Kids fighting for a future at Kennewick boxing club

By Tyler Richardson, Tri-City HeraldApril 12, 2014 

KENNEWICK -- Roy Castillo Jr.'s thunderous voice is almost drowned out inside the boxing gym as organized chaos breaks out all around him.

Fighters throw violent combinations into punching bags fastened to the ceiling. The pop from leather gloves smacking against the bags echoes around the room.

Hordes of jump ropers in an adjacent room shake the floor like a stampede of cattle. Kids of all ages shadow box alone, bobbing and weaving to avoid their invisible opponents.

Rap music blares from a boom box as sparring partners stare each other down from their respective corners.

The aroma of sweat permeates everything.

Kids gasp for air in cardio drills as their parents lean against chairs normally used for Bible study -- the nondescript gym, tucked away in a strip mall on Vancouver Street in Kennewick, doubles as a church on Sundays.

Castillo ignores the cacophony and directs his attention inside the ring. Two boxers dance fluently around each other, looking for the right time to throw a punch.

Castillo paces from corner to corner, his hands on the ropes, shouting instructions to one of his top fighters.

"You got to push. Keep moving," he said. "You got to move. Throw the jab."

The voices of Castillo and his fellow coach, Jesse "Orlando" Retana-Mercado, can sometimes be heard from the grocery store next door. They are constantly trying to motivate their students at the Retana and Castillo Boxing Club (R&C), teaching them inside the ring and out.

Castillo, 41, has the demeanor of a drill sergeant and is known for his tough-love approach. The operations technician at an asphalt distributor is a defensive-minded coach, teaching aspiring boxers the art of the counterpunch. He is a family man who got into boxing after his daughter took up the sport.

Retana-Mercado, 37, is a former gang member with a softer side. He is a self-proclaimed knockout artist who was 13-0 as an amateur boxer before a car accident ended his chances of going pro. The tattoo-covered truck driver is a big brother to the kids at the club, often spending the last of his paycheck to make sure they have gear or are fed.

The close friends started the boxing club in 2011 in a Pasco basement fighters called "the cave." Their goal was to build a club that could produce top-level fighters from the Tri-Cities and even better members of the community.

R&C has gained a reputation as a sanctuary for girls and boys who come from broken homes, struggle in school or are looking for direction.

"I thank God that I have a roof over my head," Retana-Mercado said one day after a training session. "Some of these kids don't have that and aren't stable. That's what motivates you. That's what keeps you going."

'Doing something with my life'

The club's reputation has led many kids, especially in Hispanic communities, to seek out Castillo and Retana-Mercado as role models, boxers told the Herald.

The fighters credit the coaches with creating a family-like atmosphere at the gym and giving them alternatives to the streets.

Retana-Mercado, Castillo, and coach Jose Limon spend countless hours at the gym daily, working with the kids and keeping them in shape.

"I don't even know where I would be without (the coaches)," said Luis Alverado, a 132-pounder who dropped out of high school and now has plans to fight professionally. "I would be lost without the gym. I would probably just be another low-life with no dreams and no goals."

While the coaches have influenced kids in areas other than boxing, they have also managed to develop a handful of fighters into some of the most competitive in the entire state.

A majority of the boxers had never stepped in a ring and could barely jump rope before joining the club, the coaches said.

One of those is Eric Limon, who was kicked out of a California high school for fighting and grew up in some of Bakersfield's roughest neighborhoods.

Limon and his brother, Jose, slept on mats at the club's former gym while they were between homes. The 5-foot-6, 138-pounder is now one of the club's most dedicated fighters and wants to use boxing to one day provide for his family.

On a recent night in a Tacoma gym, at the state's Golden Gloves tournament, Eric Limon showed the heart and determination that his coaches say will help him turn pro.

Limon was overmatched by a skilled, southpaw Canadian fighter twice his size. However, he battled for the entire three-round fight, trading combinations with his opponent and landing some powerful body shots.

Though Limon would go on to lose the fight by judges' decision, he showed how far he has come in the last few years and how dangerous he will be when he moves to a smaller weight class, his coaches said.

"I've seen a lot of transformation," Limon said of himself. "Before boxing I couldn't think of what I wanted to do. Now, I feel like I'm actually doing something with my life."

'Nothing in life is free'

The club has made progress since it was originally profiled in the Herald in July 2011.

Within the last two years, it has earned a certification from USA Boxing and started competing in some of the most prestigious tournaments in the Northwest.

It has also tripled its enrollment. More than 60 kids now train at the gym. Eleven of them fight as amateurs and have hopes of going pro, including two girls.

The coaches moved the club out of "the cave" and into its current space after meeting Kennewick police Cpl. Todd Dronnen. The patrol officer is also a minister at Calvary Chapel Tri-Cities and offered the building, which is owned by his church, to Retana-Mercado and Castillo.

Dronnen first saw the impact the club was having on kids when his son started boxing at R&C, he said. He realized the potential Retana and Castillo have to influence the kids that parents, teachers and counselors have trouble getting through to.

"What the kids see in Roy and Jesse is people they can trust. People who will trust them and not let them down," Dronnen said. "There's a family environment in that boxing group that's different from any other club. I have never seen anything like it."

Retana-Mercado and Castillo have set rules at the club the members must follow if they want to train.

Boxers must have at least a 2.0 grade-point average in school to fight, the coaches said. The fee is $15 a month unless a member has D's or F's, in which case the price goes up to $20.

Any kid who can't afford the fee is required to clean the gym, because "nothing in life is free," Castillo said. All the money goes back into the club, which is a nonprofit, and is used for travel expenses and gear, the coaches said.

A majority who come to the club may never fight. They are there for a different kind of training, one that doesn't involve headgear or the ability to throw a hook. They are there to learn about responsibility and how to be leaders in their communities.

One night at the gym, Retana-Mercado, wearing a sweat-stained gray T-shirt, walked away from a training session to point out a success story.

"You see that kid over there?" he said, pointing to a boy in the middle of a workout. "When that kid came to us, he had all F's, something like a 0.1 (GPA). Now, he's got above a 3.0. He will probably never even box for us."

The coaches want to continue to build R&C into a mainstay in the community, they said. Their short-term goal is to host a weekend-long tournament in the Tri-Cities and invite boxers from across the nation. The long-term goal is put Tri-Cities boxing on the map and get as many fighters as possible to turn pro.

"We want to stay relevant in the community and make an impact here," Castillo said. "We plan on being here for a long time. Our dream is to build a legacy here in the community we live in."

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