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It’s been a long road home for Coachella boxer Randy Caballero.

The International Boxing Federation’s world bantamweight champion has been fighting in faraway places for more than a year now. The twisting road led him first to Sunrise, Fla., then to Kobe, Japan, and then finally to Monte Carlo, Monaco, where he seized the world title he’s wanted since he was 8 years old, when he first began boxing under the tutelage of Lee Espinoza, director of the Coachella Valley Boxing Club (pictured to the right).

But Caballero is now home, and the first defense of his title will happen in the friendly confines of the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino’s Events Center, on Friday, Feb. 27.

The Independent spent time with him at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club gym, on Douma Street in Coachella. We asked him how it feels to be a world champion.

“It feels good, but it feels the same,” replied Caballero, 24. “The title hasn’t changed me. A lot of people say, ‘Oh, the belt changed you.’ I’m the same person. I’ve still got to wake up in the morning and go run, and come to the gym and train hard every single day. You’ve got to train extra-hard to make sure you keep that title and not let it go anywhere.

“But other than that, I’m the same. My family’s the same. We all hang out still and have barbecues. We’re all the same people. We’re never going to change.”

Caballero’s nuclear family and support group includes his wife, Yaniva; their three children; father, Marcos Caballero (also his trainer and manager); and mom, Stephanie. And unquestionably, one of the strongest presences in Caballero’s life is Lee Espinoza.

Commonly referred to as the “godfather of local boxing” in the valley, Espinoza comes across as a guardian angel, of sorts, for the local kids who enter his club’s doors in search of a lifestyle that keeps them off tough neighborhood streets. For more than three decades, he’s been teaching valuable life skills and, on several occasions, grooming world champions.

“Lee has been a big part of my career and my life—my dad’s life, too,” Randy Caballero said. “My dad, when he came from Nicaragua at a very young age, he ended up walking into a boxing gym, which I believe was on Sixth Street in Coachella, in the old fire station. I got to visit it when I was little, but I never fought there, since I was too little. Lee trained my dad; he’s always been with us, and we’ve always had him in my corner. … It’s a learning sport, and Lee’s been around it for so long that he can tell us what to do or not to do.”

The traveling that Randy Caballero has done has not always included Espinoza: The coach hates to fly, so he skipped the trips to Japan and Monte Carlo.

“I got to witness that when we went to Miami; he was really bad on that plane,” Randy Caballero said. “But it’s nice to know we have him when we’re here. He’s opened the doors and his arms to us here at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club gym since we were little. It’s my second home here.”

For Espinoza, there’s no place he’d rather be, either. “It’s like something you get hooked on,” Espinoza said with a big smile. “It’s something almost like drugs. I can’t be at the house no more. I don’t know what I’m going to do there. So I come here and do this, because what we’ve done is, like, amazing. Everywhere in the world we go, they recognize us and me.

“Six kids from this little gym have fought for world titles, and four won. Pancho Segura won twice. Julio Diaz won twice. Sandra Yard got a title, and now Randy Caballero. So that’s it—I’m hooked. They ask me, ‘When are you going to retire?’ And I say when I die. I’m not leaving here.”

Meanwhile, Caballero is happy to be back home.

“It’s been over a year since I fought here,” Caballero said. “So it feels good to be back in my hometown, and I finally get to fight in front of my fans, family and friends. It will be good to walk into the arena and hear people cheering for me instead of the other guy.”

Is there added pressure to do well in front of that hometown crowd?

“Having to go to Miami, to Japan and to Monte Carlo—being in different arenas and in some one else’s hometown—kind of taught me that no matter where you’re at around the world, once you’re in that ring, it’s just you and that guy, and nobody else,” Caballero said. “… Once that bell rings, it’s like everything just goes ‘swoosh’ and closes in. I just can hear me and the guy breathing, and then I just hear my dad, and my brothers and my wife and my mom. That’s just about it.”

What kind of fight does he expect in his first title defense, against Mexico’s Alberto Guevara?

“I’m expecting a really tough fight,” Caballero said. “This guy’s brother just won a world boxing title, so in this guy’s mind, he’s thinking, ‘OK, this is my chance to win a world title, too.’ So I know he’s going to come in and give it a hard fight. This might be his last opportunity to win a world title.

“Like I’ve said, I’ve trained hard. I train hard every single day, and whenever they put a fighter in front of me, I train 100 percent. Whether it’s someone with a bunch of losses, or someone who has the best record in the sport of boxing, you never take anyone lightly. I’m going to make sure that I dictate the fight from Round 1 on. I’m ready to put on a good show for my fans out here at Fantasy Springs, and it should be a great fight.”

For more information, or to purchase tickets ($35 to $105), visit www.fantasyspringsresort.com.

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