FAIRFIELD — Boxing coach Pete Padilla sat on the sidelines watching two of his youngest fighters spar in the ring.
Two beginning fighters, one a 13-year-old, the other 15, put on their headgear, slathered them in Vaseline and let Padilla tie their boxing gloves as he offered each some pointers.
“Use both fists . . . Offense and defense,” he told one.
The former pro boxer carefully watched each as they fought in two rounds, pointing out their mistakes but also acknowledging their progression.
“You see Mohammad (15-year-old) uses his hips,” Padilla said. “Berto throws just arms punches. He uses up his oxygen.”
Out of the dozens of boxing students Padilla has, he can see a handful that have natural talent and some that don’t. Some are bound to go pro and others are just here short-term.
“I train one way — professionally,” he said.
For more than four years now, the Matt Garcia Center has opened up the world of boxing and Kajukenbo (kickboxing) to teens in the community.
Program coordinator Will Bible and Padilla emphasized teaching boxing isn’t about promoting violence — it’s about promoting physical health and wellness.
Boxing students can train up to five days a week, each day with a different rigorous routine of conditioning and training.
Many of Padilla’s students want to be or have been in matches. Last year, the boxing program churned out its first pro boxer, Mario Cardenas.
Now Bible and Padilla are looking to students such as Juan Perez and his brother Jesus to carry the torch. The brothers will be attending a worldwide boxing tournament in Puerto Rico at the end of June.
Padilla is proud of students such as Juan and Jesus Perez, not just because of their boxing talents, but because they are driven in every aspect of their lives. When they’re not training, Padilla said, they’re keeping up with homework to stay on the honor roll, working part-time and going to school.
“There’s so much drive,” Padilla said pointing to Jesus Perez shadow boxing. “He’s got phenomenal talent.”
Some of the teens come to the Matt Garcia Center with a troubled past. Padilla reaches out to those students in hopes that boxing can turn their lives around.
“I tell them I’ve been in their shoes . . . Now I’m living a very good life,” he said. “Knowing where I come from, it helps them relate.”
Of course, not every student will go pro or even fight. Padilla knows that and knows when they are ready to fight.
But for the students, the boxing program is about much more than boxing.
Students such as Demareon Smith, Jasmin Rodriguez and Adrian Ortega train for their own personal reasons.
Smith boxes to keep his anger in check, his weight healthy and to protect himself, if necessary.
Rodriguez has boxed for four years now to stay out of trouble and to support her team, or in her words, her family.
And Ortega, who practices Kajukenbo, training has given him confidence, health and focus he didn’t have before.
“When I think about a lot of stuff, I focus it in on the bags,” he said.
The Matt Garcia Center will hold an open house Feb. 2 to celebrate the boxing and Kajukenbo programs. The event will include an announcement by former PAL boxer Cardenas, student speakers, demonstrations and a tour of the center for both youth and parents.
Representatives from the Matt Garcia Foundation, the Fairfield Fire Explorers, the Fairfield Police Cadets and the Fairfield Youth Commission will be on hand to talk with students about their programs.
The event starts 10 a.m. Feb. 2 at 250 Travis Blvd. For more information call 422-6288 or visit www.fairfield-pal.org.
Reach Heather Ah San at 427-6977 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/HeatherMalia.