I wrote this piece during my last quarter at UCI for Amy Wilentz’ Cultural Narratives workshop. I followed one Muay Thai kickboxing gym right in my own neighborhood in La Puente.
– Michelle Pagaran
It was either going to be IHOP or Denny’s. Ritchie Sandoval wakes up the morning of his fight debating where he would eat breakfast. Assuming that it was Sunday and the pancake house would be more crowded, Sandoval chooses the latter. He was trying to avoid people at all costs, for he detested the “Oh, you’re going to beat his ass!” remarks he had always received in the past. He sits at the Denny’s booth by himself, savoring the large breakfast full of carbs. For an athlete, he was never fond of diets.
At noon, he checks in at the fighting venue and snacks on oranges backstage. In the midst of noticing a few new faces, his wandering gaze focuses on the face of his opponent–Said Sanchez. He notices Sandoval too and walks over to talk to him. But all Sandoval could think during their conversation was You’re a really nice guy, but I got to beat you up. We can hang out and talk later.
The time finally came at 8PM. Sandoval’s coach was in his corner, and he felt safe knowing he was there to support him. Sandoval reminds himself to be quicker and harder than Sanchez and to stay away from the ropes. The spotlight glares on the ring while the crowd is shrouded in darkness. Yet, Sandoval could still hear their shit-talking.
“Beat him up! Fuck him up!” yell random voices in the crowd.
The bell rings three times. The fight begins.
Ritchie Sandoval is known as Hot Cheetos by the Muay Thai kickboxing community in the Los Angeles and Orange County area. At 24, he has had over 10 years of Muay Thai experience and coaches cardio kickboxing at the UFC Gym in Orange. The gyms that he works and trains at regularly in the O.C., with their sleek interiors, smell like money. This is the main reason why he makes the trips out to La Puente to train at Team Florez gym, owned by half-brothers and La Puente natives Alan Florez and Mark De La Cruz.
Everyone who enters the doors at Team Florez Gym is welcomed like family. It is a hub for local fighters who share a passion for the brutal Muay Thai traditional kickboxing method. It is not just a space for amateur and professional fighters to hone their craft. It is a space for their families, kids who get strung along during spar sessions, girls interested in contact sports, former military, and middle-aged moms and dads looking to drop a few pounds. There’s training for young kids as well as serious fighters who see this as life outside their daily 9-5 grind.
De La Cruz is always looking for possible matches for his fighters, as some training under Team Florez are just waiting for their first win. For other fighters, namely Big George Hernandez who is a super heavyweight fighter, just finding Muay Thai opponents in his weight class is a challenge. Some of them haven’t been inside the ring for months, and with fights just weeks away, training at the gym has never been more indispensable.
Florez, 31, and De La Cruz, 42, were always told by their mother: “You better train your ass off, because we don’t want you getting in there and getting your ass kicked.” They shared the same concern for the fighters under their gym.
“With these guys, they get all nervous,” Florez says. “I always tell them: There’s three people in there–you, the fighter, and the referee. The referee’s in there to save the other guy’s life because you’re kicking his ass,” said Florez.
The ring. To know how it feels to be inside those four roped walls, to know how it feels to be a moving target, to feel the blow of every punch and kick. That is what Florez is most proud of as a coach. The brutal truth is Florez is past his prime. He still trains with George Zarate–one of the coaches he has had since he was 13. Florez started at the age of 12 at Total Body Fitness in Santa Fe Springs. Florez participated in about 50 smokers–sparring sessions where a winner is declared. Florez practically lived in boxing gyms even at the age where he could start going to parties. Whenever people asked where he was going, Florez typically responded with “To go train at the gym.”
Sometimes, in the middle of conversations, he will shoot quick one-two jabs (punches thrown straight) and a right hook ( punches thrown across and upward) in the air. His nickname was “Non-Stop” because of his speed and agility in the ring. Even Sandoval, who has sparred with him before, says that his speed is unmatched. That’s what got him his International Kickboxing Federation (IKF) Muay Thai Lightweight Champion titles.
Even more past his prime is De La Cruz, who started his Muay Thai training in his early 20s. He still remembers the first title he won back in 1999–the International Kickboxing Association (IKBA) Superheavyweight U.S. title. During 1999, Florez had already participated in three licensed fights. One of which was a fight with a 27-year-old fighter when he was just 15. Indeed, most of his early career was spent fighting older guys. He and Florez were training at the now defunct La Puente Kickboxing Gym with John McPhail then, which was based in a church hall. However, both Florez and De La Cruz were progressing in their fighting styles as kickboxers, and wanted to start implementing their knees and elbows–moves that were characteristic to Muay Thai. Fueled by a desire to grow in the sport, they started to train with William Sriyapai who specialized in Muay Thai kickboxing. Throughout all their training, their mother has always been supportive. She would take them to the hills so they could build endurance. Their uncle helped pay for their earlier training, but after a while, the brothers started training for free.
De La Cruz was 265 pounds then with four fights under his belt. His opponent was his friend Dino, who was ahead three or four fights in experience. McPhail encouraged the reluctant De La Cruz to fight Dino, telling De La Cruz that he had the skills to beat him.
“I knocked him out 27 seconds into the first round,” he says laughing.
He had hit him with a right hand jab, right hand hook, right hand jab combo and two more right hand jabs before Dino went down. Within the first punch he landed on Dino, De La Cruz knew it was over. Yet, he kept hitting because the referee did not stop him. Even when the referee tried to stop him, he still kept going.
As fighters, Florez and De La Cruz present this tough, physical exterior. They’re fully tatted and usually sport baggy t-shirts, hoodies, and shorts. Even they joke around about being “gangsters.” Yes, the gym was in a poorly lit area and I sometimes felt like I was coming to a secret fight club in some random warehouse on the other side of town. Yet, they have never had any problems with gang activity and were surrounded by respectable businesses: an aquarium supply store, an automotive design company, and an advertising company. Cynthia, Florez’s girlfriend, was usually always there with her three-year-old grandson, Jordan. There were always kids running around trying on children’s boxing gloves, playing fight. Even on late nights, I never felt unsafe at the gym. I felt welcomed.
Despite always being focused on coaching from the corner of his eye, De La Cruz always made an effort to tease his grandnephew from time to time. The members celebrate their birthdays together, give shout-outs on social media any time a member of the gym has a fight, attend each other’s fights for moral support, and always personally say goodbye to each member of the gym every time they left. As opposed to commercial gyms where members rarely make eye contact with each other, coming to the gym was a social activity. Despite the humble and worn-down state of the gym, the members were proud to be there.
There are mementos proudly hanging in the front office, the only section that has been walled off from the rest of the open space. They are the first thing you notice when you walk through the gym doors–the numerous title belts won by the brothers, framed vintage fight photos, and pong malais which are floral wreaths worn by Muay Thai fighters before a match.
There is one portrait that catches my eye–it is one of the two brothers in their prime. They are both wearing boxing shorts and their hard-earned title belts, their fists clenched in a fighting stance. They look ten years younger; they must be in their prime. They stare straight into the camera lens, their gaze formidable and unrelenting.
Since Florez and De La Cruz’s time, the traditional martial art that originated in Thailand has gotten bigger. Because of the efforts of Muay Thai fight promoters like Lion Fights, Glory, and IKF, the competitive sport of Muay Thai is slowly gaining popularity in America alongside more entrenched ring-fight sports like Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and Western boxing. Its greatest popularity, however, is based in Europe and Asia, where fights are broadcast on television networks such as Thai TV and AXS TV. What distinguishes Muay Thai or Thai boxing is the use of “eight limbs”: fists, feet, elbows, and knees as opposed to two in Western boxing and four in regular kickboxing.
Muay Thai is also practiced for fitness and self-defense. In Southern California, there are over 200 gyms specializing in Muay Thai kickboxing. Team Florez actively networks with local gyms such as Team Zarate and The Yard in Los Angeles, Team Oyama in Irvine, and OC Muay Thai in Seal Beach. Sometimes, fighters from these gyms spar with each other to gain experience fighting with an opponent in the ring.
One Muay Thai tradition Sandoval admires is whai kru which is the paying of respect before the fight, given to the opponent and their team. Music is played in the background as each fighter kneels down as a sign of respect before the other fighter’s corner.
Swift punches and hard kicks hitting punching bags reverberate through the high-ceiling gym. Fluorescent warehouse lights hang down precariously, casting the gym in an unnaturally harsh light. Bare feet circle the shiny black floor mats in rhythm to hip hop beats playing on the radio. Dirty floor, dirty mats, and cold, concrete flooring. Team Florez carries an old-school, gritty Rocky Balboa feel.
A man rolls out a hefty 40-50” tire. He swings a sledgehammer over his shoulder and slams it on the tire like the whack-a-mole arcade game. “50 reps,” said De La Cruz over his shoulder, as he surveys the room of fighters. Even when it did not look like he was watching, he was.
Florez is holding pads for Robert, an 11-year-old boy who had a choice six months ago whether he would take up boxing or baseball. Florez holds the pads differently for all of them, matching each fighter’s rhythm, stance, strength, and speed. They are doing sets of one-two jabs and cross punches.
Beep. Beep. Beep. That sound was the machine signaling the fighters that a new 3-minute sparring round has begun–the same length as a real round in the ring. There was one 16×16 foot ring in the corner and an open floor space for spars.
Justin “Vavoom” Bondar spars with Robert. As he takes on Vavoom, a former army soldier twice his height, it seems like the gloves won over the baseball mitt and bat. Robert circles back defensively on the open floor mat and Vavoom patiently follows, taking punches from Robert, but not landing them himself. Vavoom, bald, tall, slender, and the only guy in the gym without any visible tattoos, was leaving training early this morning to “play stepfather” to his girlfriend’s daughter. It is her first year playing softball and since he has been playing baseball since he was nine years old, he has been coming out to her practices.
“Kick him in the nuts, Robert,” said De La Cruz.
“No! No!” Vavoom loudly protests. “I don’t have my cup.”
They call him Vavoom because of his tendency to be loud and exuberant in the ring. Last year, during the annual “Battle of the Badges” sanctioned event which features former and current military and law enforcement officers, Vavoom knocked out a young marine within the first round. He had swung hard, left jabs forcing his opponent to the ropes. After two punches, he dropped to the ground. Vavoom lost it–he jumped in the air and then dropped to the ground kicking his legs. He stands up and bends his head towards his knees in disbelief. Florez and De La Cruz climb up the ring, pat him on the back in congratulations, and each give him a hug. He is looking to do keep his winning streak this year.
Beep. Beep. Beep. The fighters switch.
It is now Juan Godinez vs. Ritchie “Hot Cheetos” Sandoval. They are in full head gear and shin gear. According to De La Cruz, everything that comes out of Sandoval is hard. Sandoval received the moniker “Hot Cheetos” when he was one pound overweight during a weigh-in because he was snacking on hot cheetos during the whole car ride there. As an athlete, he admits to eating whatever he wants. De La Cruz describes Sandoval as an all-round stand-up fighter who is trying to hit you with bad intentions. Just a week from today’s training, Sandoval was fighting Said Sanchez, a very muscular fighter with strong kicks. Like Sanchez, Godinez’s strength are also his kicks. He has nice, strong, high kicks. But, De La Cruz says, he needs to use his hands more. Godinez works at a delivery place on Fullerton and Railroad in the neighboring City of Industry. He had initially come to Team Florez Gym just to lose weight, but look where he was now. He had lost almost 50 pounds and was scheduled to fight in a few weeks, his first fight seen he had dislocated his shoulder.
Hot Cheetos and Godinez both go in for a high cross-kick to the torso, and Godinez losing his balance–WHAM–falls flat on his back full force. The whole gym turns their heads towards the ring.
“‘Ey, who fell?” asks Florez, in a tone that hints this was a common occurrence, rather than genuine concern. “Was that you, Juan?”
Godinez gets up in a split-second after the fall.
“That high-kick got my butt,” said Godinez.
Godinez would be fighting for the first time since he dislocated his shoulder.
BEEP. BEEP. BEEP.
The fighters all take a break and sit at the edge of the ring, which has tires, shoes, and gloves stuffed underneath. “To Live and Die in LA” by Tupac is playing on the radio now.
“Before the fight,” Sandoval says, “you take fruits like bananas and oranges because it gives you explosive energy. When you run for a long period of time, that’s when you should eat fat. Each slice of pizza is about 100-250 calories and every mile you run burns 100 calories. I don’t know about you, but sometimes I can eat a whole box.”
“Seet-aps!” De La Cruz interrupts. He claps and says “Let’s go. C’mon. 100 sit-ups.”
The fighters rest their feet against the ring and begin their set. De La Cruz starts slapping their bellies with a boxing mitt. He starts yelling.
“You’re taking too long, foo. Hey, comadres! Let’s go! It’s not my fault you’re not in shape,” said De La Cruz.
After that morning, De La Cruz would post a video of Sandoval sparring with another fighter at the gym on their Instagram profile with the caption “Sparring Saturday morning. Good work today, guys!”
Team Florez moved to their new location December of 2013 and the brothers believe it was a decision for the better. Not only was the space bigger, the rent was also cheaper. Although they were a bit hard to find, it wasn’t a drastic change from their location in Old Town La Puente–an area with hardly any foot traffic. They also never had any problems with gang members as they did at their old gym with local guys who had been drinking, coming in and trying to pick a fight. De La Cruz always stressed to the gang members who came in that they were not about “fighting just to fight.”
“We’re not about that, man. We’re just trying to make the community better by helping out some of the kids.”
Kids would come in all the time telling the brothers. “Hey, my mom doesn’t really have the money right now. Can I try it out for a month?” They let them try it out for a month for free instead of just two weeks. A couple of kids would in every day to help clean the mirrors, weights, and bags in between classes for free training.
“Keeping kids off the streets and out of gangs was good enough,” said Florez.
While De La Cruz was teaching a 5PM kids’ class, a man, who was running away from cops, burst into their gym, looking for a place to hide.
“Hey, bro, what are you doing? Get out of here!” Mark yelled. He turned and yelled at the kids to warn them of the danger. “Run to the other side of the gym and duck behind the ring! Stay down until I tell you to get up.” A bunch of cops rushed in with their guns out.
“I didn’t do it,” yelled the man. De La Cruz saw the reflection of the kids’ heads peering over the top of the ring in the mirror. His back was turned to them, but he could still see them. He turns around, and their heads quickly duck down again. There were mirrors all the way around the walls, and the fighters would often cheat on their sit-ups thinking De La Cruz was not watching.
“How the hell did he know every time I wasn’t doing something?,” his fighters always complained.
“Look at the wall, stupid! It’s all full of mirrors. If you’re not moving around, you’re not doing something” De La Cruz always retorted.
The police searched throughout the gym, unearthing boxes, trying to see if the man had hidden anything there. After they arrested the man, the police asked him afterwards if the man dropped anything at the gym.
“No, I didn’t see him drop anything. He just came inside and tried to hide behind the curtain,” he remembers telling the police. “I think they were looking for drugs.”
It is the end of the day and the end of an era. Before half-brothers Alan Florez and Mark De La Cruz close up their old storefront gym for the last time, Florez pulls out his camera phone and takes pictures of the commanding graffiti murals his high-school friend Ronald painted on the walls. The Muay Thai kickboxing gym, once teeming with life, is now empty, echoing. The boxing ring and all the equipment have already been moved out, and are on their way to the new location. But there is no way to send Ronald’s murals with them, and Florez knows that the next owners of the building plan to paint them over. It is the one thing that is killing him right now. Hence, these last pictures. He wants to preserve every memory of the long journey that started so many years ago at La Puente High School.
“When I open up my own gym, I want to have your art on my walls,” he remembers telling Ronald, back at La Puente.
Florez takes a picture of the words “Team Florez” and “One Happy Family” painted in stylized graffiti block letters. He also captures the mural dedicated to John McPhail, the brothers’ late Muay Thai kickboxing trainer. McPhail had fought “the good fight,” the mural reads. He captured the larger-than-life portraits and silhouettes of boxers fighting in the ring. There was no structure to the blending of the paintings, because Ronald did not plan out each piece nor where it would go in the gym. Since Ronald lived just five minutes away from the Old Town La Puente gym, Florez encouraged him to come out, train, and maybe add another piece to a blank space on the walls.
“We’re going to do it again,” Florez assures. Florez has a plan to bring Ronald down from Ontario, where he is studying, and ask him to wield his spray cans once again to bring the bare walls to life.
“It’s us,” Florez says, explaining the graffiti in an interview with MuayThaiSoldier.com, “We grew up in La Puente, and around stuff like this. People see how we are. They come to our gym, and they’re like, shit, the gym fits them.”
During the four weeks leading up to the fight, Sandoval focused on increasing his endurance five to six times a week by running up and down hills, strengthening his core with abdominal training three times a week, and spending 90 minutes on pads every day. He describes himself as more of a boxer–he does not really kick.
After meeting his opponent Sanchez at weigh-in the day before, Sandoval noticed that he Sanchez had massive legs. This guy is going to kick me to death, he thought. He ran five miles without stopping later that day, which helped assuage his concerns. “If I can run that long, I can beat him up Sunday.”
It is now the second round of Sandoval’s fight. Sanchez throws a kick and it lands on Sandoval’s knee. Someone else, a man with hardly any kickboxing experience, had kicked him there before a month earlier. That kick hyper-extended it (bending his knee backwards) yet he continued to train on it and it eventually got stronger. The pain from the kick flashed on Sandoval’s face for a split-second. Sanchez noticed it, and so did Sanchez’s coaches. At the end of the round, Sandoval heard voices from Sanchez’s corner yelling.
“You hurt him! You hurt him! Keep going!”
From that point on, Sandoval knew that he could not use his left side. He would rely on his greatest strength as a fighter–his fists. In the third round, Sanchez was kicking like crazy. Sandoval, a defensive fighter, kept blocking all his kicks. Sandoval felt like he was winning. Instead of exposing his knee to contact, he checked each kick with his shin or arms. He knew he was getting points. He gave him a hard push and Sanchez dropped to the ground.
Sandoval had dropped Sanchez five to six times by the time the final bell rang. As he had blocked and landed more hits than Sanchez, Ritchie “Hot Cheetos” Sandoval was declared the new IKF Lightweight Champion. His speed had won him the title. He looked at the smiling faces of his coaches and trainers from his OC gyms. He thought: It’s over. I don’t have to run for a week.
“At the end of the fight, the person who wins may have just gotten lucky. I like to think of it as the one who had control in the ring. When you have control in the ring, it carries over to having control in your relationships with friends and family, school, and work. The person who wins put the work in,” said Sandoval.
Tonight, the gym was watching Muay Thai fights from Connecticut broadcast on AXS TV and promoted by Lion Fight 20. The small flatscreen, normally found in the office, was placed near the opening of the large warehouse garage door. The fresh, cold night air helped alleviate the smell of sweat from fighters who were still training while everyone else lounged about concentrated on the opening matches.
Vavoom was jumping rope wearing a hoodie. His bare feet skipped on the black, shiny floor. After he was finished, he grabbed punch mitts and started training with a young, chubby boy. They had a rhythm. One-two cross-punches, a switch kick, and double jabs. With each hit landed by the boy, Vavoom mouthed “PA-PA.” Beads of sweat formed on the boy’s forehead, his sweaty mop of hair thrashing about, and his brows furrowed with each double jab. PA-PA. PA-PA. KICK. PA-PA. PA-PA. KICK.
“How many rounds do you want?” he asked De La Cruz.
“Four,” De La Cruz replied, glancing at the boy.
Godinez is standing on top of a tire swinging at an Everlast punching bag which reads “Greatness Within.” This training method helped him learn to maintain balance while throwing punches and keep his feet planted on the ground. After he was done, he started throwing high kicks on the hardest bag at the gym. This would condition his shins to pain, so that coupled with the rush of adrenaline inside the ring, he would feel none.
Vavoom was finished training for the night and grabbed a seat next to his girlfriend in front of the TV. Cynthia passed out Bud Lights, but before grabbing one, Vavoom looks over at De La Cruz for the nod of approval which he got. Vavoom was fighting at 170, and he was already in that weight zone. Godinez, however, still had around 5-10 pounds to lose. Once Godinez finished his leg stretches, he also grabbed a seat with a beverage container in his hand.
“Hey, Godinez!,” De La Cruz yelled,“How many bottles did you put in there?”
“This is sparkling water!” said Godinez.
De La Cruz motioned Godinez to hand the container over and he took a whiff just to make sure.
The gym was full that night with parents waiting for their kids to finish their 5PM class, old coaches, old friends, girlfriends, grandchildren, and members who had not come in for a while. They were all there, yelling at the screen, criticizing each fighter’s strategy. It felt like it could be a kickback at any garage or my uncles huddled around the TV during a Manny Pacquiao fight.
Even as I left the gym, De La Cruz was looking at a book of tattoo designs Cynthia’s brother, a long-time tattoo artist, had brought with him to the gym along with his personal tattoo guns.
“I think I’m going to get this one,” says De La Cruz pointing to a design of a wooden cross with wings.