Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle The Good Fight

By Bryan Mealer

FEBRUARY 1, 1999:  Joe Vela likes to talk about when he was 13 years old and first fell in love with boxing. It was 1949, a time when tiny, one-room gyms speckled downtown Austin in garages and on rooftops of buildings. Vela and his friends would wander the streets of downtown in search of something to do. They would while away their time trying to listen to conversations of the old fighters who congregated on the sidewalks outside the gyms. Finally one of the boxers realized that Vela wasn't just hanging out to listen. Pete Gill, who was state middleweight champ at the time and a hero of Vela's, took to him right away. Gill began taking Vela into the gyms and introducing him to trainers. By 1951, Vela had fought his way to become a Golden Glove flyweight champ and held his title for several years afterward. Now Vela, 62, is using that same guidance bestowed upon him as a kid to help others stay focused and out of trouble.

Since July, Vela has run Austin Boxing Against Drugs (ABAD), a program that takes kids off the streets, away from gangs, and teaches them discipline and hard work through the art of boxing. Like city-operated recreational centers, ABAD is free to any kid who wants to come in and train. The gym is located at 2412 Cesar Chavez Street, beyond the brightly colored shops and Mexican restaurants, and into another side of East Austin that has long been swallowed by neglect and blight. Once a Pepsi bottling plant, the gym is often mistaken for just another graffitied warehouse in the area until a small black-and-white painted sign bearing the letters "ABAD" is seen from the road.

"One of the main reasons I have a gym is not so much that I want to teach boxing, but I love listening to these kids," said Vela. "That's all it is. They need someone to respect them and listen to what they're going through, just somebody to talk with. They talk to me about their problems at home. They tell me they're scared, you know, there might be some drug dealers involved and they want to avoid them but don't know how. They come here because they feel safe."


photograph by Ada Calhoun

Vela is a man of God who will tell you that ABAD is his calling, his own personal ministry to kids at risk. While he doesn't preach to the kids in his gym, he is simply there for them, reminding them that there are alternatives to drugs, gangs, and all pitfalls between. Boxing is also a safe way to release stress and teaches kids how to protect themselves. Because many soon realize how demanding a sport boxing really is, it helps instill mental dominance to those who really want to learn.


Stepping Into the Ring

The first thing you notice when entering Vela's gym is a boxing ring in the center so huge it looks as if the place were built around it. Kids wearing white Hanes T-shirts shadow box in the corners. The sound of fists pummeling speedbags gives off a steady rhythm so loud they have to shout above it. Vela is a short, stocky man who leaves an aroma trail of aftershave as he paces the floors from kid to kid and patiently gives instruction. One kid about seven years old runs over to a wooden rack full of gloves and headgear where Vela waits. The kid sticks out his arms while Vela whips one end of a roll of handwrap into the air like a spool of typewriter ribbon. He then carefully swaths the kid's knuckles and wrists in the tape, pulls out a pair of shiny leather gloves, and tightly laces them onto his hands. The kid's eyes light up and he smiles -- he gets to walk around the entire night like that. He knocks the gloves, which are bigger than his head, together and runs off to work the heavy bags.

The need for ABAD occurred to Vela seven years ago while teaching boxing at A.B. Cantu/Pan American Rec Center on East Third Street. Vela realized Pan Am didn't have the space to facilitate the number of kids signing up to train, and in 1997 he began looking for a place of his own. Last July, Carnales Inc., a nonprofit group that buys properties to donate for community services, heard about Vela and his plans for ABAD. At the time, Vela wasn't looking for much, perhaps a building with 4,000 square feet. When Carnales offered him one with 11,000 sq. ft. for $5 a year, Vela immediately cut a check for $25. Through donations, the gym is now equipped with eight heavy bags, four speed bags (one of which was given to him by Willie Nelson), a ring, jumpropes, and exercise bikes. When Vela first opened the gym, a man who had heard about his program walked in and cut a check for $1,000. The Northeast Austin Lions Club also bought Vela a van he now uses to pick up kids from the Meadowbrook housing projects on South Fifth and Live Oak, kids he met while working the counter at nearby South Austin Rec Center in the days before Pan Am.


Joe Vela and Arnold "Pelon" Melendez
photograph by Ada Calhoun
But in the eight months since Vela opened ABAD, there's been a considerable amount of strain trying to provide for basic upkeep of his building. Until last month, Vela worked at Austin Services for the Elderly and recently quit the job in order to devote more time to his program. Since he charges no fees and receives little outside funding, the gym runs on prayers and pocket money. After Pepsi moved out, the warehouse was used as a storage space for a flea market across the parking lot and was neglected for a number of years. When it rains, the roof leaks and the gym floods. One sliding door to the warehouse isn't even attached, and the heaters need fixing. But as Vela walks around the gym and points out its flaws, there's neither doubt nor concern in his voice. He's an optimist who believes that if you follow your heart, good things will meet you. And to the 15 to 20 kids there on any given night, ABAD might as well be Caesar's Palace.

Ranging in age from seven to 19, most who wander in when the doors open at 5:00 live in the neighborhoods that line East Cesar Chavez. They hear about ABAD through friends or relatives, or have followed Vela from Pan Am. And despite the stigma that boxing is a man's sport, quite a few of the kids signed up at ABAD are girls.

Mark Barcenes, 12, is a little hard to warm up to. Like a lot of the younger kids who dart from one end of the gym to the other all evening, he's a bit shy around strangers. He stands on a chair with his arms crossed, holds in a grin, and uses his forehead to keep the speed bag moving. The younger ones also have a tendency to show off. When asked why he enjoys coming to ABAD, Barcenes stares off and thinks while the bag swings back and forth, slapping him in the head. "I come here because ... because ... it's fun."

Those who live around the gym have the same problem as most other Eastside kids: There's nothing for them to do. There are no malls or movie theatres, so they usually end up hanging out in parks, convenience store parking lots, and on street corners. There are many, like the ones who find ABAD, who have tried the local rec centers, but left when they became overcrowded and trainers couldn't give enough one-on-one attention. Some aren't there just because it's free, or a safe place from the streets, but because they want to learn to better protect themselves. It's common in the gym to hear about kids being followed home by gang members, or getting hustled by drug dealers at bus stops.

John Paul Hernandez, 22, is broad-shouldered with arms that squeeze out from his sweat-soaked T-shirt. His yellow hand tape is worn away at the knuckles from two hours spent on the heavy bags. And when his fists hit them, they swing. Hernandez has trained at ABAD since the first weeks it was open, and like a lot of the older ones there, he can only make it to the gym on nights when he's not working. When he noticed some of his younger cousins were getting into trouble, he started bringing them as well.

"I tell them, 'Who's going to be there if you get jumped tomorrow, your boys or your family?' That's why I bring them in here," said Hernandez, who added he's trying to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, an ex-fighter. "If I wasn't in here, I'd be out with my friends driving around, probably drinking. Out there I fought all the time. But in here, there's so much you have to consider. It's such an art."

Sam Rivera, 19, heard about ABAD through a letter his brother wrote to him from jail. Mixed up in gangs and in jail himself at 15, Rivera was in the ring training on his first night in the gym, something Vela doesn't allow unless the kids have at least a few weeks of experience. For about a month, Rivera trained at Givens Rec Center on East 12th, but moved to ABAD where ring time was more consistent. Rivera, who appeared to be a fairly practiced fighter, said his dream is to someday turn pro.

"I've wanted to get into boxing for over a year," said Rivera. "I'm trying to straighten out now, and I want to do it through boxing. I want to make it to the top -- get somewhere in life."

Then there's Arnold "Pelon" Melendez, a 14-year-old golden child of ABAD who trained under Vela for three years at Pan Am. Melendez, a 130-pound featherweight, is in the gym six days a week training. When he's out of the ring, he's hitting the bags, jumping rope, always moving. He's shy, soft-spoken, an all-star baseball player at Anderson High School who makes good grades, something for which his father credits ABAD. "He was getting into some trouble, but ever since he started boxing, his grades have improved. These guys are always talking to him about doing well in school and his mental state," said his father, Arnold Melendez II. "Places like this help all these kids. Otherwise they go and go, bottling everything up, until one day they explode."

Melendez wants to compete in the 2000 Olympics, and Vela is determined to get him there. Melendez has had two smoker bouts -- fights where no title is at stake -- in Austin and Bulverde. He lost both matches but Vela tells him to keep his chin up -- losing is the only way you learn. Boxing is an art. There's a hard science to being a good fighter, and few kids come along who are willing to tackle that challenge. Like any trainer, Vela wants to bring up a champion, but he is cautious in his approach. School and family come first, boxing will always be there. Vela says many trainers who think they have a ringer make the mistake of pressuring kids who are too young to handle it.

"You don't want to rush a kid into a fight," he said. "I don't believe in that. Boxing is a sport, and it's a safe sport. I don't care if my boxers never knock out anybody, that's not the point. The point is that my boxers will never get hurt, my boxers will out-box and out-sport everybody else. That's what it's all about. Here, my boxers may never be millionaires, but they won't be punch drunk either."


Up Against the Ropes

As with every nonprofit organization such as ABAD, many times success is dependent on the kindness of strangers. Robert Sestaita was eating at Taco Cabana in July when he read a small piece about ABAD's opening in the local daily. Sestaita, a hard, chiseled-face, ex-pro fighter with thick, tattooed arms, was instantly moved by Vela's story and wanted to help. In August, Sestaita showed up at the door of ABAD with a duffel bag full of his own training mitts, gloves, and headgear, eager to train. After working 12 hours a day at his job, plus having a family of his own, Sestaita drove to the gym from his home on South Congress and didn't step out of the ring until Vela closed the doors. Sestaita was an ardent trainer, quickly gaining the respect of the kids in the gym, and never once asked Vela for compensation.

But last month, as attendance in the gym was low and the program was still slow getting on its feet because of lingering financial humps, Sestaita felt it was time to make an exit. He paid a visit to Vela's house one afternoon and told him it was time to go. He was tired, drained from working a job all day and training all evening and wanted to spend more time with his wife and family. Vela said he respected Sestaita's decision to leave, and the program would be minus a strong pillar and friend. You roll with the punches, be thankful for what you've been given, and move on. Since Sestaita's departure, Vela has teamed up with Tony Cortez, an ex-fighter who lives in the neighborhood behind the gym, who heard about Vela's program and volunteered his help.


Vela, now and then
photograph by Ada Calhoun
On some nights there will be upward of 30 kids in the gym, and on others, if the weather is bad, or if the van isn't running, there will be only three. It's nights like these that worry Vela. During the holidays, the number of kids in the gym dwindled. The van kept breaking down, making it impossible for him to pick up the kids who can't make it otherwise, kids he knows want to be there. Once a new one comes along, he can finally comb the neighborhoods and housing projects in search of more kids. But despite the current numbers, Vela still has big plans for ABAD. He hopes to install a basketball court, hold karate and aerobics classes in the back rooms of the warehouse, and one day, have 200 kids signed up. Someone has volunteered to carpet his floors, and a group of neighborhood kids want to paint a wall-size mural of Christ inside the gym. Vela is also trying to get the gym ready to hold two of his own smoker bouts in April, which means repairing a leaky roof, remodeling bathrooms, and building a concession stand. He and some of the old fighters are planning a fundraiser in the coming months to help pay for the repairs and basic upkeep of the building, which comes directly from Vela's pocket.

Vela is confident that if he puts his faith in God and keeps reaching out to his kids, everything will fall into place. He looks around and reminisces about when he was a kid growing up in the downtown gyms, and how ABAD already offers so much more than what he received. He says he feels blessed, and even despite the odds, happier than he's ever been. And he's just getting started.

"I want my building equipped to where if I ever come across a kid with no place to go, I can make sure they have one," said Vela. "There are so many more kids that need saving, and I'm not going to give up on them. You have to remember, we're here for a reason, and that's not just boxing."


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