KENNEWICK -- Small fists slapped hard against the coach's pads. Sweat pearled off the young kid's forehead as his arms stabbed forward in left-right combinations.
Outside of the ring in this Kennewick basement, a barrel-chested man towering above his charges bellowed instructions to the sweating kids.
When a buzzer sounded, Jesse Retana barked, "Switch!" and exhausted youngsters moved to the next training station.
The kids are training to fight in a ring, but more importantly, their training is keeping them from fighting in the streets.
Jesse Retana is the co-founder of the R&C Boxing Club, which aims to keep at-risk youth off the streets and away from gangs. A former gang member, Retana graduated Friday from the criminal justice program at Charter College in Pasco and plans to become a police officer in a gang unit.
Retana was born in Pasco and was in a gang by the time he was 10. He was known as a street fighter and constantly got into trouble.
In sixth grade, Retana brought a gun to school, and in seventh grade, he assaulted a student and a teacher, he said.
"I always fought, always fought," said Retana, now 35.
Retana had taken a very bad path, said Pasco police Detective Brad Gregory, who was a gang officer back then. "He was headed to prison or death," Gregory said.
At age 15, Retana was shot in the leg with a shotgun at close range. Overall, he has seen 17 people die, he said.
Retana seemed to be going nowhere fast. But even police saw a glimmer of hope for redemption in him.
"He was living the (gang) life," said Detective Sgt. Jack Simington, now supervisor of Kennewick police's gang unit. "But he wasn't hard-core. He still had a good personality."
In 2002, Retana left the Tri-Cities for Mexico. When he came back five years later, his family prompted him to change his life.
"My sister said, 'You're my big brother and you're supposed to be my role model,' " Retana said, visibly cringing at the memory. "That snapped something and a light bulb went off in my head."
His mother suggested he go back to school. Retana got his high school general equivalency diploma and then enrolled in Charter College's criminal justice program.
And two years ago, he met Roy Castillo, and the two decided to start the gym together.
They borrowed some equipment from Contenders Boxing Club and Retana's brother, Gabriel, let them set it up in his basement. Thrivent Financial for Lutherans doubled money that coaches and kids made during a car wash.
Then Castillo's boss at Western States Asphalt, David Lynch, gave them $5,000 to buy a proper boxing ring. The two burly men running the gym said they "nearly had tears in their eyes" when they saw the check.
They started training kids -- for a fraction of what most clubs charge.
It's $20 a month to train -- $15 if a kid shows monthly progress reports from school without grades below a C. That money buys them an exhausting 90-minute session every weekday.
And for many, it buys them a future. Several of the kids training at the gym either were in gangs or were well on their way into one before they met Retana and Castillo.
Many come from broken families, Retana said. Not finding guidance or close relationships at home, they would join their friends on the streets instead.
"But we build relationships and friendships with them," Retana said. "We don't just train them."
Many of the kids' attitudes have changed since they started training. They don't posture with that "mad look" anymore, seem happier and are looking ahead in life, talking about getting a job, Retana said.
Eric Mendoza, 16, said he was "hanging around with gangsters," when he met Retana.
The teen used to be very aggressive, he said. But boxers need to learn how to control themselves in the ring and be calm.
When Eric first started fighting in the ring, trainers from other clubs couldn't believe he was a rookie. He has been called a natural at the sport and wants to go pro.
"If I hang around with gangsters I will never be a pro," Eric said. "I was almost (accepted) into a gang, but now I know it's not worth it. I don't want any trouble."
Retana convinced one young man not only to get out of the gang life, but to follow him toward a career in law enforcement.
Jose Limon, 18, was in a gang in Bakersfield, Calif., before moving to the Tri-Cities. He had started boxing before he moved here, but found he bonded much better with his coaches here.
So much that he is a coach at the gym now. Limon gave up his own aspirations as a fighter to help the men who helped him and his two younger brothers.
"I want to help kids," Limon said. "I'm young and I can still (achieve) whatever I want."
And what he wants is to become a probation officer or a counselor.
His mentor is headed toward a similar goal. When Retana received his degree Friday, he was one step closer to joining a police gang unit.
He already has helped local police reach out to gang members. At a recent meeting between police and gang members at Pasco's Chiawana High School, Retana was invited to come along.
The young gangsters put on a tough front for the officers. But when Retana spoke to them about being stereotyped in school and running with the crowd they feel understands them, they hung on his every word, he said.
"He speaks from the heart," said Simington, from Kennewick's gang unit. "I think he has a lot of the attributes to (become an officer). We support what he's doing."
Gregory, the Pasco detective, said he is impressed with how Retana has turned his life around.
Retana tells kids they are bound for one of three outcomes in gangs -- death, prison or putting their families in danger. He would rather put smiles on their sweaty faces.
"I don't want to have to bury another kid," Retana said, shaking his head.