The time certainly seemed right to repost this story of the dedicated boys and fathers of Guerreros Boxing Gym, from Issue #8. Lead photo by Josh Welch, all other photos by Kelly O'Roke.
Adolescence is already so much of a drag. It just had to add in the strong picking on the weak, didn't it? Despite our best efforts to fight back against it, bullying keeps coming back.
From Netflix's nostalgic masterpiece Stranger Things, web comment sections, school hallways around the world, and now to the highest levels of American politics, bullying is everywhere. It has been a part of the Great Human Experiment since its earliest days: death, taxes, bullies.
My parents taught me to fight back against bullies with kindness. Kindness never saved me from getting tripped in the dirt on the playground or picked on for reading books. But Mario Martinez, owner and trainer at Guerreros Boxing Gym in the Farmers Market District, thinks he might have one possible answer.
Martinez, 47, grew up in Mexico. He said fighting was necessary for survival in school and his neighborhood. If he didn't fight, others felt they could push him around for any reason.
Martinez wanted a different future for his son, nine years old at the time, who mostly just wanted to play video games. If bullies kept pushing his son around, he wanted his son to know how to defend himself so that they wouldn't keep trying. Martinez also wanted his son to be active and have a constructive outlet for his endless energy. Boxing fulfilled all of those needs.
It was important to Martinez to be involved in his son’s transformation. The father volunteered to hold boxing bags, clean the bathrooms, help with dues collections — anything he could do so his son would keep training. After trying a couple of different gyms around the city, though, Martinez was frustrated with the lack of attention the coaches were giving his boy. Given all the experience he had gained as a behind-the-scenes volunteer, he decided to open his own gym.
Martinez partnered with the Farmers Public Market for a one-shot boxing match, then walked into property owner Burt McAnnaly's office to see if there was anyplace available to rent. McAnnaly showed him an empty space two driveways west of what is now Powerhouse bar. McAnnaly said Martinez would need to fix up the space first, then tossed Martinez the keys. About a month later, McAnnaly was invited to the gym's grand opening.
McAnnaly told Martinez he would make him a deal on the rent. Even a single dollar less would be a steal, but McAnnaly simply asked for three Guerreros t-shirts. He hasn't asked for anything more since 2007.
Martinez also was impressed with McAnnaly, 62, for giving him an opportunity despite knowing nothing about him. It’s a sport the property owner has loved throughout his life, and even participated in when he was younger. As essentially the gym's sponsor, McAnnaly enjoys being a patron for boxing, especially because Martinez approaches it the right way—the “Mr. Miyagi way instead of the Cobra Kai way,” as McAnnaly puts it.
"Mario is the backbone and driving force for the gym," McAnnaly said. "He's a really righteous guy."
All four of McAnnaly's kids have been in the gym to train with Martinez; McAnnaly believes even going just once can have an impact. "Boxing is a wonderful sport," he said. "It teaches discipline, self-worth and confidence."
Guerreros, which means "warriors" in Spanish, opens its doors about 5:30 pm. Kids of all ages—and some enthusiastic adults, too—come to work on their hitting strength and technique, spending one-on-one time with Martinez in the ring for three rounds.
Faced with opening a gym without consistent trainers, Martinez taught himself how to coach. The dividends of that hard work are on display in his office: a cabinet stacked high with trophies from area competitions and filled inside with even more.
"When you start doing something and you see that it's good, you keep going," he said.
His fighters have competed in tournaments all across the state and in the region, winning awards and gaining notoriety in the boxing circuit. People approach him at tournaments in places like Tulsa and Wichita, and they know the name "Guerreros."
Martinez wishes he could give more attention to each student who comes through the door, but he said if he stuck with just one fighter for too long, the rest would leave. Not that more training would necessarily change things much; people who bring in their children—excited to have an after-school activity that keeps them occupied and out of trouble—request that Martinez work their kids himself.
Martinez starts with the youngest ones like Jesús, 7, who took a break from jumping off the ropes in various pro wrestling moves to develop a punching discipline with a big smile on his face under Martinez's tutelage.
"Give him one more year and he could be really good," Martinez said.
For the kids—some of whom have experienced the ugliness of bullying firsthand—having someone who believes in them is all the difference in the world. Knowing how to dodge a punch probably doesn't hurt, either.
Martinez works carefully to build up their confidence as much as their striking speed. He doesn't give up with them until they master a technique and carry themselves with heads a little higher.
"Mario is a perfectionist," said 20-year-old Kevin Mitchell. "He won't move on until you get it right."
New fighters like 11-year-old Adrian Cardenas Martinez, completing his third session, and more seasoned fighters like Mitchell and KD Campbell, 19, who have been coming to Guerreros several times a week for about six months, relish the opportunity to learn to defend themselves and compete in what Campbell says is a passion sport: "No excuses. You versus him."
Martinez is careful to avoid accidentally equipping a raw, frustrated bully with valuable technique, however. He teaches his students not to start fights or pick on others outside the safe space of the gym.
"If you want to fight, do it in the ring," he tells them. "This is not the streets — there are rules."
When he locks up the gym and heads home, Martinez can rest easy knowing his warriors are better prepared for whatever life throws at them.