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A small, nondescript garage sits about 20 yards behind a fairly well-maintained yellow home off Ogden's 35th Street. About a dozen boys and girls trudge past a couple abandoned cars and a weed-filled lot to enter the stand-alone structure almost every night of the week.
There's no air conditioning in the summer and usually no heat in the winter.
There's also no sign above the only entrance to tip off visitors that this is the home of the Los Gallitos Boxing Club. Nothing says that this is the tiny gym if you can call it that that produced Utah's first National Golden Gloves boxing champion in 25 years, soft-spoken South Ogden teenager Diego Alvarez.
"Yeah, nothing fancy about it," says Alvarez, a young father who will turn 18 next month and graduate from Two Rivers Alternative High School in Weber County along with Aliyha Lopez, the mother of his 8-month-old daughter, Mia. "But it's OK. Boxing is more about what's in your heart than where you train."
Alvarez, who won the national championship in the 114-pound weight division last May at the Salt Palace Convention Center in Salt Lake City, will defend his title far from his family's home on 44th Street this year. The Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions begins Monday at the Cajundome Convention Center in Lafayette, La., and runs through Saturday. Seven other Utahns Matt Searle, Gabriel Chairez, Milo Gutierrez, Jon Bryant, Halatoa Piutau, Skyler Torres and Siala Siliga and Bryant Kimbrough of Pocatello, Idaho, also qualified for nationals. They will represent the Rocky Mountain Region, a franchise owned by local businessman Chick Paris and the families of late Utah boxing legends Jay, Don and Gene Fullmer.
Several of the regional champions such as Gutierrez, Bryant and Torres have sprung from humble circumstances, but none more so than Alvarez, who started boxing when he was 8, mostly as a means for self-defense. To this day, he says, he has never been in an actual fistfight.
Inside the damp, poorly lit garage in one of Ogden's grittier neighborhoods, a couple of heavy bags hang from the low ceiling. On one night in April they were surrounded by youngsters, three or four per bag, punching away when they saw an opening.
There's a speed bag in one corner, one of those peanut-shaped bags that takes considerable skill to keep moving. A few would-be pugilists line up to take their turn at the bag that can handle just one boxer at a time.
A 12-foot by 12-foot "boxing ring" takes up the garage's northeast corner, although two sides are walls with windows in them and two sides are traditional ropes, wrapped in tape instead of soft foam. The ring's surface is a piece of hard rubber on plywood. The rest of the garage's surface is concrete, and somewhat stained after years of housing automobiles.
There are the usual boxing posters promoting fight cards held long ago, a few weights and barbells along one wall, and some rusty metal chairs victims of a leaky roof and a lot of sweat. Of the dozen or so boxers packed into the garage, only Alvarez and his coach, Lalo Lopez, are in the ring on this night. That's because fighters with big bouts coming up get the bulk of the gym owner's attention. And Alvarez's next fights are big; He's got a target on his back after winning it all last year as a relatively unknown competitor in the second-lowest weight division in the Golden Gloves program.
Flags representing the United States and Mexico the country from which Lopez and Diego's father, Marco, immigrated when they were teenagers also adorn the walls.
"When Diego won the national championship, a lot of people wanted him to go to their gym, but we can't pay," said Marco Alvarez, who has three other children and works for a trailer company, Wells Cargo. "We just like training right here with Lalo. He doesn't make anyone pay."
Through a translator Diego's mother, Rafaela Lopez explains that he has been involved in boxing since he was a youngster and trains boxers of all ages at his garage-gym nightly from 5:30 to 8 p.m. when his shift as a metal worker at Lifetime Products ends.
"Diego has a mentality that I haven't seen from any other kid," Lopez said. "I don't know how far he will go in professional boxing, but he will be good because of the way he trains and how disciplined he is. And he never gets rattled, never panics."
Diego rises early every morning and runs 2-3 miles before classes start at his school, where he has reluctantly become a celebrity. He was recently a candidate for a State of Sport award in the high school athlete category.
"What's amazing is that the [national title] belt didn't change him at all," Marco Alvarez said. "He is the same kid as he was before. … He doesn't like taking pictures or anything like that. He went to the [Fullmer Brothers] golf tournament last summer and we had to persuade him to take the belt with him. He thought it would [come across] as being cocky."
The teenager with lightning quick hands and otherworldly stamina was approached by several promoters, including one from Top Rank Boxing, about his desire to turn pro after nationals last year, but he declined. All along, he has planned to wait until after he turns 19, and there's no reason to veer from that path now, even though he's got a young child to raise, with the help of his parents.
"You don't really need a big gym or a professional contract to be good," Diego said. "You just need dedication and heart, and people who believe in you and support you."
Golden Gloves lineup
Regional entrants for the National Tournament of Champions
114 lbs. • Diego Alvarez, South Ogden
123 lbs. • Matt Searle, South Jordan
132 lbs. • Gabriel Chairez, Salt Lake City
141 lbs. • Milo Gutierrez, Herriman
152 lbs. • Jon Bryant, Syracuse
165 lbs. • Bryant Kimbrough, Pocatello, Idaho
178 lbs. • Halatoa Piutau, Herriman
201 lbs. • Skyler Torres, Ogden
201+ lbs. • Siala Siliga, Salt Lake City