On the east side of the railroad tracks in old Gilroy, in an old square brick building that used to be a PG&E substation, kids spend the night punching each other in the face.
Usually, that means trouble. But at Stick and Move Boxing, the longtime Gilroy amateur boxing gym run by Rick Mello, flying fists and hard hits come with life lessons, newfound confidence and friendships.
“The kids have a place to go,” said Mello, 83. “This was a bad part of town, but it mellowed out a little. All these kids come here, and they socialize. We kind of watch them to make sure it’s safe. We haven’t had any problems.”
For $45 a month, every Monday through Saturday, up to 20 kids at a time spend their after-school hours learning the ropes of boxing. It’s a safe place for kids ages 8-18. Mello and coaches Jose Soto and Derek Shingu are there to watch over the kids, but also to coach seven boxers who fight in USA Amateur Boxing tournaments from Salinas to Sacramento.
Among the hundreds of kids who have gone through Stick and Move, a couple stand out from the rest. Mello coached Kelsey Jeffries to a state featherweight championship in 1992, and Gilroy’s No. 1 boxing family, the Guerreros, spent some time with Mello back when he had a gym on Gilroy’s south side near the sewer plant.
“Victor, the middle brother, came in first; Robert didn’t come in until later,” Mello said. “When they came and the word spread, I had kids coming up to my ears. We used to fight all over the place. When Robert came, the dad, Ruben, got involved. When you get fathers and sons involved in this game, that’s when I step away. Blood is thicker than water. I’m telling the kid one thing and the father is telling him another, and the kid gets all screwed up.”
Two of Mello’s current students, Azael Torres and Bryan Alvarez, come from different backgrounds and circumstances, but through their shared love of boxing, they have formed a strong friendship.
Torres, 17, is a senior at Leigh High School in San Jose and started coming to Stick and Move Boxing because his grandmother lives nearby in Gilroy.
“The thing I love about martial arts is the discipline; it shows you how to put a better version of yourself out there,” Torres said.
When Torres started boxing, he struggled with his weight, coming in at 220 pounds. After six months of clean eating, hydration and exercise, Torres dropped below 160 pounds. Now, as he considers his college options, Torres struggles to overcome his fear of getting in the ring for his first fight.
“There’s something in me that makes me unsure if I want to compete; it’s a strange fear of mine,” Torres said. “I want to overcome it some point, but at this point, I want to train as much as I can.”
Bryan Alvarez of Gilroy has been fighting at Stick and Move for almost two years, and through boxing, Alvarez found peace of mind after years of struggling with trouble at home and at school.
“I’m not the kind of person who goes out to parties, but when I do boxing, I feel like I stand out,” Alvarez said.
Boxing has helped Alvarez build confidence. He’s more talkative, and better able to express his feelings. However, mounting bills at home have forced Alvarez to choose between working harder to help support the family or keep boxing.
“I need $1,000 for boxing. I need a new car, I need to help out at the house, and I don’t make much money,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez lives in an apartment in Stoney Court, a neighborhood he describes as “one of the most ghetto parts of Gilroy.” The family still struggles, but his mother works to save money to buy a house and fix her credit. Rising rents in Gilroy may soon force the family to move to Los Banos, he said.
Alvarez works as a cashier in the morning and uses his mother’s car to make deliveries for DoorDash. Torres has worked since he was 14, but even at 19, the realities of life have forced him to think of the future.
“I’ve been boxing for two years, and I wonder if I put those years to waste,” Alvarez said. “But then I start thinking, I spend those two years, and if I can’t go pro, What was I doing with my time? It’s a back and forth, and I don’t know how to decide. There’s nothing to show that I am getting better. It’s a struggle.”
Despite the struggles, Alvarez found peace of mind and friendship through boxing.
“I met Brian through boxing, and that’s why we’re such close friends now,” Torres said. “We starting sparring together, and it was like, sometimes the best enemies make the best friends. We would go in and spar really hard. He would hit me with straights, and my head would go straight back. He bloodied my nose, but after we’d walk home together and laugh about it.”