Fight dreams born at gym in San Antonio

Updated: July 15, 2007, 11:21 AM ET
Associated Press

SAN ANTONIO -- The name is new, but not much else has changed at old San Fernando Gym, now Jesse James Leija Gym. And that's the beauty of it.

A fresh coat of paint and new lighting have done little to hide the truth -- when it comes to boxing in San Antonio, this is the place to be.

Been that way for 50 years. Likely will be for the next 50, too.

Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya and Pernell Whitaker all trained here at one time or another.

Chances are, they all liked the same thing -- the friendly atmosphere, the camaraderie and the wide-open spaces. There's plenty of room to work up a sweat, shadow box, or to hit the mitts and the heavy bag without fear of bumping into someone.

Unless it's inside the ring, where the intent is to do more than just bump into one another.

And then there's the smell. Legend has it that the doors and windows were kept shut in the summer months to keep the odor of sweat inside.

As famous boxing gyms go, San Fernando -- which was renamed Jesse James Leija Gym last year -- might not be the equivalent of Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn or the old Kronk Gym in Detroit. But it's certainly a San Antonio sports landmark.

"I basically lived there for 14 years," said Leija, who began training at San Fernando as an amateur in the mid-1980s. "When people came to town, that's the gym they went to. It's always been like family in there. I've got lifelong friends I made there."

Some of those friendships were strained, though, when the City Council passed a controversial resolution to rename San Fernando Gym in Leija's honor.

Leija, a former world champion -- one of only three San Antonio boxers to achieve that distinction -- was honored not only for his accomplishments in the ring but for his character and role-model status outside it.

"I'm honored that the building has my name on it," Leija said. "But it's the building that was named after me, not just the boxing gym.

"The building has always represented hope and desire and work ethic in this community. If you have hope, you can become something in life. I think my career is a reflection of that."

^Famous names<

Leija said part of the fun in going to the gym every day as an amateur was seeing the big names there, fighters such as Whitaker and Holyfield and locals such as Mike and Sammy Ayala, Felix Castillo and others.

"I was so green," recalled Leija, whose father, Jesse, and uncle, Luis, trained at San Fernando Gym in the 1950s. "But it was exciting."

Whitaker, also known as "Sweet Pea," was part of the Lou Duva stable of fighters that frequented the gym during the 1980s and '90s under the Main Events promotional banner.

"We had a lot of fun down there," said Duva, now 85 and a boxing legend. "It was a good gym, a clean gym. We liked everything about it. It'll always be San Fernando Gym to me."

Duva had a special connection with Joe Souza, who ran the boxing program at the gym for the San Antonio Parks & Recreation Department and served as a corner cutman under Duva. The colorful Souza always had a passel of wide-eyed amateurs in the gym, sharing space and dreams alongside the pros. Duva and his stable of boxers liked that.

"My guys loved talking to the kids," Duva said. "Rocky Lockridge, one of my fighters, used to say, 'Line 'em up.' He'd teach 'em, show 'em how to jab and throw combinations.

"But we always talked to 'em about staying in school and doing things the right way."

Duva learned the intricacies of boxing at historic Stillman's Gym in New York City. San Fernando, he said, "was as good as any" of the great gyms.

Everybody, Duva said, knew about San Fernando Gym and also Souza, who has been a fixture at the facility for more than 30 years.

"I've been here so long, this gym is part of me," said Souza, 72. "And my family, too. People ask me why I'm still here. What else would I do? If I wasn't here, I'd go nuts."

^Local landmark<

Leija Gym might not have changed much over the years, but the neighborhood has.

Originally part of the San Fernando Cathedral School complex, the two-story brick building at Travis and Santa Rosa streets was built in 1948 and dedicated Dec. 3, 1950.

The gym was used by the Archdiocese of San Antonio for Catholic Youth Organization activities until the early 1970s when it was nearly torn down with the school as part of urban renewal.

But the gym was spared the wrecking ball when the city declared it a historical landmark. On Oct. 31, 1974, the city acquired San Fernando Gym and its .92-acre lot for $52,100.

Roy Ovalle and Robert Perez were teenagers when they trained at the gym in the 1950s. The gym was much the same as it is today, they said.

Manuel Torres was the coach when Ovalle, who later won three national Golden Gloves titles as a lightweight while in the Air Force, trained there.

There were two other gyms in the vicinity, at Patsy's Lounge and Moonglow Athletic Club. And there was Boys & Girls Club No. 1 on the West Side, but it charged a membership fee, while San Fernando didn't, Ovalle said.

So Ovalle and his buddies headed to San Fernando.

"The priests were sports-minded, and they loved boxing," Ovalle, 70, recalls.

Promoter Tony Padilla was producing regular prizefights then, and boxing in San Antonio was beginning its golden age. Perez said unlike today, the gym was surrounded by houses, and neighborhood kids flocked there in droves.

"The equipment wasn't very good. It was donated by the church," Perez, 65, said. "But it didn't matter. This was the place for a lot of kids, particularly Hispanic kids.

"It was a mecca for boxing."

^Ayala legacy<

Many of the biggest names in boxing have trained at the former San Fernando Gym over the years, but it was the Ayala family who put it on the map.

Tony Ayala Sr. was hired by the city as the gym's boxing coordinator soon after the gym was purchased from the Archdiocese in 1974, and thanks in part to the popularity of his four sons -- Mike, Tony Jr., Sammy and Paulie -- the gym grew in stature as one of the nation's top boxing facilities.

"That gym has brought the city a lot of luster," said Ayala, who resigned in 1983 over a dispute with the city regarding the gym's use. "The place was like a cathedral. San Fernando will always be remembered."

The gym continues to be used for basketball and volleyball and other city-league activities on a regulation-size court upstairs. But boxing remains the most-visible activity. The trickle of pros has declined as other area gyms have gained strength, but the gym remains an amateur hotbed -- particularly around Golden Gloves time.

The city has pumped hundreds of thousands of dollars into the gym in recent years on new lighting and flooring in addition to an accessibility project. A lengthy project to fix the gym's underground utilities a couple of years ago nearly KO'd the boxing program.

Now the city is putting in air conditioning.

In a boxing gym?

"We won't use it," Souza said. "How would anybody make weight that way?"

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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