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Marysville gym gives them a fighting chance
Hit Squad sending first home-grown fighter to pro boxing match
The three-minute bell sounds at Hit Squad Boxing and Fitness Center. Ricocheting speed bags and heavy bags swing to a halt, and Taj Fields, owner and head trainer, appears with a mop in his hands to swipe at pools of sweat on the floor.
A dozen young athletes have been alternating through workout stations for more than an hour, and most take the familiar cue as an opportunity to rest. But at the north end of the room, Manny Castro's jump rope continues its rapid thwap-thwap-thwap against the boards.
At 5 feet 6 inches tall and 127 pounds, the rail-thin Castro is still seven pounds too heavy to qualify for the junior featherweight class in which he's scheduled to fight on March 6.
That scheduled match against Cuban fighter Jesus Cruz, 26, in Miami, will be Castro's first in the pro ranks.
It also will mark a milestone for Fields, 33, and his five-year-old Marysville gym.
The facility — a weeknights-only operation behind Casino Marysville off of E Street — has attracted professional boxers and plenty of talented amateurs who Fields has taken under his wing.
But Emmanuel "Manny" Castro, 25, born and raised in Sinaloa, Mexico, will be the first pro to have been brought into the ring under Fields' watchful eye, and coached by him exclusively.
"He has a good chin," Fields asserts in the vivid shorthand language of the sport.
His protege, in other words, has an instinct to minimize an opponent's contact, resilience for shaking off blows that would have another kissing the canvas, and the spirit to get in one more jab than the other guy before the bell rings.
Those traits — the resilience, especially — came into play seven years ago when Castro, then a new immigrant in East Los Angeles, was shot in the street and left to die.
His injuries, and the several surgeries that followed, left him debilitated for nearly three years.
"They hit my leg, my bladder, my intestines," he says. "It was a really hard experience, but it made me appreciate things in life. It made me learn a lot."
Ready to Learn
According to Fields — a former Silver Gloves, Golden Gloves, and Junior Olympic champion — real boxers are, among other things, dedicated students.
"They're all good listeners," he says of the legends whose images plaster the walls of his gym. "They listen to their trainers; they follow instructions."
Fields insists that his trainees — some who are as young as five — do the same.
It isn't unusual to hear the late Howard Cosell intoning details of a prize fight from within the trainer's office. Fields runs tapes of boxing matches on an old television, and makes sure his young charges watch carefully.
"In history class, you might watch a history film. In science class, you might watch a science film," he explains. "Here, I want them to study boxing."
Sometimes he provides his own commentary. "See, he's cuttin' him off," Fields says, while watching Alexis Arguello vs. Jimmy Watt, circa 1982, with some of his students. "There, he's walkin' him down."
Manny Castro needed no lessons about discipline or focus or motivation when he came to Fields in 2007. He arrived chock-full of those things, Fields says, and knew how to apply them.
All he needed and wanted was to learn the art of boxing.
Welcome to America
Castro had crossed the border from Mexico illegally at age 16, speaking no English at all.
Three years later, he graduated from Abraham Lincoln High School in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles, with a command of the language that rivaled the few native English speakers in his class.
"I had an eagerness to talk just like everybody else," he explains after a recent training session with Fields.
He struggled to make a living, working in a car wash during the years he attended high school, then as a dishwasher, construction worker, and factory worker. One job had him cutting up shark all day.
"I had to ride the bus home, and my clothes smelled like fish," he says. "It was so embarrassing."
In 2001, Castro discovered the Old Jail, a boxing gym housed on the fifth floor of a 1930s Los Angeles jailhouse. He developed a conditioning routine, and began the serious work of training to fight. But he did not get far.
One summer night, he and his brother left the gym and found themselves face to face with strangers who, Castro says, mistook them for rival gang members.
Castro says he caught a glimpse of a weapon after his brother answered their verbal assaults.
"I said to my brother, 'He's got a gun,' and then the one guy started shooting at us, boom-boom-boom," he recalls. "I was shot in the leg, then in the back. My brother got hit in the leg."
They managed to get to the doorstep of a nearby house to seek help.
"But the first lady closed the door on us," Castro says.
They had no better luck at the next residence.
"Nobody wanted to help. That's how it is over there," he says. "They don't want to get into trouble with the gangs."
By the time he recovered fully, he had spent more than two and a half years without training — a period long enough to quash the ambitions of most fledgling boxers.
Castro says he is not one to be easily discouraged.
"I don't give up, even though I've been through so many experiences," he says. "You grow up. You don't let it bother you."
He began his training regimen anew.
In 2006, Castro married a young woman — a native-born U.S. citizen — who he had met on the Internet.
Now a legal resident, he lives with his wife and infant daughter in Yuba City and pursues his dream in earnest. He has 30 amateur matches under his belt.
Every weeknight, he conditions and drills with trainees of all ages and at all levels at Hit Squad. Then he steps into the ring and goes through a few rounds with his sparring partner, Anibal Robles. Fields provides a steady stream of instructions.
"Get your jab up there," he says on a recent training night.
"Gotta keep that distance," he harps.
Robles, 21, and a former runner-up to San Francisco Golden Gloves and Nor Cal Diamond Belt champions, also is working his way up the ranks as an amateur fighter.
So too is Roman Zarate, 20, who clubs noisily away at a speed bag nearby. On Thursday, the 165-pound Zarate demonstrated his skills by defeating Deontaty Wilson by referee stoppage in the second round in the Northern California Golden Gloves quarterfinals in Vacaville.
Nearly all of Fields' trainees are from Mexico, or are of Mexican descent.
"A lot of my boxers come from farmworker families," he says. "Boxing becomes their solace from the outside world."
Children — some of them from foster families — are brought to him because they have a history of brawling, and a lack of control. Others simply have parents who want to instill discipline and encourage fitness.
Fields commutes back and forth between Hit Squad in Marysville and his day job at an alarm company in Sacramento. He and his assistant trainers run the gym on a volunteer basis. The fees they charge barely pay to keep the lights on, he says.
"All of us are parents. All of us keep 9-to-5 jobs." They train young boxers, he says, "because we don't have a Boys and Girls Club here (in Yuba-Sutter). There's no YMCA."
"Kids," he says, "need a whole lot more in this day and age than they can get here."
Getting hit hard, repeatedly and for years on end, Fields says, is not among the things a kid needs in this day and age. The objective in training to box is to learn "how to hit, and not get hit."
And after the gloves have been hung up for the last time?
"Boxing is a small part of life — it's 10 years if you're lucky," he says. "If you can't work, if you can't read a book to your kids, if you can't hold a conversation normally because your speech is slurred, then I've failed you."
He adopted this fatherly approach to the business from great trainers, he says, who mentored him carefully through his own boxing career.
The Yuba City native spent most of his fighting years in Sacramento and in Oakland.
He returned to the Mid-Valley after stints as an assistant trainer in Modesto and Sacramento.
And he's ready now, he says, to see his own young fighters flourish.
Among his key prospects are two young female boxers — Guadalupe Magdaleno, 16, and Alejandra Nunez, 9.
Nunez, the 2007 NorCal Silver Gloves female champion, "is a ball of fire," Fields says, laughing.
But Castro's upcoming match in Miami is, for the time being, Hit Squad's main event.
"We're working on a fast pace — staying busy the entire time," the wiry boxer says of his current focus in the ring, in preparation for the six-round fight.
Studying for an opponent who, like Castro, is new to pro boxing, is difficult at best, Fields says.
"You don't find a lot of tapes on them," he says. The best bet, he explains, is to prepare as if the match is a sprint.
Beyond that, it's working on fundamentals and wait to see what shows up.
"We take one fight at a time," he says.
The next couple weeks will seem like an eternity to Castro, who says he can't wait to get in the ring.
He flashes a smile that lights up his entire face.
"This is what I've been waiting for," he says.
Contact Appeal-Democrat reporter Nancy Pasternack at 749-4712 or at firstname.lastname@example.org