This Boxing Academy is a Haven Against Gang Violence in East Los Angeles

Andrew Heffernan, C.S.C.S.
·3 min read
Photo credit: Jose Mandojana
Photo credit: Jose Mandojana

From Men's Health

As told to Andrew Heffernan

MY FATHER, Javier Capetillo Sr., trained ten world champions over his career. They called him the General. When he was 17, he walked into a boxing gym in Guadalajara. They said, “You want to fight?” And they threw him in the ring with a pro. He tied the fighters’ gloves, helped out, carried his weight. So they let him train there for free.

I grew up in a rough neighborhood in South Central L. A. Gang life was pretty much the only way to feel a sense of belonging or identity. There weren’t any boxing gyms in the neighborhood—you had to drive to downtown. I had about 50 boxing fights of my own growing up, but I was heavy into gang life: I got shot three times, the first time when I was 14. A lot of my friends are dead. Some committed suicide. So I’m very blessed to still be here.

I opened Capetillo Boxing Academy in 2016 in East Los Angeles. There are 706 crimes committed here per 100,000 people, a rate nearly twice the national average. A boxing gym doesn’t generate a lot of money. Plenty of kids see the Rocky movies and decide they want to fight but give up when they realize how hard it is. If you have a world champion, everyone wants to be part of your gym, but when you’re up and coming, nobody does.

Photo credit: .
Photo credit: .

We have major fighters here now. One of our guys, Lucas Santamaria, recently fought on Fox. I’ve been working with him for six years. But I didn’t open this gym for the money. I opened it because I truly in my heart wanted to help the kids. And that’s what we do: Some kids come after school and stay there until 8:00 at night. I never kick them out. It’s like daycare. That’s part of how we help the community—being a safe place for the kids to go.

We build on whatever qualities these kids have. Some are aggressive; some are counterpunchers. Some fight on the inside. Middle distance, short hands, long hands. Sometimes they turn out to be coaches; they have the vision to help people put punches together in ways that make sense. Everyone’s different. You find their strength and work from there.

Other gyms charge $150 to go once or twice a week. One-on-one training can be $100 an hour. I charge $70 a month for a kid to use the gym whenever they want. There’s an LA Fitness around here, but no one here likes long-term contracts.

Because of my background, I can talk to these kids. There was this young girl who was being abused by her uncle. She was cutting herself. I helped get her set up at this local youth academy. She graduated from high school this year. They couldn’t hold graduation at school because of COVID-19, so we took the pictures at the gym. This other kid was on parole and couldn’t afford the fees, so I let him train for free. He says, “You guys are like my family.”

We’re giving these kids the kind of family support they get from the gangs—only we do it in a positive way. They want a place to feel safe and accepted, and we give them that.

We help their parents stay in shape, too. There’s a lot of obesity and diabetes in this community, so I’m happy to see more people staying active. And it’s a safe place. Even the gangbangers know we’re invested in the neighborhood. I leave my car open when I’m at the gym. No one has broken into it. They know I’m not running away.

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