And in this corner …

A Chico grandfather teaches locals how to stay fit through boxing at his family-run gym

DON’T MESS WITH POPS Amateur boxer and Brooklyn native Jose Rodriguez owns and runs Chico Boxing for Fitness at 707 Wall St.

DON’T MESS WITH POPS Amateur boxer and Brooklyn native Jose Rodriguez owns and runs Chico Boxing for Fitness at 707 Wall St.

Photo by Tom Angel

The idea to open his own boxing gym might have appeared one night in 1968 near the German and Czechoslovakian border, as U.S. Army Private Jose Rodriguez was being smuggled into Prague.

When he wasn’t on duty serving the Army, the infantryman from San Juan, Puerto Rico, earned a few extra bucks boxing on the weekends when and wherever he could find a fight. On this particular weekend, the Czechs needed a junior middleweight to fight their Olympic hopeful. Somehow they got Rodriguez’s name, and soon he found himself in a car speeding past armed border guards and through the Iron Curtain. “They didn’t even stop us,” Rodriguez recalls.

Now, more than 30 years later, stepping off the street and into the gym of Chico Boxing for Fitness is a little like taking a step back in time. From the outside, the windowless building that houses the boxing gym at 707 Wall St. in Chico is about as nondescript as they come; there are no neon signs or fancy, bold lettering beckoning passersby with offers to join now to receive one month free and a complimentary energy bar.

These kinds of marketing gimmicks may be appropriate for modern fitness centers, where the latest in treadmills, step aerobics and weightlifting programs specially designed for women are among the offerings. But for Rodriguez, who turns 59 this year, his boxing gym is a place where, after a good, honest workout of rope jumping, bag hitting, barbell lifting and maybe a round or two of sparring, one can cool down with a bottle of Gatorade and a Snickers bar.

“They’re cheaper,” says Rodriguez of the candy bars. “Plus, they give you the same things as the others [energy bars], only these have more sugar.” The stocky, barrel-chested Rodriguez has a rounded face, shaved head and hands like freight trains. “After working out here, that’s what your body needs.” When he smiles, which is most of the time, his is the face of a gentle grandfather, and when he’s not smiling, he’s the tough guy who learned to fight growing up on the streets of Brooklyn.

With more than 300 amateur fights under his belt (276 wins, 36 losses), Rodriguez knows a little about hard work. His association with boxing started at age 14, when he set up boxing matches with his friends on the corner of Boerum and Graham streets in Brooklyn. “People would come to watch, and the crowd would get so large, the police would come and break them up,” Rodriguez remembers.

BOB AND WEAVE Kelly Abercrombie gets a good workout smacking the gloves of trainer/coach Andre Ramirez.

Photo by Tom Angel

Throughout his 26-year career in the Army, Rodriguez continued his association with boxing, from assisting local boxing gyms with training other boxers and refereeing local bouts to organizing battalion “smokers"—impromptu boxing matches—while serving in Vietnam.

After retiring from the Army, Rodriguez settled in Chico, where he assisted a local boxing gym, RossCos, while holding down three part-time jobs, including a short stint as a cook at Denny’s. When RossCos closed its doors some five years ago, Rodriguez decided it was time to open his own gym dedicated to boxing for fitness.

Today, he continues preparing meals part-time at the dining facility for Chico State University’s Whitney Hall while managing his gym.

Inside the gym are all the essential training devices associated with one’s favorite boxing movies. Dumbbells and universal weightlifting machines take up one section of the rubber-matted floor. Next to the weight training area is an open space used for jumping rope or other exercises such as sit-ups with medicine balls or short sprints around small orange cones. Lining the far wall hangs an assortment of speed bags, oversized pears of red and black leather that, when hit correctly, send the familiar, machinegun-like “DA-da-da, DA-da-da” echoing across the gym.

Looming at the far end of the building is the gym’s crown jewel, a regulation-sized boxing ring of red, white and blue. It’s the same ring used by local casinos that put on occasional boxing matches; Rodriguez and his staff take down and set up the ring when the casinos call for help. Like a parishioner viewing religious relics that adorn the walls of a church, one can’t help looking up to the ring in awe.

Rodriguez claims it takes about two weeks before a person learns how to hit the speed bag correctly, but it could be months before he’ll allow those without prior boxing experience to spar in the ring. “They gotta be ready to spar,” he says. No one spars without first getting his or his staff’s approval. All sparrers must wear padded headgear, a padded belt to protect against the low blow, and a mouthpiece. Rodriguez proudly proclaims boxing’s safety record as the 23rd-safest sport. Little League baseball, he tells me, is the least safe of all youth sports.

Rodriguez advocates the boxing workout for both the serious boxer and the fitness seeker. In addition to allowing people to work out on their own, he offers two organized workouts a day, Monday through Friday. During these group sessions, Rodriguez or a member of his staff takes a group ranging from five to 15 members through a series of exercises designed for fitness training while simultaneously teaching boxing fundamentals.

FEEL THE BURN Twelve-year-old Bobby Baker works off the school cafeteria food with sets of correct-form sit-ups at the boxing gym.

Photo by Tom Angel

For some club members, the boxing workout has made an impact on their lives. Chris Drew, 32, a former English teacher in Taiwan, has been working out at the boxing gym since it opened last fall.

“A friend dragged me down here one day,” says Drew, a grad student at Chico State. After dropping more than 40 pounds working out with the group, Drew now follows his own workout regimen that includes sit-ups, push-ups, 15 minutes jumping rope and 11 rounds on a punching bag.

A unique feature to all boxing gyms is the clock that rings after three minutes, then again after one minute. One can time his or her workout to the clock—i.e. a three-minute round of jumping rope followed by a one-minute rest followed by another three minutes and so on.

Currently, Rodriguez claims membership has grown to more than 120 members. Only 20 or so of these are female. Kelly Abercrombie, a 22-year-old student teacher candidate at Chico State, has been coming to the gym four times a week since October.

“I need a routine. Someone telling me what to do,” she says. Abercrombie has even sparred in the ring once with her roommate. “I’m not really into it [sparring], but maybe I’ll try again later.” She says boxing training has made her more confident. “I know how to throw and block a punch.”

Kelly Baker of Chico uses the boxing gym as an incentive to help bring up his son Bobby’s grades. Baker says after watching his son boxing in the back yard with his friends, he decided to offer the gym membership with Bobby’s promise of improved grades. Following a group workout session that included Bobby throwing punches into oversized mitts held up by Rodriguez, Bobby says he’s getting some good help with his right and left jabs. Compared to football practice, the Chico Junior High seventh-grader says, boxing is “a lot harder. It’s a lot faster workout.”

Rodriguez admits the sport of boxing has been given a bad rap over the years. One has to look only as far back as the now infamous Mike Tyson­Evander Holyfield fight that featured the ungentlemanly Tyson gnawing off part of Holyfield’s ear. Still, as one of boxing’s most ardent ambassadors, Rodriguez likes to fight even if takes place in the ring of public opinion. Boxing has its merits: “I think this is the best way that you can get fit.”

Included among the staff of seven certified boxing coaches are Rodriguez’s adult children, Fernando, Luis and Yolanda. Even his grandchildren pitch in with the family business.

Though he can’t recall the name of the Czech Olympian he fought back in 1968, Rodriguez remembers he lost that fight. "But everyone told me I won. They said I got gypped." It was probably for the best. Armed border guards might have been harder to get by on his way home.