Glove Story

In search of rhyme or reason inside Phoenix's boxing subculture

Surprisingly, considering his love of fighting as a young man, he wasn't a boxer. "But boxing has done a lot for me," he says. "It's helped me raise my kids."

The reason he started his club has as much to do with social responsibility as love of boxing. "I do this for my community, to make it a better place to live. Kids are gangbanging because that's all they know. That's what they grow up thinking they're supposed to do. Their parents don't talk to them. When they look around them, in their neighborhood, they don't see no doctors or lawyers. They see guys with guns, so they think, that's what I should do. . . .

"I try to show them something different. I may not be able to make them all national champions, but I can help them be successful men. I tell them that taking drugs and gangbanging is not the way to live."

We're standing in the outdoor gym he built in his backyard. A boy of about 14 joins us. "This is a good kid," says Varela. "He's been with me for a couple of years. I tell him, you want a good life, you're gonna have to earn it. Nobody's gonna give it to you. You have to be disciplined, follow the rules. There are rules for everything--you don't get nothing for nothing." He looks at the kid. "You want to get a kiss from your girlfriend, you got to be nice to her, right?" The kid grins. "You gangbang, you get yourself killed. You're dead, you want to go to heaven, you better have followed the Ten Commandments. You always have rules. You always need discipline."

He's coached seven national champions. His living room is crammed with trophies--hundreds of them--won by his sons. Outside in the gym, 16 fighters are working out. Some are Varela's, others are from a visiting club. It's around 6:30 on a Tuesday evening, and the day's heat is just starting to wane. The gym is centered on a concrete area of the yard, formerly a basketball court. A frame embedded in the concrete supports two punch bags and a floor-to-ceiling ball. There's also a standing bag and two standing balls. The rest of the yard is parched soil, with clumps of grass and a bush here and there. There's a full-size ring.

In Varela's club, the atmosphere is curiously tranquil, almost Zenlike. Wearing sweats and baseball caps, the fighters work with quiet absorption. The vibe is friendly and uncompetitive. Even the sparring seems peaceful. Varela stands on the ring apron, leaning on the ropes as he watches. He's decked out in gray shorts and tee shirt, a Raiders cap on backward, and dark sunglasses. He doesn't get in the way of the fighters as they spar--his instructions are given sparingly and without intrusion.

I've never visited this club before, but I've been to this place. What I'm witnessing in Varela's club is a secular meditation. These boys are in no way separate from what they're doing. They're living in the moment and yet optimistic about the future--Joe-Joe Varela wants to be a world champion, and he certainly has enough ability for it to be possible, but he's just taking it a fight at a time, trying to do the best he can.

This is why the best boxing clubs have a monastic air. For a brief few years, while doing this, you can feel in control of your present and unafraid of your future, feel that as long as you can do this every day, then nothing can go very wrong. What comes with boxing isn't fear, but a sense of the absolute, a security that you may never have again.

So why would anyone quit? Why would anyone walk away from such security, such perfect sureness? Because you feel the security, but you don't understand it. You experience it on an intuitive, emotional level, not a rational, intellectual one. You don't recognize the source of your security, so you outgrow it and move on. And maybe you realize, and maybe you find your way back to it. Or maybe you never do. And maybe you replace it with something else, find another source, something that focuses you and provides you with an entire way of living and being. Or maybe you never do.

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