Around 4:30 in the afternoon, they arrive. The youngest about 8, the oldest looks like he’s in his early 20s. Some come alone, straight from school. A few parents drop off their kids while two fathers accompany theirs. Every person who steps into the building—an old converted mechanic shop with lettering of what it once was still visible under a coat of white paint—shakes hands with those already there. It’s a small gesture, but it sets a discipline.
They tie their shoes as those who ran yesterday say so with relief. Those who’ll run today say it with dread, especially since it’s surprisingly cold and rainy for a late April afternoon in the Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas. Some wrap their hands and put on boxing gloves, others reach for the jump rope. A loud, piercing bell signals another 3-minute round. With that bell the young boxers inside Vivero Boxing Gym train, each following a different order of a schedule written in black marker on a plain white sheet of paper that’s taped to the inside of one of the garage doors. Gene Vivero, the gym’s owner, watches.
Vivero bought the building and opened the gym 25 years ago. For 35 years he worked for Dallas Power and Light, beginning as a cable splicer, working inside manholes before retiring as a Field Construction Coordinator. There’s a picture of Vivero as a construction worker, wearing a hard hat and smiling. It’s almost lost among the various other pictures and posters of boxers. A former amateur boxer, Vivero opens the gym 6 times a week including weekends. He picked the Oak Cliff neighborhood largely for its affordability and because as a predominately Latinx area of Dallas—there’s 3 boxing gyms within a 1-mile radius—this is the type of place where boxing thrives.
“[Boxing gyms] kind of helps keep [kids] off the street,” says Vivero. “But personally, I like to tell them…You better find you something to do because this is a tough way to make money…you don’t want to bank on this. Because one injury and you’re out. One knockout and you’re out. I mean, that’s it. It’s over.”
Boxing is indeed a rough way to earn a living. For all those who train in gyms across the country, only a small percentage will turn pro. An even fewer percentage will make a living just from boxing. An even fewer, a small fraction of a percentage, will reach fame, glory, and fortune. And yet, despite the odds, world champions began in Vivero Boxing Gym. At an amateur level, the gym has also produced several national champions and even trained a few Olympians.
Across the United States, especially the southwest, gyms like Vivero’s are largely within Latinx communities. These are real, old school boxing gyms. The type where ring ropes get wrapped in duct tape. Where dried blood and sweat stain mirrors and walls. When it’s hot out, these gyms feel as if they’re boiling. When it’s cold out, the heating system can’t keep them from feeling frozen.
Beyond just teaching boxing, some of these gyms are community centers. They’ll offer tutoring, music, and English classes. Others help the parents of these young boxers study for their citizenship tests. Through it all, boxing remains the hub around which these activities revolve within these communities that get left behind. But, for better or worse, that is changing.
In recent years, like many other once-ignored areas, Oak Cliff has undergone a transformation. “They are building these houses, you know, they are remodeling,” Vivero explains how he’s seen the community slowly change since he’s owned the gym. This change has affected the area’s demographics as more “business people,” as Vivero calls them, move in.
Asked if he worries the increasing property taxes will eventually, like many other gyms, force him to either close or move, Vivero defiantly says, “They can move me out if they pay me enough. I’ll build [a boxing gym] down the street, you know. I mean…that’s the reason I came over here.”
By here, Vivero means Oak Cliff. And Oak Cliff is like many Latinx communities that, today, exists throughout the country. They may get altered and maybe even forced to move elsewhere. If they do, boxing gyms will also make that migration and remain pivotal to the communities. And when they do, people like Vivero will continue teaching the sport.
Unlike any other sport, boxing is more than just the act itself. It’s an outlet for a variety of things—anger, hope, frustration, dreams, etc. And every day Vivero is there, he sits on an old leather barber’s chair, surrounded by filing cabinets that act as lockers, and watches. He’s a strict but caring man. Quiet for minutes at a time as if he is contemplating something, but always watching. Like every gym owner in these neighborhoods, Vivero nows who’s new, who’s coming in, who hasn’t been there in days, who’s gloves belong to who, and who will run that day.
He sits until, with his authoritative voice, he suddenly breaks his silence. “Don’t cross your feet,” Vivero tells a boy. The boy, about 8, purposefully crosses his feet and says, “What? Like that?”
“Yea,” Vivero answers, “don’t do that.”
Conscious of his footwork, the boy returns to punching the heavy bag, grunting each time. He punches until the bell rings. Sweating and panting, he walks over and drinks from a water fountain that’s likely been there for a quarter-century. Another boy walks in from the rain, shakes hands with Vivero and then with the other boy, and then gets ready to train. Whether it’s in Oak Cliff or another Latinx community across the United States, boxing gyms like Vivero’s, provide a place to do more than just fight.