Yukence Andino is at or near the top of his boxing career. Now 21, he won his first trophy 15 years ago by KO, on what he calls a lucky punch?a smashing overhand that was more auspicious than lucky. Boxing has since defined his life, from the mean streets of Puerto Rico and boxing great Alex Trinidad?s gym, through American prison and the poverty of Southeast San Diego.
He will tell you God comes before all, and then family; but to know him for any amount of time is to realize that isn?t exactly true. His religion is the sport and his family is a cadre of trainers, gym-goers and fellow pugilists.
A chiseled bulldog of a man, he stands just shy of 6 feet tall. Apart from his skin color, which is several shades lighter, he could be taken for a twin of Dominican baseball star Sammy Sosa, replete with prematurely receding hairline, contagious smile and permanent sense of courtesy.
His English is marginal and his heavily accented Spanish is at times hard to follow; conversation with him is full of head-scratching non-sequiturs and simplified responses. Animated, like many from his homeland, he communicates as much through hand and facial gestures as he does through words.
Asked what boxing means to him, he makes two fists, holds his arms out as if to hug someone and slowly looks from one to the other with a serious, concentrated expression. He searches for words that won?t come to him.
"I love to box," he says looking up. "I just love to box."
He hails from Puerto Rico where boxing is more than a sport or pastime?it?s an institution. After several scuffles in grade school, his mother?he never knew his father?took him to the local gym, home of the Trinidad legacy.
"You want to hit someone?" she asked him rhetorically, handing him off to his new coach. "You hit the bag, no more kids at school."
The sport was a natural fit and he put together a 25-1 amateur record before he was 17. It was at that time he decided to escape the poverty and violence of his native island and make the move to the States. It?s not clear from talking to him if the transition was to improve his general lot or his boxing chances?at 17 much of life lacked the black-and-white clarity he found in the ring.
Less ambiguous and indisputable are his accomplishments as City Boxing?s Light Heavyweight contender. He?s taken his record to 25-3' with 19 knockouts (his 25-1 Puerto Rican record was erased when he came to the U.S.).
On May 3' he simultaneously captured the California State Championship and the Regional Golden Gloves title in Los Angeles. On May 25' he began the National Golden Gloves tournament in Las Vegas?one of just two boxers from San Diego to advance. A win there will give him an automatic bid to the March 2004 U.S. Olympic trials.
In boxing circles' the truly dedicated are separated from the hobbyists on Friday. The level of commitment necessary to succeed in the sport can be overwhelming; it overtakes eating and sleeping habits and narrows?sometimes eliminates?a social life.
On most nights the crowd at City Boxing on 14th Street' next to East Village Coffee' is bustling at this hour' packed with human bodies and pungent' sweaty air?and the tension of a thousand harried motions. Tonight the crowd is sparse and thinning quickly.
Yuko is scheduled to interview with CityBeat at 6 p.m. He ambles out of the locker room at 8:15 (a quarter-hour after the gym has closed) clean and smiling broadly?with that Buddha-like effervescence that comes with hard physical exertion.
He?s dressed in a loose-fitting beige and white pullover?the type that could take him to dinner downtown' a dance club or a dive bar?khaki pants and worn' brown loafers. The massive gym bag slung over his shoulder seems at odds with his outfit and something of a burden?but natural to him' nonetheless.
Whether Yuko forgot or misunderstood the agreed upon meeting time isn?t clear; communication with him isn?t so much lacking as it is distorted.
In a weird way that distortion?s the essence that defines him. Everything outside of the ring is coincidental. When he walks through the door of the gym he goes into his own little world. He knows exactly what will happen; every punch that will be thrown' every jump that will be taken over a skipping rope' every round that will be recorded in the ring and on the bags?it?s all written and he?s in control.
It?s as if all the things that happen to him outside the gym?frustration over work' child-support payments he can?t make' newspaper interviews he doesn?t understand?all those things he can?t hope to control' he deals with by not dealing with them at all; they?re unimportant' secondary to the one thing that matters. He files them away?appointments and problems?things he?ll deal with when the time comes.
"That?s Yuko'" says gym manager David Ventura. "In here he?s on top of it. Everything else to him is? just kind of irrelevant."
Boxing doesn?t suffer irrelevancy well. It demands undivided attention at all times; the consequences are serious. Knowing Yuko' understanding the distortion' makes it little surprise he?s attracted to a life that runs on a schedule' with little room for deviation or creativity. One day?s routine is followed by the prescribed program of the next. Variety is limited to sparring and non-sparring days' and the relative intensity they?re given. Those days run into weeks and weeks are counted down' till the next fight.
According to the schedule' weeknights after the gym closes he picks up the trolley at the Park Boulevard stop and takes it the station on South 14th Street. There he begins the trip home into the heart of Barrio Logan darkness?the orange-lit' graffiti-covered urbanity of Southeast San Diego. Weeds push out of inadvertent cracks in erratic sidewalks and fissures in the street?the only signs of green in a sprawling concrete jungle. Interstates' concrete buildings and a ballpark occupy the horizon on all sides' a claustrophobic symbol of the neighborhood?s grasp.
The complexion of the general population changes in Southeast?the brown and black tones contrast sharply with the pallor of 14th and C Streets.
Two streets east of the station' farther into the heart of the neighborhood' a growing tension becomes tangible. A feeling that tells middle-class white people this is not their neighborhood; that place where men move wallets to another pocket and women double clutch purses. Yuko seems oblivious to the change of tenor.
He?s survived the slums of Puerto Rico and spent a year in the California penal system. In a matter of weeks he?ll launch into the final phase of competition for a spot in the Olympic Trials and has the potential' according to Ventura' "to be a world champion." Barrio Logan is simply a place he calls home.
A neon-orange hair pick bobs down the street in front of him' stuck resolutely in a thick gheri curl. He passes a Mexican couple' deep in the throws of a heated conversation. Their accent is as strong as his' but different?Mexico City' probably.
In the small drive leading to the parking lot next to the health center he sees and hears people loitering' sitting on garbage receptacles' leaning on fences?he looks to them quickly' finding only dim' orange silhouettes. His attention returns to the immediate path as he turns right on 16th Street' nearing Commercial Boulevard.
The farther he gets from the station the more bizarre things become in the numbing orange glow. On Commercial Boulevard' blocks shy of the I-5 underpass' a couple exits a vehicle outside the tow company impound lot?a champagne Mercedes with Florida plates. She?s blonde' mildly attractive and probably in her 30s. The blouse she wears is thin and crowded with mauve colors. He?s tall and slight' with a head of shaggy brown hair and a navy baseball jersey.
They?re drawn to the rear of the vehicle where she begins to rub her breasts slowly' in a manner that is neither sensual nor vulgar. The man watches intently and says nothing. The absurdity of the act is driven by its seeming lack of motive.
"I don?t understand'" Yuko muses in accentuated English' pointing to the homeless people collected under the towering I-5 overpass. "How can they let these people sleep here' with no home? Why don?t they take $100'000 and give to them."
The scene behind the Mercedes is jarringly out-of-place; like a 9 a.m. cocktail party in a Tarantino movie. Yuko' however' has completely blocked it out' taken it for normal' or feigned nonchalance well enough to make it appear as pedestrian as crossing the street.
Then he falls back into that faraway realm that?s unique to him' the self-contained universe he finds in the gym; it?s only him and the combinations he?s going to throw and he?s in full control.
From that place he?s unaware of the situational irony pitting his $100'000-for-the-homeless statement against the developing baseball stadium behind him; one that swells by millions of dollars a day.
He turns the corner to his apartment. The small drive is dirt' enclosed on the left by a leaning chain-link fence and a rugged overgrowth of weeds fighting through it. On the other side are two dilapidated 1950s cottages. They?re in one of the secondary stages of sag' needing paint and the attention of a carpenter; emaciated bushes surround the three-step concrete porch that leads to the front door.
He?s not comfortable with company?his lodgings are cramped and shared with another family. Inside' an invisible but perceptible toddler and its baby sibling are responsible for the constant din. He drops his heavy gym bag on the couch. He looks to the phone handset' sitting in the cradle of the 1980s beige receiver and contemplates calling his young son. The room?s single lamp is dim' but bright enough to illuminate the shiny shell of a roach' scurrying up the side of the adjacent particleboard bookcase. He abandons the thought of the phone call and pushes himself up from the depths of the sagging couch.
The young mother of the baby says hello. Her skin is something between a Latino caramel and dark mulatto. A speckling of freckles and light green eyes confuse the issue more. He greets her politely' quietly' with his customary bow.
After a cursory conversation' he moves to the tiny room he rents for $200 a month. Inside' he can touch opposite walls at the same time. The dark-blue bag he carries' the one that clashes with his outfit' causes him a constant lean. He drops it on his bed and his shoulder relaxes?the bed nearly disappears beneath it.
He pulls out a catalogue and thumbs to Page 42. Circled there are the Adidas boxing shoes he wants?$60. They?re not the most expensive' not even close; they?re functional. That?s all he needs he says?functional.
He thinks about Coach Garcia' an orphan adopted by a Philippino doctor. An orphan and nine-time featherweight champion of the Philippines who looks nothing like a Philippino. A quiet man who' but for his accent?an amalgam of Tagalog' Japanese and Province?could pass for a benevolent uncle from TV?s Huckstable family.
Yuko isn?t happy with him. He shares with the man that rare blend of exultation and frustration that is the marvel of most parental relationships.
"Buy them yourself'" coach told him.
In Puerto Rico a state champion with an upcoming fight in the Golden Gloves and a possible shot at the Olympic Trials would have a full sponsorship.
In the light' barely enough to read' he sees a note scribbled in the margin' probably put there by one of the guys behind the desk: Yuko?s shoes it says.
"Buy them yourself'" he mutters again in his thick accent.
He is resolved to buy the shoes himself' despite his financial hardship. He says a former trainer talked him out of the decent drywalling job he had' a step designed to help him concentrate on his regimen. While the move has propelled him into an elite class of amateur fighters in the world' it?s also managed to sap the bulk of his financial wherewithal. He talks about money a great deal. He is a person who likes to work' he says' one who always needs the engagement to keep his mind on keel.
"He?s not afraid of work'" Ventura says' "but we [he and fellow City Boxing owner Mark Dion] have learned you can?t just hand Yuko anything. I?ve told him' ?You?re young' Latino and good looking?you can find work in this town.? Right now' yeah' he needs to be concentrating 100-percent on his boxing. What would Yuko be doing if he wasn?t boxing' is a good question. Probably the same kind of menial labor work he was doing when we he came to us' almost a year ago. He likes to work' but it?s the same as everything else' if it?s not boxing' it?s just? it?s not important to him."
Whatever the reason for it' the lack of work is sapping Yuko?s patience; a person of action' he needs the sense of power that comes from control over his financial destiny?the control he enjoys in the ring.
It will be at least another month before he can contribute again to child support. Sharon' his common-law wife' mother of his two sons' and still one of his closest friends' has stepped up and taken the lion?s share of responsibility in caring for the boys. The three of them?Sharon' 4-year-old Yukence and 2-year-old Ken Lee?live in Chula Vista.
His kids are the essence of the energy and mischief that makes little boys little boys?but not as overactive as their father was at their age' according to Sharon.
"Peor!" she says with an exaggerated face' when asked if Yuko had the energy of his boys at their age' "Peor." Worse.
She?s on her own with the boys' except for the three nights a week Yuko spends with them' but seems truly forgiving of the sacrifice?financial and time-related?he?s making to boxing.
Her greatest challenge is that the boys? energy never subsides' the activity never slows down. The child psychologist at their Chula Vista school says they need medication to calm them.
In the First World' we have specialized drugs for specialized disorders?ADD and Hyperactive Disorder among them?in the slums of Puerto Rico they have marijuana' boxing and prison. Yuko has tried all three.
Marijuana and alcohol were a part of his life in Puerto Rico' a situation distinctly different from his prevailing ethic of abstinence. Every morning began with marijuana' he says' and it continued through the day. He talks about his mind constantly racing' about needing to smoke to be able sleep or to muster the appetite to eat.
When he left Puerto Rico for the mainland' he had 15 pounds of the stuff taped to his body. A friend led him down the wrong aisle' he says' to the wrong customs agent' at San Diego?s Lindbergh Field. A one-way aisle' to a one-year ticket in California?s prison system' a place Yuko has no plans to revisit. He has no horror stories?got in only one fight. Just the same' he says' he?s never going back.
"I don?t understand'" he says. "Some guys they like [prison]. They don?t have family or work; in the prison it?s like a family [for them] and they eat three times a day. Some guys they like it there."
He?s proud to show the business card that announces his graduation from state supervision. He?s done his one-year stint and completed parole; he?s paid his debt to society and he?s a free man.
Marijuana and alcohol are no longer a part of his life. Ventura and Dion take him out to a club once every two or three weeks' he says' but that?s the extent of his social life.
Financial troubles aren?t his sole frustration?in the ring he faces limitations felt by amateur boxers everywhere. Despite the fact City Boxing is the focal point of San Diego pugilism' its amateur team boasts few athletes with the will' determination and raw talent to compete at the Golden Gloves level. It lacks an element of synergy that good teams have' one that makes athletes better and pushes them to improvement through competition. Some weeks Yuko has no one to spar competitively.
There?s no one on the team who can match his skills. There are several pro fighters whom his coach feels will give him the competition he needs' though their training regimens are spotty' their attendance inconsistent.
"I want to box' I want to spar'" Yuko says. "Jovanne is fast' but? I can?t [go full out] with him."
Jovanne Jones is the team?s lightweight and its other great hope. He has the soft looks of a rap star and moves with the grace of the young Michael Jordan. With a work ethic that Ventura lauds and natural skills' he?s become the team?s prodigy in less than a year with Coach Garcia.
In addition to the weight disparity' with his comparatively scant experience' Jones can?t hope to challenge Yuko in the ring. They spar often' however' with Yuko going light. While those rounds don?t give full fight effect' they?re crucial speed and counter-punch practice for Yuko?s much more powerful?albeit slower?style.
In fact' on most days Jones is more entertaining to watch in the ring. With his slight build and stamina' he lays a constant barrage of punches on opponents. Yuko?s style is decidedly different. He doesn?t throw many punches' but those he throws are hard?explaining the fact that 76 percent of his fights have ended in knockouts.
"He hit me once and my head sank back into my body'" Ventura says. "He hits hard?very hard?and when you hit him back hard his look just says' ?Come on with it.? He?s got a pro fighter?s style."
His pro style' one developed from climbing the rungs in Alex Trinidad?s renowned gym and polished through continual professional-sparring exposure at City Boxing' will probably work against him in the tournament.
"Professional boxing and amateur boxing are totally different'" trainer Rudy Elias explains. "In amateur fighting you?re given a point for every time you touch the other boxer with the white of your glove?that doesn?t take into account what you?re doing to him physically. In a lot of ways it?s unfair. The faster boxer' the one who throws more punches' will win. Professional style?s totally different."
For his own part' Yuko seems unconcerned. His ultimate goal is nothing less than the Middleweight Championship of the world?and vast professional experience at this stage in the game is a plus. He talks about the World Title' names a short list of boxing immortals?De La Hoya and Ali among them?and says he will one day be better than them' in a voice absolutely free of humor or irony.
Ventura' though convinced of the light heavyweight?s ability and long-term predictions' has reservations about the upcoming tournament.
"I don?t know'" he says. "Yuko?s good enough to be a World Champion some day' but he?s got a real professional style. And believe it or not' that could hurt him [at this level]."
To live and die in the ring
On Friday' May 16' the sparse City Boxing crowd thins quickly as the 6 p.m. sun pours through the front glass wall of the cavernous white room.
Distinguished professional Oba Carr is in town from Fresno to train' coming back from a two-year semi-retirement.
A top-ranked middleweight contender in the mid- and late-?90s' Carr fought both Alex Trinidad and Oscar De La Hoya?almost going the distance with the latter; a mere two rounds and a decision away from boxing holiness.
He?s spent the past couple years running?through women' that is' alongside Mike Tyson' according to his new agent and promoter Repo Ric. He?s out of shape' but training again' and looking to sign a deal with ranked contender Fernando Vargas.
Tattoos adorn most of his visible chocolate skin. The wraps on his hands are thick' the tape on his ankles heavy. Except for the weight and sub-6-foot stature' his shaved dome and prominent forehead give him a look much like Evander Holyfield.
He?s quiet in words but loud in action; he?s not afraid to call attention with his incessant movement and unending barrage of shadow-thrown punches. He may make City Boxing his home gym in the coming weeks. He?s slated to spar at 7 p.m.
On the other side of the ring' Yuko has hit stride in his workout. He?s completely involved in his own self-contained universe. He?s throwing combinations in the air with an enviable determination; a peace-inducing myopic bent' something close to meditation. It?s that place where he can leave behind menial paychecks' lack of work and the financial paucity of the amateur ranks.
Ric' with long dreadlocked hair and a pair of hazel-brown eyes that match his dark caramel skin' talks about Carr?s upcoming bout in Europe and his decision to get back in the ring.
"It?s all he knows to do'" Ric says' "he?s been doing it since he was 8. People like him and Tyson' all they know how to do is box and spend money. People like to see [Oba] fight because he rumbles in the ring. He?s got a dangerous hook; he rumbles till somebody falls."
A rumbler' but a broke one.
The big fights didn?t pay enough for the subsequent years in the fast lane. His history with Don King' his time as a sparring partner for De La Hoya in Big Bear and the past two years as a fellow Tyson debauchee mean little today. He needs money' and to get it he needs to be back in the ring with name-worthy opponents.
With the two men on opposite sides' the elevated ring becomes a scene of polar disparities. On the left is Carr' 31 years old and coming out of retirement; notables at the professional ranks are saying he risks irreversible injury by stepping into the ring again with any ranked contender.
On the right is Yuko' 21 years old and near the pinnacle of his rising career.
He?s preparing to fight for both the most extolled amateur-boxing prize in the world and a spot at the Olympic Games?a continuation of the road to his ultimate goal: Middleweight Champion of the world.
Carr heads to the locker room at closing time' with his post-sparing workout cut short. He?s dripping with sweat; beads of the stuff roll out the top of his head and over the prominent ridge of his brow line.
A small group near the counter speaks in hushed tones about the three rounds he put in with local journeyman boxer Chris Valente' the bruised nose he brought out of the ring and the molar filling he knocked out in return.
Carr comes out of the shower' still dressing' and lines up his options for the night. He may stay in San Diego; he may make the trip back to Fresno. He might come back Monday to train' he?s not sure. He may go out to the clubs' depending on the plans.
Yuko?s schedule is unbending; it?s 8:15 Friday night' time to make the surreal trek back to the heart of Barrio Logan and his diminutive bed?5 a.m. and the Saturday run come calling early.