A 20-year-old boxer from Sacramento and his Stockton trainer have overcome a lot to be at the precipice of making the U.S. Olympic boxing team.
The Los Gallos Boxing Academy is in Stockton. It's a green metallic industrial building just off Highway 99. It's Thanksgiving morning and Gabriel Flores Sr. is holding two large padded mitts as Brent Venegas III unleashes combinations of punches – each punch set up by the last, each punch setting up the next.
Flores is 32 and the head trainer.
Venegas is one of the favorites to represent the U.S. Boxing Team in next year's Olympics. He's from Sacramento and is elusive and powerful, with a foundation of precise footwork and good balance.
He knows about shaky foundations. He was taken away from his alcoholic father and drug-addicted mother when he was 12.
"We had to go through anger management when my grandma got custody of us and that kind of didn't help," Venegas says, "So, she put us in boxing and helped me and my little brother, like, tone us down."
He says he fell in love with the sport with his first victory. It couldn't have been too much of a surprise to his family. He's the third generation to be involved in the sport.
"My grandpa, he's a referee," he says. "My grandma, she used to be an official. And my uncle used to box. I always wanted to be into the sport, but my dad never put me into it."
Now, he is the no. 1 seed in the 114 lb. flyweight division for next week's Olympic Trials in Reno and says he wouldn't change places with anyone.
"Right now this is where I need to be, I feel good where I'm at," he says. "I feel that everything happens for a reason, If I was with my parents still, I don’t know where’d I’d be. My grandma – she’s a great person and she keeps me positive, so, I’m thankful for that.”
There are life lessons to be learned in a boxing gym – how to take advantage of opportunities, how to steer clear of danger, and how to plan for success. If you keep doing the wrong things, you may hurt someone. Sooner or later, you’ll be the one who gets hurt the most.
Flores came to those realizations long before he was a trainer. He was a father at 15.
"My first-born, I was incarcerated," he says. "And I missed her a lot and I thought to myself, 'You know, this is not the life for me.'"
When he got out, he went back to school, got his GED, worked in construction and raised a family.
Seven years later, his stepson Roger said he wanted to take up boxing. Gabriel volunteered to help.
He went to tournaments and trade shows and chatted up every championship trainer he could find.
"I kind of picked their brains and grabbed things here and grabbed things there," Flores says.
He says he quickly learned how few good trainers were available.
"I heard a lot of coaches tell kids counterpunch or use your defense and I sat there and looked and I was like, I've never seen you teach them that," he says.
Flores says he boiled his approach down to two things, "If your balance and basics are clean, you can build off of that and create something great."
With his stepdad as trainer, Roger won a national title, Flores opened the gym. His son, Gabriel Jr. also took up the sport with his dad as trainer and has won two titles. All told, Los Gallos fighters have 24 championships to their credit.
Venegas has also won two of those. As he shadowboxes in front of a mirror, the only professional fighter in Flores' stable works out nearby. Andy Vences is 24, works nights as a security guard and makes the drive from San Jose four days a week.
He is proof that hard work can lead not only to amateur titles, but to a career. Vences is undefeated in 13 pro fights and was recently signed by Top Rank, perhaps the best-known promoter in the sport.
He says his work with Flores has improved every aspect of his game.
"Compared to my other coach it was more of a toe-to-toe (approach), kind of, get hit and take some punches to get yours, but I was taking a lot of shots and that’s not good in the sport, you know?" Vences says. "The point is to not get hit."
Which is exactly the basis of everything Flores teaches – win the fight. Don't get hit.
"You've just got to build a good bond. It has to be genuine and a good bond,' Flores says. "The kids and fighters know if you're for reals or not. You'll feel it. The connection, you've got to have a connection. Hey, you’re gonna jump in the ring and get punched in the face. You’re not gonna just do that for anybody. Especially if I tell you to slip this and throw that, you know, you’re taking a chance, but if you tell him and he does it and it works time and time over and over and over again, the proof is in the pudding."
Vences says he hopes to win a world title, but if he doesn't, he says he has the tools to be successful at whatever career is next for him.
"I feel in any other aspect of life, I'll succeed because I know how to balance my time and the discipline it takes," he says. "So, I feel in anything else will do The discipline's there. I can just transfer it to anything else."
Vences will take the lessons he's learned into a fight Saturday in Fresno before the largest crowd of his career.
Venegas' first fight of the Olympic Trials is scheduled for Monday.
"That would be a big thing for me," he says, "because who would have known that when I started at 12 years old that eventually I would end up winning the Olympic Trials?"
UPDATE: Vences won his fight. Venegas defeated every fighter he faced including Antonio Vargas. However, the Olympic Trials are a double-elimination tournament. Vargas beat Venegas in the subsequent two matches. Venegas is an Olympic alternate for now, but he plans to turn pro before the Olympics this summer in Rio.