrong people, they grow here," Espinoza said, pointing to former troublemakers, now training with discipline.

The boxing club gives about $5,000 in scholarships to a handful of students each year.

"We've saved people's lives," Espinoza said.

He remembers kids that were kicked out of school, came to the club and went on to become champions, business-owners and role models.

On an average day, more than 120 people flock to the valley's largest boxing club, which has produced hundreds of champion boxers including Coachella native Julio Diaz.

Between the boxers and the community members who come for the club's exercise equipment, there's just not enough room.

Sparring boxers have to dodge jump-ropes whipping through the air.

"I don't want to run anybody home," Espinoza said. "The more people, the better."

It's led Espinoza to commission the addition that will nearly double the club's current size.

The concrete foundation is set, but Espinoza is still looking for experienced volunteers to help with everything from plumbing to painting.

"We always need help," Espinoza said, grinning.

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The Desert Sun


Ceremony held for Coachella Valley Boxing Club expansion

By Thomas St. Myer
April 12, 2006


COACHELLA - Five gold shovels struck the ground Tuesday afternoon in a ground-breaking ceremony for the expansion of the Coachella Valley Boxing Club.

Club director Lee Espinoza, Coachella Mayor Jesse Villarreal, Coachella Mayor Pro Tem Juan De Lara, city councilman Eduardo Garcia and Roger Snellenberger Development assistant vice president Stan Duncan all took shovels and ceremoniously dug into the ground.

The club will expand almost 4,000 square feet at the rear of the existing structure, but that expansion will wait for the time being. Duncan estimated there will be another 60 to 70 days before the club is granted a building permit and he expects the actual construction to begin in four months.

When completed, Espinoza said weights and cardiovascular machines will be moved into the expanded space to separate the exercise and boxing equipment. The exercise facility will feature free weights, weight machines, cardiovascular machines and a walking track.

"A lot of Hispanics in the valley have diabetes and they need to walk," Espinoza said. "They can't afford a gym. This is good for them. Everything is free."

A crowd of about 50 showed up for the ceremony. The participants ranged from professional and amateur fighters to politicians.

"Coachella is growing and the boxing club is growing," Villarreal said. "This is the place I love to come when I'm all stressed out. Sometimes we're having some trouble solving issues through diplomacy and I'll say let me throw some punches and we'll figure those things out."

The club operated out of the fire station on the corner of Sixth and Vine, with its one ring and two punching bags, for almost eight years before taking over the 3,000 square-foot facility adjacent to Bagdouma Park in 1996. The facility expanded to 5,000 square feet in 2000 and should almost double in size after the completion of this latest expansion.

"It's an incredible difference for the kids from where we started off," Julio Diaz said. "We were in a building that was falling apart and now we have one of the most beautiful gyms in the United States."

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Los Angeles Times

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He Made Boxing Bloom in the Desert

By Murray Olderman
May 11, 2003


Who could have imagined it? That little Lee Espinoza, who used to pick peanuts with his grandpa in the hardscrabble fields of provincial Michoacan, would one day stand in the spotlight of boxing rings in Atlantic City and Las Vegas and San Juan, Puerto Rico, as the manager and trainer of fighters battling for world titles. That the ninos of Coachella, Calif., whose population is predominantly Mexican American, would flock to this pugilistic Pied Piper of Hamelin to be mentored in the “sweet science,” as writer A.J. Liebling called it.

The Coachella Valley Boxing Club, in the remote low desert of Southern California, is his home turf. It’s probably the only boxing club in the United States that has flowers bordering the walk to the front door. Espinoza, who did menial landscape work for a living for most of his adulthood, planted them himself.

Boxing clubs conjure up the mingled smells of sweat and liniment and stale cigars in crowded inner-city gyms such as fabled old Stillman’s on Eighth Avenue in Manhattan, the Main Street Gym in downtown Los Angeles, Kronk in Detroit, Miami’s Fifth Street Gym, and Champs in Philadelphia, where famous ring warriors from Joe Louis to Muhammad Ali trained, oblivious to the seedy milieus.

All you’ll ever inhale at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club is the dust of the arid landscape or the scent of Medjool dates on the fruit-bearing palms. Every weekday around 5 p.m., a flurry of activity pervades a modern tiled-roof building at the end of Bagdad Avenue. In and out of two full-sized rings, up to 80 boys and girls–yes, with ponytails streaming out of their headgear–ply the art of boxing. They spar in 14-ounce gloves and skip rope and shadow box and punch the light and heavy bags. They wrap and tape their own wrists and industriously run on treadmills or lift weights. “You see the real bad boys in town staying out of trouble here,” says Espinoza, the club director. “When they leave, they ain’t going nowhere. They’re going to bed.”

In the early afternoon, the world-ranked professionals in Espinoza’s stable of fighters–the Diaz brothers, Antonio and Julio, Steve Quinonez, Rudy Dominguez–work out in the spacious, air-conditioned gym. They have appeared on HBO, Fox, ESPN2 and USA Network boxing shows, and collectively have fought five times for recognized world titles. Oscar De La Hoya, the Golden Boy of boxing, has sparred there, with Antonio Diaz.

So how did this emigre gardener who had never laced a pair of gloves on his own hands acquire the expertise to guide all these fighters?

“I can go in the ring and look and tell you what they do wrong,” he says. “I never done it myself, but I can teach it. Learn the basics. If you want to do the wall, you lay down the cement first. Put up one block at a time. I know the basics. The left jab is the key to everything. If you got a good mind, everything will follow.”

In his daily uniform of black t-shirt and cross-trainer shoes, lee (short for Librado) Espinoza sits in a memorabilia-filled office with a glass partition, looking out at the gym as he traces the personal history that led to a life in boxing. He speaks Spanish-tinged colloquial English that’s quite articulate, but he can’t write it. So he calls in Antonio Diaz, who has been punching the big bag, to spell out La Piedad, the town west of Mexico City where he was born 54 years ago, and begins:

My father was a farmer. I can still remember the peanuts because we used to pick ‘em in bunches, like carrots. I remember when I was 5, they killed my father and his brother at the same time. Some guy, a millionaire, did it. My dad owned the land, and this guy wanted to take it over. He had so much money he could do anything he wanted.

My mom came over to El Paso for a better life, making tortillas and selling them to the stores. I was 8 or 9 when I came over–it took us two years to get the papers. She moved to Coachella and got married. I was legal because the guy was from here.

I never went to school in Mexico. I went to school one year in Thermal [another desert community that’s south of Coachella]. I didn’t speak English. My mom followed the grapes. To Selma, near Fresno, and she met these people who used to live in Tulare, so we stayed there. She got a good job, like a foreman, picking the grapes and cotton. I used to pick the cotton. I went to school, from the fifth to the 10th grade, in Tulare. You just had to be there and you passed. And we came back to here. I quit school when I was a sophomore, at 17 or 18, in Coachella.

Espinoza went to work as a gardener and, self-taught, became a sprinkler man “because you make a lot more money.” He rose to foreman, installing irrigation systems at many of the country clubs in the Palm Springs area. “I tried going on my own,” he admits, “but you need a lot of reading and writing, and I didn’t have the knowledge to do it.” He was married at 19 to June Moreno, who lived next door, and they raised three sons and a daughter (all have gone on to college and secured degrees). Their first home was on a small ranch in Thermal across from the high school. One of the coaches there, Eddie Dominguez, put on an amateur boxing card in the gym.

Some little kids, about 6 years old, were fighting, and one of them got a big trophy for winning. My youngest son Ruben, also 6, was with me and goes like, “Dad, they gonna give him this big trophy to take home? I went one year on the soccer team; it took me a whole year to win one little trophy. You know what? I can beat those guys and get a big trophy.”

So I took him to the Indio Boys and Girls Club that had a boxing program run by Lalo Gutierrez. In two weeks, he took Ruben to Colton to fight and, sure enough, he won a big trophy. I took my son up there every day. I did it in the afternoon after work, at 5 o’clock, and started helping Lalo. I never was a boxer. I got into a lot of street fights around Tulare. They used to call me the Wrestler from Mexico. I used to throw them down and win. Until I met my match and that was it. Lalo showed me how to train the kids for boxing. He showed me all the moves and the tricks. I took over from Lalo when he had a son in the hospital, and he turned to religion.

Ruben Espinoza was a natural in the ring–smart, aggressive, quick, with all the moves and power in both fists. Over the next 10 years, with his dad in his corner, he won 178 amateur bouts, was victorious in the Junior Olympic Nationals in Marquette, Mich., and was ranked second nationally at 112 pounds.

One morning at his home in Indio, Lee Espinoza flipped on a VCR above the 60-inch screen in his living room, and a homemade videotape shows Ruben advancing against a very young Oscar De La Hoya; Oscar was 14 and Ruben was 15.

Ruben’s the aggressor, throwing piston-like jabs. Oscar dances sideways, arms swinging low in his inimitable style. “See,” Lee points out, “he was fighting the same way back then.” After three rounds, the two boys stand on either side of the referee, waiting for the decision. Lee grins broadly as the tape shows the referee raising Ruben’s arm. He has probably seen it several hundred times.

Ruben defeated De La Hoya the two times they fought as young teenagers, beat Shane Mosley in three of their four amateur bouts and Rafael Ruelas twice–all three opponents went on to become world champions. Lee envisioned the same future for his son.

But Ruben, a fine all-around athlete, persuaded his father to let him go out for football his junior year at Coachella High School. Ruben came up to make a tackle. The runner, going down, kicked him in the left arm, dislocating the elbow and shattering several bones. After two operations, his elbow was frozen in a bent position. Two more surgeries restored only 30% movement to the arm. He was 16 years old, ostensibly finished as a fighter.

Epilogue for Ruben Espinoza:

After the injury aborted his boxing career, he concentrated on education. “Mom and Dad always pushed for college,” he says. He went to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and majored in construction management. After a five-year layoff, Ruben starting working out in the ring whenever he came home and decided he’d like to fight again despite the maimed elbow.

His father took him to De La Hoya’s training camp at Big Bear and said to Oscar, “Hey, Ruben wants to turn pro. Can you spar with him?” He also told the reigning world champ to test his son, “go after him.” They traded punches for an intense minute and a half. Oscar put his arms down and said, “Ruben, you still got it.”

Espinoza secured a state boxing license for Ruben and booked a couple of bouts. Ruben, now 21, had grown to 5-foot-8 and filled out to 151 pounds. He could only throw feeble hooks with his crooked left arm. He couldn’t jab. He had to lead with an overhand right. He knocked out both opponents in the first round. But Ruben had to make a choice. Graduation from Cal Poly was approaching, and he had an attractive offer to become a project engineer for a large construction management firm. He reluctantly quit boxing again and, a decade later, is a rising young project manager for the firm. Any regrets?

“I’m a boxer true and blue,” he answers. “I was at home in the ring. That’s me.”

Lee could have given up the sport, too, but he saw what the boxing club meant to the kids. “We’re a little town that can’t win a football or a baseball game,” he says. “Coachella don’t win nothing. But in boxing we got a name. I take my kids everywhere, and they win.” They competed successfully against other clubs in such places as Yuma, Ariz.; Henderson, Nev.; San Bernardino, Chino, Azusa, Pasadena, El Monte, Riverside and Hemet in California; even as far away as Albuquerque, N.M. Under Espinoza’s tutelage, exceptional talent was being discovered in the desert. Case in point: Francisco “Pancho” Segura.

Pancho Segura was 14 years old when he came in here, a real tough kid with a real bad attitude. He started hitting the bag and looked good. His first fight, he was disqualified. So I started talking to him. All his cousins, they’re in jail for life. Or overdosed. Pancho, if he wouldn’t have been here, he would have killed somebody or be killed. Because he was not going to make it in this world with his attitude.

Pancho went to the 1984 Olympic tryouts. Segura was my first professional fighter. He fought twice for the IBF [International Boxing Federation] world featherweight title, first against John John Molina in Puerto Rico, then Boom Boom Johnson in Atlantic City. He lost both fights and quit when he was 29 years old. His wife told him it was the fighting or her. He had all the future in the world. Bob Arum [one of the most influential boxing promoters, head of Las Vegas-based Top Rank] told him, “Kid, I’ll make you a world champion. I like the way you fight.”

But when I wanted to take him to Las Vegas, his wife said, “He ain’t going nowhere.” I got him a job with an electrical contractor in Palm Desert. Pancho became a certified electrician. Once he learned the trade, he got his own company. He’s 36 now and busy with his electrical work, building houses. He has a son, 16, and he’s after him to go to college.

In 1985, the boxing club was moved from a cramped single room in Indio to an abandoned fire station next to City Hall in Coachella. Espinoza lobbied the City Council to secure the space. A Coors beer distributor donated money to fix up the building. Espinoza and his kids installed new sheetrock.

“We started with six kids and soon we had 50 kids and we were training outdoors because we had no more room,” Espinoza says. “We used the inside ring to spar and to work out when it was cold.” There was no running water, so they drew it from a faucet outside. There was no restroom. They had to cross the street to a restaurant where Espinoza had befriended the owner.

A friend brought Sandra (Sandy) Yard to him, saying she was a dealer at a nearby Indian casino. “She’s athletic and wants to fight.” She also was married and had three children, the oldest now 15. At first, Espinoza didn’t want female fighters. He mimicked Tom Hanks in the movie “A League of Their Own,” telling her, “There’s no crying in boxing.” He agreed to a one-week trial and made this assessment: “A 10-year-old has more power than you. But you’re athletic, and everything I tell you to do, you do it right away and you do it good. So let’s give it a try.”

She was 36. Over the next six years, Sandy had 19 bouts and won two International Female Boxing Assn. world titles, first as a featherweight at 126 pounds and then as a junior lightweight at 130 pounds. “When you got Lee in your corner,” she says, “he sees what you’re missing. He’s the greatest.” She retired last November to work full time as a real estate agent in Palm Desert.

The Diaz brothers, who migrated to Coachella from Jiquilpan in the state of Michoacan, Mexico, a half hour from their manager’s hometown, have brought Espinoza both his greatest success and failure. The oldest, Joel, walked into the old firehouse 16 years ago at the age of 13 and started hitting the bag. The next day, he brought his brother Jesus, 12, known as Shaggy. A couple of days later, Joel showed up with Antonio, who was 10. Then, after an interlude, his baby brother, Julio, 6.

“What’s going on?” Espinoza asked. Joel explained, “My dad don’t let me bring them all, only one guy at a time.” After a workout, Espinoza drove to the Diaz home and saw Julio on the floor and brother Antonio kicking him. “If I leave them here alone,” complained the father, “one will push the other into a car.” So Espinoza struck a deal. He would pick up all four every day, take them to the club and bring them back. “They’re yours,” the father said. For four years, Espinoza carted them back and forth daily. He fed them, too. “They never spent a penny,” he says.

Joel Diaz went on to win the IBF American title and traveled to South Africa in 1996 to fight for the world lightweight championship. Espinoza didn’t make the trip. He hates flying, though he takes medication to tolerate trips within the country. Joel was outpointed in 12 rounds by Philip Holiday, who subsequently lost his title to Shane Mosley. Joel retired to become a sheet metal worker at $30 an hour and, on the side, a boxing trainer. He shows up at the club every afternoon at 5 to work with the more advanced fighters and is the official trainer for his younger brothers.

Antonio Diaz has made close to $1 million in the ring, with a 40-4 record, including 32 knockouts. He held the IBA World Junior Welterweight title–the IBA is a minor player in the splintered hierarchy of pro boxing–and defended it a dozen times. He went East to step up in class and impressed the boxing cognoscenti by defeating experienced Micky Ward in a tough brawl at the Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut.

He took his biggest plunge in November 2000 by challenging Mosley, the conqueror of Oscar De La Hoya, for the WBC (World Boxing Council) welterweight title. Antonio took a severe beating and suffered a TKO in the sixth round. A year ago in March, he dueled Antonio Margarito for the WBO title and tired in the late rounds. His corner threw in the towel in the 10th round. Because of the punishment, Espinoza urged the fighter, although still relatively young at 25, to consider retirement. He didn’t want to see him risk permanent damage.

As he does with most of his fighters, Espinoza already had provided a future. “If they don’t become Oscar De La Hoya,” says Espinoza, “I get some sponsors and give the kid a job.” Antonio worked in his sponsor’s jewelry store, La Fuente, in the Indio Fashion Mall. With his ring earnings, he eventually opened his own store, which he operates with family help.

“I didn’t want him to fight anymore,” Espinoza says. But Antonio rededicated himself, and he fights on for good paydays, still a tough, capable threat at any level.

The championship hopes of the Diaz family were passed down to Julio. The youngest of the fighting brothers was trumpeted as a sensation in the amateurs and won his first 22 pro fights. Under the Top Rank banner and just about to hit the big time, Julio lost a controversial decision to veteran Angel Manfredy in Corpus Christi, Texas, on Oct. 6, 2001, and then suffered a stunning first-round knockout by journeyman Juan Valenzuela last April 26. Espinoza shakes his head:

With Julio, we got real close to making millions. That knockout threw us. We’ve got to start all over again. He had a contract with HBO without even being a champion. They said we’ll beat Angel Manfredy and go for the world lightweight title. They showed us a contract from HBO for $3 million a year. Julio’s mind got all mixed up on that Manfredy decision. He was making big money. He took a big break for four or five months and just blew up [in weight]. Next, when they call us [for Valenzuela], they said, “Oh, it’s an easy fight.” This guy has 14 wins and four losses, three by knockouts. We took it for practice.

The other guy came charging out and, wham, he knocked him out. We lost a lot of money. Lots of future. But he has another chance. He’s young, a real smart fighter. Now he’s just focused on boxing. He’s not drinking beer or something with his friends.

When we fight Valenzuela, he was up to 160 pounds at the start of training. He’s in the gym playing racquetball. He’s maintaining his weight; 144 is the most he goes up to.

Julio Diaz, just turned 23, appeared on a Mandalay Bay fight card in Las Vegas on March 22 and stopped dangerous Ernesto Zepeda on a TKO in the seventh round to win the WBC Latin American lightweight title. The decisive victory set him up for a possible world championship bout in that division.

How does a self-taught trainer-manager do business with the shrewd, conniving promoters who historically have controlled boxing? How does barely literate Lee Espinoza dicker with Harvard-educated Bob Arum?

“I don’t do it,” Espinoza says. “I hire an advisor. It’s his job to find talent, get them fights. If I go over there, they say, ‘Lee, get outta here.’ ”

Cameron Dunkin of Las Vegas is his booking agent. He’s closely allied with Top Rank Boxing, handling 15 fighters for Arum’s group, though he’s ostensibly an independent agent and fight manager. “He saw Antonio in the amateurs,” Espinoza explains. “That’s his business, to find fighters. He approached me, and I said to myself, ‘Why would I want him?’ ”

The manager held the agent off for two years while he tried on his own to line up matches for his fighters. “They wouldn’t listen to me. I find out you need an agent in this business. He makes his 10%. That guy’s rich. He doesn’t have only Julio. He has Julio, Antonio, la, la, la–50 guys. What happens, I got the last word. He gives me people: ‘Lee, we got two guys for Julio on this date.’ I choose.”

And Dunkin, who has worked with 14 different world champions, says admiringly, “Lee has done an unbelievable job. It’s an amazing story. His fighters are all extremely tough, in shape and well schooled.”

Boxing managers traditionally slice up a fighter in one of two ways. They either take 50% of the purse, while assuming all expenses, or 33.3%, with the expenses coming out of the fighter’s end. Espinoza is an anomaly in this business. He takes only 10%. He describes how he operates:

Let’s say Julio fights for $12,000. I get $1,000 after some expenses. The promoter pays for the training expenses if it’s a big fight. Otherwise you’re on your own. My biggest payday was $22,000 for one of Antonio’s title fights. Generally, it’s like $1,000, $300, $200, something like that. I don’t take anything until a kid starts making money. Boxing takes advantage of these kids. To tell you the truth, I don’t want to become rich. Lot of people tell me about the lottery. I haven’t bought a ticket. I don’t want to win it. I’m real happy right now with what I got.

If Julio makes it big, a million or 2 million, hey, I would take it. Some people wouldn’t realize how much I suffered to get where I am. I spent a lot of money that people don’t see. Because my son was fighting, it came out of my pocket. It would take me 10 more years to get even.

We used to fight at different clubs all over every week. We’re talking about 100-something dollars that I spent every week. I pick the kids up at their house, buy the gas to take them there, feed them and then bring them back. They never spent a cent. We stayed in motels. When we went to Perris to fight, we even spent one night on Highway 60 on the mountain [between Beaumont and Moreno Valley] in four cars. My wife took some potatoes and chili con carne.

Seven years ago, the old Coachella fire station was leaking and dilapidated and beyond repair. Espinoza’s middle son, Luis, a CPA, got wind of Community Development Block Grants in Riverside County and wrote a proposal that resulted in $170,000 in grants for the city of Coachella toward construction of a new building.

Juan De Lara, in his fourth term as mayor, calls it “really a tribute to Mr. Espinoza. The boxing club is the model for other programs in our city. The most wonderful thing is that he is creating and building champions not only in the ring but as citizens. We get a big bang for our buck.”

The new clubhouse opened on Dec. 6, 1996, and Espinoza retired from landscaping to concentrate full time on boxing. He raised the funds to build an annex three years later that almost doubled its size, to 5,500 square feet, and added a second ring. The city gives $21,000 annually to operate the facility. The charity wing of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic golf tournament has been chipping in $20,000 annually the last six years, augmented by other fund-raising endeavors. A Chrysler Town & Country van awarded to Hope winner Joe Durant in 2001 was donated to the club. Rent is $1 a year, and the city takes care of utilities. Inmates from the Larson Justice Center jail in nearby Indio clean the place.

Espinoza draws a salary of $23,333.33 a year. The only other paid employee is Joel Diaz, who gets $400 a month as part-time trainer. A program is being developed to provide academic scholarships for some of the club’s boxers, such as Julio Miranda, who was once ranked the No. 3 amateur in the country at 106 pounds but was not ticketed for a pro career. Miranda is in his third year at UC Irvine, studying to be a civil engineer.

Rudy Dominguez, 21, was undefeated in his first eight fights as a pro. To hedge his chances, Rudy takes computer drafting courses at College of the Desert.

Espinoza’s care and concern for his young fighters impresses Larry Merchant, the savvy veteran HBO boxing commentator. “You can’t say enough about guys like that who have a calling,” Merchant says. “He’s one of those sweet, unsung heroes in the boxing world you rarely hear about.”

With familial pride, Ruben Espinoza assesses his father’s accomplishments: “It’s pretty miraculous. We’re talking about 25 dedicated years. In the early days, my dad supported the program himself. You know, I envy him. He’s doing exactly what he’s always wanted to do.”

From 1 in the afternoon until 8 at night, Monday through Friday, Espinoza is on the clubhouse floor or inside an elevated ring, wearing big pads on his hands to guide and absorb the punches of bobbing, eager youngsters, on the lookout for that jewel of a kid who could be what he thought Ruben would be.

Anybody can sign up to box without charge. The club provides gloves and headgear. The kids supply their own shoes and hand wraps. Like clockwork every afternoon, Marcos Caballero, a pool man, comes from work with his four boys–Robert, 15; Randy, 11; Ryan, 8; Rommel, 4. Another Diaz dynasty? Robert, a high school sophomore, has the ability, in Espinoza’s estimation, to fulfill the club’s biggest dream–“to win a gold Olympic medal, any medal.” Robert spars with undefeated pro sensation Jose Navarro, imported from Los Angeles for a workout, and never gives ground.

Espinoza’s eyes crinkle with approval as he watches Javier Barragan, 15, move in and out, side to side, while snapping left jabs staccato-like and throwing punches in combination. “He’s like Julio [Diaz], only better at the same age,” Espinoza muses. “He could be another De La Hoya if he don’t be too lazy.”

The anticipation makes him look forward to the next day.

“Boxing,” says Espinoza, “it’s like a drug. You get hooked. My wife says, ‘You don’t ever talk to me. But when somebody calls from the gym, you go la, la, la.’ ”

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Bob Hope Chrysler Classic

See the article on bhcc.com

Classic Instrumental in Growth of Coachella Boxing Club



One of the Coachella Valley's finest success stories has been the growth of the Coachella Valley Boxing Club & Youth Center and the competitors it has produced. And the Classic has been there helping the Club along the way.

The Classic recently donated $40,000 to the Club for their expansion, which enabled them to add another practice ring and more space for punching bags.

It also provided space for more boys and girls from across the valley as young as eight. "This club is not about teaching kids to fight," according to Lee Espinoza, founder and director. "When that glove hits that bag, it is giving them focus, eliminating stress and building discipline and character. It's about giving kids a chance to be better no matter what they choose in life. It is keeping them from following their peers who are making the choice to break windows and roam streets."

The most famous product of the club is Junior Welterweight champion Antonio Diaz, although many other young boxers are waiting in the wings to compete for world titles in the coming years.

Another shining star of the club is recently graduated Julio Mirando, 18, who the club shepherded to college despite his #3 ranking in the amateur boxing national meet. "We had a straight-A student," Espinoza said. "I could have said just box, because he has the potential, but we saw even more in him." Mirando went on to the University of California Irvine this semester.

But the Coachella Boxing Club & Youth Center is not about winning world titles. It's about molding lives, and the Classic is proud to support that effort.

The Classic has contributed to the Boxing Club & Youth Center since 1991 and has donated nearly $100,000 to the club.

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Palms Spring Life


Tennis, Golf capital sure. Now Boxing?

By Murray Olderman
May 1998

Palm Desert Life Article

Tennis, golf capital sure. Now boxing? By Murray Olderman The batter old Datsun pickup carrying a teenage Oscar de la Hoya and his trainer clanked and sputtered and wheezed as it reached the desert. No way was it going to make it through the mountains to Prescott, Arizona where the young amateur would fight in the Silver Gloves.

So they veered off the highway at Coachella to 56th Avenue and the house of Lee Espinoza. That night Oscar slept on a beat-up sofa in Lee’s garage. Stored there were 300 boxing trophies accumulated by his son Ruben Espinoza.

Oscar looked around and said, “That’s what want, to be like him.” The next day he continued on to Prescott in Lee’s van and won a gold medal, with Espinoza working his corner, as he would for several other of the kid’s fights.

It is now a decade later, and Oscar de la Hoya, possessor of an Olympic gold medal and muchos chrome hardware for his ring exploits, is the greatest fighter in the universe pound-for-pound, has made millions and is, as he told Lee, “set for life.” And he has rediscovered the desert. Until he injured his wrist preparing for a defense of his title this spring, the exotic and exciting welterweight champion had shifted his training quarters from his usual lair at Big Bear to an unlikely cradle of boxing---- Coachella. He sparred and worked out in a modern facility called the Coachella Valley Boxing Club and it’s probable that he will continue to make it his winter home, signifying the importance of the east valley community as a boxing center.

That is a story in itself. You see, his old friend Lee Espinoza, who never laced on a pair of gloves himself, has been a persistent advocate for “the Sweet Science” over two decades and transformed the recreational life of Coachella in the process. Lee is, by profession, a landscaper/irrigation expert, and helped with many of the Valley’s finest golf courses --- Palm Valley, Ironwood, Desert Horizons, Rancho Las Palmas.

When Ruben, the youngest of his three sons, was six years old, Lee took him to an amateur boxing show at the Coachella High School. “Some little kids”, recalls Lee, “about six, were fighting and one of them got a big trophy for winning.” So Ruben goes, “It took me a year to get a little trophy in soccer. You know what? I can beat those guys.”

Lee took him to a boxing club in Indio run by Laio Gutierrez. Two weeks later, Ruben won a big trophy. He went on to win 30 straight bouts, lost one then won more than 40 in a row and by the time he was 15, he was the No. 1 amateur in the United States in the 112-pound class. He whipped Oscar de la Hoya, his contemporary, three times; he beat Rafael Ruelas, another future champ, two times, and defeated James Mosely, the current IBF world lightweight champ, six times!

Meanwhile, Lee got interested in training fighters, took over the Indio program and latter switched it to Coachella, persuading the City Council to let him renovate an old fire house next to City Hall. He visualized Ruben making the Olympics and becoming a world champion. But the youngster went out for the high school football team and shattered his left arm, abruptly ending his ring activities and leaving his father with a persistent regret, because only when Ruben was forced to quit did Oscar de la Hoya emerge as the top amateur in his class and go on to Olympic and professional fame.

But the abrupt end to Ruben’s career hasn’t dissuaded Lee from discovering and developing eight professional fighters in Coachella and making the dusty agricultural center and international force in boxing. “They know us all over the world,” insists Lee, “but not here. We in this small town can compete with boxing clubs anywhere. But people here do not believe that we really produce boxers.”

Two of them, Pancho Segura and Joel Diaz, fought for world championships (though both lost)in Puerto Rico and South Africa and have since retired. Joel’s younger brother Antonio Diaz, 21, recently won the IBA (International Boxing Association) junior welterweight crown.

By 1996, the old firehouse was falling down. Another of Lee’s sons, Luis, a CPA, secured two grants totaling more than $205,000. The city chipped in more money, and in December1996 a new Coachella Valley Boxing Club building was dedicated in a park setting at the western terminus of Bagdad Avenue, off Highway 86. “Where,” asks Lee, “did you ever see flowers around a boxing gymnasium?”

He also went to see old buddy Oscar de la Hoya and invited him to visit Coachella again to drum up interest in the project. “I know he likes to play golf,” says Lee, “so I told him, If you come down and sign autographs for one afternoon, I’ll take you to any golf course in the area. He goes, Any golf course? How about Bighorn….”

“I go, “That’s easy. My wife works there.” So I set it up. I expected 50 people to show up. There were 600. They trampled the flowers.”

Then Espinoza invited Oscar to play in the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, which helps fund the boxing club through its contributions to the Palm Desert Foundation. Oscar acceded and was a celebrity participant in the Hope this past January. Two weeks later, the de la Hoya camp asked Espinoza if the champ could train at his club. Lee leased a home for him at the Presidents Club & Resorts de la Hoya could also indulge his passion for golf. Before the wrist injury, the popular champ trained several weeks at the Coachella club and sparred with fellow champ Antonio Diaz. “We’re really good friends,” Lee says, “I’ve know Oscar since he was little. I’m like his favorite uncle.”

Bulbous-nosed, genial, approaching his 50th birthday, Lee has become the full-time director of the club and manages his stable of young fighters, who have already appeared on HBO, CBS, Fox Sports, and USA Network. He expects to align Antonio with Top Rank, one of the sport’s top two promotional organizations.

What of Ruben Espinoza, the champ who could have been? He went on to graduate from Cal Poly at San Luis Obispo and at age 25 the same age as Oscar de la Hoya, is the successful construction manager for a large contracting operation.

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