Boxing offers glimmer of hope in Mexico City's grim but brave barrios

Raul Valdez, who has experience in the corner of a world champion, remains committed to nurturing young boxers in Tepito, a historic Mexico City barrio he's seen deteriorate over the years. Jonathan Levinson for ESPN

MEXICO CITY -- Raul Valdez spends his afternoons in the small shoe stall he owns in the Granaditas market, which he claims is the biggest shoe market in the world, on the border of Mexico City's historic district and the infamous Tepito neighborhood. Every day he works there with his wife, selling only women's shoes because, he says, "Women always spend more on shoes."

Few would suspect the short man with the dented nose helping customers try on high heels is one of the legendary figures of Tepito -- a hero of the eclectic yet troubled barrio's long and proud boxing tradition.

Tepito has churned out boxing legends such as Raul "Raton" Macias, Kid Azteca, Octavio Gomez, Rodolfo Martinez and Carlos Zarate. So many famous fighters have come from Tepito or trained there that the symbol displayed at the area's subway station is a boxing glove.

"There's an infinite amount of fighters that have come out of Tepito," Valdez said in Spanish. "So now when they fight, they say they're from Tepito, and the people give them respect, because they're brave. They don't back down from anyone."

Valdez, 63, twice won Mexico City's amateur Golden Gloves tournament and had a successful professional career in the 1970s and '80s. He fought for the WBC world super flyweight title twice, but he truly made his name by training Ricardo Lopez, a Hall of Famer and world champion, in the 1990s.

Even with all his success in boxing, the modest shoe stall is a point of pride for Valdez. He'd grown up down the block and worked in the market as a boy when he wasn't training. The stall was his first purchase with the money he made from boxing in 1977 because he wanted to own something. He had seen too many boxers fall into drugs, alcohol and bankruptcy after retirement.

"I have a responsibility to be a good example for the young guys," he said.

Valdez closes the shoe stall every evening and heads to the renowned Deportivo Tepito gym, where he has spent decades training young boxers from Tepito and surrounding neighborhoods such as Morelos, Guerrero and Centro. He has seen the area change drastically.

"When I was young, the barrio was really relaxed," Valdez said. "But when stronger drugs like cocaine and crack came, the people -- everything -- started to break down."

Valdez acknowledges that it's a constant struggle keeping his young fighters off the streets. He tries to continually show them that following in the footsteps of barrio boxing legends is a noble pursuit.

DANIEL NOLASCO LIVES in Tepito with his wife and two sons. Each day he walks through the neighborhood's sprawling street market -- past stalls selling fake Prada handbags, stolen electronics and a variety of other goods, legitimate and otherwise -- to the Deportivo Tepito, where he trains with Valdez for his professional boxing debut.

"Here in the barrio, the motto is 'No te dejes,'" explained Nolasco about the term that translates colloquially to "Don't back down." "But now I'm growing up. I'm trying to teach my kids that fighting isn't good, but also that they can't let things go."

His sons, he said, will begin learning to box when they turn 6 so they don't fall into the same harmful habits he did. Nolasco's mother worked in the Tepito market when he was a kid, and life in the barrio has always been filled with temptations. As a teenager, he never boxed, only fought in the streets, drank booze and did drugs.

He was 20 when his first child was born, and that's when he decided to leave his vices behind. He began peddling chocolates in a subway station in the north of the city, a profession that, although illegal, allowed him to escape the pull of the neighborhood.

"More than anything, I'd like to be well-known here in Tepito as an athlete, not as a criminal," said Nolasco, 24, sweat pouring down his forehead minutes after sparring. "To be a good example for my kids, and that's why I'm working hard."

Nolasco had never boxed until two years ago, but soon after he took third in the city's Golden Gloves tournament. Now, he's preparing for his first pro fight and hopes to be the next legend to rise out of Tepito.

TEPITO IS KNOWN as El Barrio Bravo -- "The Brave Barrio." Many think this has to do with its relationship to boxing. But historian Alfonso Hernandez, an expert on Tepito culture, claims the reputation for bravery began much earlier. Hernandez explained that during the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the 16th century, Tepito, which served as a marketplace in the Aztec empire, was able to resist the invaders for 93 days as other parts of the city fell easily.

Tepito today is a working-class neighborhood consisting mostly of low-rise concrete apartment buildings with peeling paint. Small stands pop up out of nowhere selling day-to-day goods when people don't have the energy to navigate Tepito's sprawling open-air market. The market takes over several of the neighborhood's main streets, serving as a downtown of sorts. Next to the seemingly endless stalls of contraband, makeshift bars blare reggaeton music and serve micheladas (beer-based cocktails) in the street.

During the daytime, the neighborhood bustles with activity. Kids play soccer on the concrete while addicts stumble past. Men and women hang out in entryways, people watching and chatting. At night, it gets quieter. The spots with people milling in the doorways are likely puntos -- drug stash houses.

But the neighborhood has a barrio charm. Walls throughout Tepito are covered in street art, and music constantly flows out of windows, providing a soundtrack for the neighborhood. Small three-wheeled moto-taxis that don't exist in other parts of the city ferry around inhabitants.

While Hernandez promotes Tepito as a historic and cultural center of Mexico City, he also laments the changes in the neighborhood over the years.

"When I was a kid in Tepito and people had problems, they settled it with their fists," Hernandez said. "Now, they settle it with guns."

Hernandez explained that many of the youths now prefer to work in the markets or on the streets because it's a way to get cash more quickly. He thinks fewer see the legends of boxing as idols.

This may have to do with the pitfalls that many ex-fighters have faced.

FEW BOXERS LOOM LARGER over Mexico than Carlos Zarate, whom The Associated Press named, in a tie with countryman Ruben Olivares, the greatest bantamweight of the 20th century. With thunderous fists, Zarate won his first 52 pro fights, 51 by knockout.

But Zarate's life exemplifies not just the highs of becoming a champion, but the lows that can follow.

Zarate was born in Tepito and moved with his family when was 4 years old to the Ramos Millan neighborhood, close to Mexico City's airport. Still, he often went back to Tepito to visit extended family members who still lived there and, later, train in its famous gyms.

Sitting in his office at the gym he and his son operate, surrounded by photos of him with Oscar De La Hoya, Don King and other luminaries of the fight game, Zarate, now 65, called his years as champion "beautiful."

"I was an example for the youth of how to pursue that legendary trajectory of great Mexican boxers," said a smiling Zarate, who was inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1994.

But when the conversation turned to his life after boxing, Zarate spoke hesitantly.

"I had a lot of problems," he said, mentioning his drinking and crack habit. "And, well, it led me to become a failure."

Zarate spent more than a decade away from his family, lost in his addictions, until finally successfully completing rehab in 2005.

"I left with my hand in the air again," Zarate said, raising an arm victoriously as if he were standing on the turnbuckles, facing the crowd, after yet another knockout victory. "Triumphant."

Zarate regained a purpose in his life by training his son. Carlos Zarate Jr. compiled a 20-1 record as a pro before retiring in 2014 because of a bad shoulder.

The younger Zarate appears to have learned from his father's mistakes, though, and has transitioned into training. The father and son run a gym owned by the Mexico City subway workers union in the same Ramos Millan neighborhood Zarate moved to as a child. As his father trained a young boxer nearby, the 28-year-old Zarate Jr. called him his "hero."

But for every boxing champion Mexico City's barrios produce, there are thousands of others who fight a losing battle.

JORGE ANGELES GREW UP in the rough Guerrero neighborhood that borders Tepito, dreaming of turning pro. But there was a problem.

"I was in training and also getting high," he said. "But that's the life that the kids in the barrio are given. I thought my trainer wasn't going to realize it, but it turned out he did."

Angeles spent years preparing, hiding his vices from his trainer, until days before his professional debut in California in August 1997. He showed up for a weigh-in smelling of alcohol, the fight was cancelled, and he was sent back to Mexico.

He quit boxing and fell into depression, alcoholism and drug addiction for years. It was only when his son decided he wanted to box that he got clean. Angeles convinced the owner of the Gloria gym in Tepito to let him train his son there, and soon he became popular with other young kids from the barrio who wanted to train with him.

Angeles would spend eight years working at the Gloria, training young prospects, but just when his life finally seemed to have come together, two incidents changed everything.

In 2014, the owner sold the gym, and the former pillar of the Tepito community became a pharmacy.

Soon after, Angeles separated from the mother of his children. One of his pupils, Paco, mentioned his family was renting a room, so Angeles moved in. A month later, on June 9, 2015, while paying his rent to the 16-year-old Paco in his car, they were attacked and robbed. The assailants shot Angeles seven times; Paco died in the ambulance from a gunshot wound to the head.

Angeles remained in a coma for 15 days. His family was debating whether to take him off life support when he suddenly awoke.

"I was given another opportunity to amend everything I did wrong," Angeles said, "and I'm going to take advantage of it."

Since the attack, Angeles has made a stunning rehabilitation and opened a new, albeit a bit ramshackle, gym.

"The majority of the kids that I have here have the same problems -- the streets and addiction," Angeles said. "I tell them to come. I'm always eager to get them off the streets."

The new gym is located on a rough street in the Morelos neighborhood, which also borders on Tepito. Down the block, a street altar to the Santa Muerte, the skeletal saint of the Holy Death cult, is surrounded by young men smoking marijuana at all hours of the day.

ANGELES HAS HIGH HOPES that a 15-year-old boxer named Pancho Villa Estevez can fight in this year's Mexico City Golden Gloves tournament. Pancho hopes so, too.

"I don't really like school," Pancho said, readily admitting he rarely attends classes. "I prefer it here in the gym."

The teenager has fought four times against kids from other gyms in practice bouts organized by Angeles, winning them all. He was meant to have a fifth fight recently, but the bout was cancelled after he skipped several training sessions the week before. Angeles worries he's losing Pancho to the streets.

Pancho lives with his family in an apartment complex in Morelos that serves as a punto. On the sidewalk in front of the complex, addicts line up and are dealt small packets of crack by a tattooed man who introduces himself as a wrestler.

Pancho wears a Mickey Mouse shirt and a hat dedicated to a drug lord. He admits with a smirk that he smokes weed, and then claims he's quitting to pursue boxing. He apologizes for missing sessions and having the fight cancelled, and then proudly shows off the marijuana plants he grows in his family's small apartment.

But when the topic turns to his day-to-day life in the barrio, Pancho's tough exterior fades and his voice lowers.

"It's really nasty. They'll kill you for whatever thing. It makes me afraid," he said. "I don't want to die so young, I want to continue living."

Like many who've grown up in the barrios of Mexico City, Pancho sees boxing as an escape.

"I have to work hard and not slack off," Pancho said. "If I want to fight in the Golden Gloves, I have to leave the bad stuff behind."