CVIndependent

Tue05262020

Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Close to 1,000 young boxing hopefuls and proven amateurs this week are congregating at the 15th Annual Desert Showdown at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio—all in search of a title in their weight and age class.

For one local girl, the tournament means a return to the site of her first sanctioned bout and victory in her thus-far undefeated career.

“My first fight was when I was 12, and it was at the Desert Showdown four years ago,” said Citlalli Ortiz, of Coachella, during a recent training session at her boxing home, the Coachella Valley Boxing Club gym, run by the valley’s elder statesman of pugilism, Lee Espinoza.

Ortiz started boxing because she was dragged to the gym while her sister got into the ring.

“It was my older sister, Brenda, which was funny,” she said. “I would say, ‘No. I don’t want to go,’ when she went to the gym to train.”

Citlalli—pronounced “seat-lolly”—has been trained and managed by her father, Alex Ortiz. He explained the unlikely path taken by his younger daughter to the 2016 USA Boxing National Junior Championship at 154 pounds.

“It was not intended for Citlalli to be here at this moment,” he said. “My oldest daughter, Brenda, kept bugging me to bring her (Brenda) over to the gym so she could try boxing. Citlalli just came along because we had no one to leave her with.”

Citlalli eventually entered the ring because there were no other girls around to train with Brenda.

“Citlalli would get in the ring with her older sister and be like the punching bag,” said Alex Ortiz, who works as a substitute teacher. “And then one day, my dad brought some friends over to the house, and there were two boys about her age. They found boxing gloves lying around in the house, so the boys put them on, and they were both punching her. I got really upset watching her covering up, and not punching back. So I said, ‘You guys want to box? Let’s go out into the yard.’ I told her for the first time, ‘Just do the one-two. Left, then right.’ She knocked both of them out. One of the kids even spun around as he fell down. That’s when I realized that she really had potential.”

Those earliest boxing experiences with her older sister had a lasting impact on Citlalli.

“There’s a six-year difference between us,” she said. “But I tried every time, and even if I wanted to do something different, she would always have something better to do. I guess that’s how she helped me learn, and I was able to take a beating from anybody after that.”

Citlalli has not taken any beatings since she began her sanctioned boxing career. Still undefeated, Citlalli in the past year has won championship belts and medals at the 40th Annual Gene Lewis Invitational Tournament in Mesa, Ariz.; the 2016 USA Junior and Youth Boxing Championships in Reno, Nev.; and the 2016 USA Boxing Junior Olympic, Prep National and Youth Open Championships in Dallas. In the latter two events, she defeated former national champions to claim the titles.

Despite her undefeated record, Citlalli has definitely faced some challenges since she started boxing—including a battle with her weight.

“I was over 200 pounds when I started boxing,” she said. “So every time I would ask somebody to train me, they would say they couldn’t train me, because I wasn’t going to lose the weight.”

However, she has lost a lot of weight; all of her recent title victories have been in the 154-pound weight class. Still, Citlalli and her father believe her boxing future will be brightest if she gets down to 145 pounds. When does she hope to make that goal? Like ... immediately.

“I’ve been 154 for a while now,” Citlalli said, “but for the (Desert) Showdown, my goal is to be 145.”

Citlalli’s father also teased her about the fact that she’s trying to slim down for her upcoming quinceaneara.

“She wants to go down to 141,” he said. “So that’s another motivation for her. I told her she has to be at the weight (for the tournament), because if she tries on the dress she wants now and then loses 10 pounds, that dress is going to be too big for her.”

Once she makes her target weight, what will the rest of her future look like?

“I’ve heard that they’re going to let professionals compete in Olympic boxing, and if that’s official, then we want to go pro and then go to the Olympics (in 2020),” Citlalli said. “If it’s not true, then we would rather go to the Olympics.”

As she enters her junior year at Coachella Valley High School, Citlalli is aware of the importance of her education.

“I know I have to keep up with my grades,” she said. “I know boxing is not forever, so I’m going to have to look for a career that I like. But for now, I really want to focus on boxing.”

Citlalli’s father noted that her mother has always been wary of boxing. “But she’s been seeing Citlalli’s results in the ring, and that’s what makes her say, ‘I know that you’re good at this, but just don’t forget school.’ And we’ve got to respect that. I feel that way, too. I know it’s important and that you have to have that Plan B and be prepared. Time flies.”

Published in Features

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.

Published in Features

Brandon Viloria, 8, was running wind sprints in 95-degree weather at 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday (July 10) outside of the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino. His mother, Shannon, was by his side.

What would possess a kid to do such a thing? Turns out Brandon is the current California boxing champion in the 8-to-10-year-old, 55-pound bantam weight class, and he was slated to compete at the 12th Annual Desert Showdown tournament at Fantasy Springs this weekend.

“He’s got to drop 1.4 pounds right now so that he can make his weight limit at the weigh-in,” explained his father, Dominic. “We’re trying to become the Desert Showdown champion now.”

Brandon’s commitment and determination is typical of the aspiring boxing champions who have converged on the Coachella Valley in July to compete in boxing coach and promoter Ralph Romero’s dream event. As the USA’s second-largest amateur boxing tournament, the Desert Showdown has become a normal step for many amateur boxers as they try to climb to the top.

Beyond the roughly 600 participating fighters’ skill level, the fact that they are learning the discipline and focus required by a boxer’s demanding lifestyle can be a valuable reward in itself.

“With this tournament, everything’s for the kids,” says promoter Romero. “They’re the ones who take the hits. I’m just here to guide them—help them do right, get through high school, go to college, make a career. School first, boxing next. That way, if they get out of boxing, they’ve got something to fall back on.”

Director of the Coachella Valley Boxing Club, Lee Espinoza—who trained the world champion brothers Julio and Antonio Diaz, and has 22 fighters competing in this year’s tourney—concurs.

“I started training kids 33 years ago, and I had just three boys to work with,” recalls Espinosa. “Today, guys I trained when they were 6 years old have 6-year-old sons. They’re doing fine, and that’s great.”

As Thursday’s weigh-in drew to a close, one happy competitor stepped off the scale. With tired smiles and “No. 1” hand signs, the Viloria family celebrated their chance to capture a Desert Showdown belt: Brandon had made his weight.

Scroll down for the photo gallery, and watch this story at CVIndependent.com for more photos throughout the weekend.

Published in Snapshot