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Gene Vivero - Oak Cliff boxing gym gives kids a fighting chance
August 8, 2010North Dallas High School Booster Club
Oak Cliff boxing gym gives kids a fighting chance
10:29 AM CST on Sunday, January 10, 2010
By DAVID TARRANT / The Dallas Morning News
Outside the old auto repair garage, teenagers jump rope on squares of plywood. Inside, through the open overhead doors, two boys spar in a boxing ring. With leather headgear framing their faces like racehorse blinders, they circle the canvas, slapping at each other with gloves the size of oven mitts. Other boys and a few girls flail away on the speed bags or bury their fists in the heavy bags. From time to time, the kids walk up to a heavily built man seated on a folding chair off to one side. They shake his hand. He ties on their gloves. They receive some quiet words of advice. "Work the speed bag," he says to one. "You're fighting Jesse today," he says to another. "Don't just stand there. Punch," he encourages a reedy boy.
Gene Vivero is the calm eye within the storm that swirls around him. He is the owner of Vivero Boxing Gym, which sits on a triangular concrete lot in Oak Cliff ringed by modest frame homes, small businesses and family-owned restaurants with hand-painted signs.
About 15 years ago, Vivero bought the old garage for a good price and opened for business. His gym has become a hub for hundreds of neighborhood kids. They arrive in all shapes and sizes, broomstick-thin or pear-shaped, but with the same dream: to become somebody.
Many do. They go on to fight and win in the Golden Gloves – the annual amateur tournament that starts later this month. Some win national titles, and even qualify for the Olympics.
Vivero, 60, is a giant in local boxing, a man with the girth of an NFL lineman to go with a Buddha-like demeanor and all-seeing eyes. Like a good teacher, his lessons are built on simple repetitions.
Take the shaking of hands. Vivero insists his students shake everyone's hand on their way into the gym and on their way out.
"It's part of the discipline. They gain respect for everyone and for themselves," he says. "That's how I was brought up in the gym."
Vivero might easily have been a football coach. Growing up in Oak Lawn, he played linebacker and offensive guard for the North Dallas High School football team. But he identifies closely with the skinny, scrappy kids who wander into his gym.
David Salceda, 14, started at Vivero Boxing in the summer at the urging of his father. "I'm here to stay out of trouble," he says. But he likes boxing enough that he thinks he's in it for the long term. "I want to be a professional. I want to be somebody."
Like any good trainer, Vivero coaches the fundamentals of footwork, hand speed and other boxing skills. But he also passes along old-school virtues: respect, discipline, hard work, what it takes to win. And, most importantly, how to get back up when you're knocked down.
"A kid gets knocked down and gets back up, bloody nose, and comes back [to the gym]," Vivero says. "That's going to happen to you the rest of your life. It's going to happen at work and at school."
In an age of zero-tolerance schools, the idea of encouraging kids to fight is a sensitive topic – especially in Oak Cliff. Last year, The Dallas Morning News reported that staff at South Oak Cliff High School had sent troubled students into a steel cage to settle disputes with their bare fists and no head protection.
Such incidents give boxing a bad name, Vivero says. He's not opposed to settling disputes the old-fashioned way, but only in a boxing ring, abiding strictly by the rules of boxing and with protective gear.
In fact, he welcomes bullies to check out his gym. He and his students wear T-shirts that read "Bullies Wanted" and include the gym's name and phone number.
"When I say, 'Bullies Wanted,' I don't mean we're going to turn them into bullies," he says. "I mean we want those tough guys to come on in, and we'll teach them a [boxing] lesson."
Occasionally, a teenager full of bravado will swagger into the gym, Vivero says. "and announce, 'I want to fight the best guy.' And then we don't see them again. They're just bullies."
The key to success for athletes is tenacity. Keep coming back and you'll get better, he says.
Manuel Rojas, 16, who won the national Junior Olympics in the 132-pound division, is one of the gym's role models. A boxer since he was 9, he attributes his success to "a lot of discipline. Coming in when you're supposed to. I try to come in almost every single day the gym is open."
Coaches should encourage, not yell, Vivero says.
"We're not here to run them down. I'm sure some of these kids are getting that at home and school," he says. "I don't want to preach to them. That's what I tell them. This is just a boxing gym."
It takes considerable desire and tenacity to keep coming back. On sweltering summer days, the gym – a squat concrete-and-brick building with a tin ceiling – feels like a steam bath. Industrial fans blow the hot air around, but that's about it. In the winter, the gym can feel like a walk-in freezer.
The spartan atmosphere is part of the discipline and helps the fighters make their weight requirements.
"I don't like air conditioning. It makes it too easy for them. You're not sweating and working," Vivero says. "That's what it's for: sweat. They all have to make weight."
Sitting in his chair, arms crossed, Vivero watches over the gym. One day, as he wrapped a boy's hand with tape, he saw a latecomer standing outside talking to his girlfriend. "You coming or going?" he said. The teenager quickly started his stretching exercises.
School of hard knocks
Vivero was 15 when a cousin showed off a trophy he'd won in a boxing tournament. "I thought if he can do it, I can do it," he says. He joined a program run by the Dallas Police Athletic League. In those days, amateurs didn't wear headgear and coaches didn't interfere during fights.
His size placed him in the heavyweight division with tough, experienced fighters. He lost his first four matches.
"I got angry about it when I got beat," he says. "I wanted to learn how to win."
He still has his first trophy, for a second-place finish in a West Dallas tournament. He won dozens more over a 20-year career as an amateur. He never thought of turning pro.
"I had a good job," that offered health benefits and a pension, he says, with Dallas Power & Light, which preceded TXU.
As he got older, he started training younger fighters and helped his old coaches, including Joe Gomez and Mickey Martinez, both local boxing legends. His dream was to open his own gym. He looked all over until he found someplace affordable – the old auto repair shop in Oak Cliff. All he needed was punching bags and the ring, which he built with help from a carpenter friend.
Over the years, Vivero's gym has produced regional and national champions. They include Roberto Marroquin, a 20-year-old professional, unbeaten in his first 11 bouts.
Vivero's reputation goes beyond the boxing community to business leaders, as well. "I think he reaches a lot of kids and a lot of people," says Erle Nye, former chief executive of TXU, who has been friends with Vivero since they worked together at Dallas Power & Light.
He can influence people without all the screaming and temper tantrums that many coaches exhibit, Nye says. "He's modest, quiet, thoughtful. He cares about people. He's a hard worker, and he's a very dedicated guy. This has just been his outlet over the years."
Vivero, who retired five years ago after 35 years at the electric company, "understands a whole lot more than boxing," Nye says. "It's what brings them to him and him to them. Gene understands how to be a man. He provides an alternative example – in a strong, quiet way."
The kids "leave all their aggression in the gym," says Jose Rojas, father of Manuel, the Junior Olympic winner. "My son has never been in a fight" outside of the ring, he says.
David Rosas, the father of two boys, ages 15 and 9, enrolled at Vivero's gym, said boxing is the best way to keep his kids out of trouble.
"It keeps them focused in school, also," he says. "They don't have time to do anything else but their sport, their school and their homework."
As a 15-year-old novice, Vivero couldn't wait to win his first trophy. Now, 45 years later, he can't wait to get to his gym every day.
The ultimate trophy?
"I guess that's true," he says, adding: "It keeps me off the streets."