Bully Unit Boxing Club – San Marcos, TX
By Brian Kenneth Blackwell: Approximately seven miles outside of San Marcos, TX, down HWY 123 towards Seguin, the Bully Unit Boxing Club is opening for business. Inside, the owner Joe Sandana and his team of trainers are cleaning and prepping. As I pull in, I notice that the gym could not possibly be any larger than my small apartment. It appears fragile, with metal roofing. It has a few windows closed up by wooden boards, and a broken window unit. The outside is painted red, and a Bully Unit logo is taped to the white double doors; the metal gated outer doors are held open by a trash can and tires.
The inside is exactly what you would think. Motivational writings on the wall, speed bag here, double-end bag there, heavy bag in the corner, a small home-made ring in the center. A showcase of trophies looms in the back with photos of past fights. There are spray painted words that cover the walls. In the back hangs a Mexican flag. Rap music is playing in the background, with a timer that interrupts the music every three minutes to assist the fighters in timing their rounds.
Joe and his team do not appear like guys that I want to mess with. They are rough Hispanic males who appear to be in their mid-thirties. As soon as I tell them who I am, they warm up immediately. Joe informs me that his fighters are out on their pre-work out run. He continues to sweep the floor. Behind me, one young fighter, who is new to the gym is already working the bag. He allows me to snap some photos of him.
Little by little, the fighters begin to arrive. The kids begin wrapping their hands in silence. Everyone appears to be focused. I stand next to the ring with my camera around my neck; voice recorder in hand, watching the boxer who was hitting the heavy bag moments ago, now in the ring with one of the trainers. They are circling the ring working the mits. Sweat streams down my face and back, even as I stand motionless. There is no air-conditioning, and I feel as if I can actually see the Summer heat in the form of dust streaming into the tiny gym through the open doors like sand in a dust storm. I wipe the sweat from my forehead as it drips from my eye brows into my eyes.
The timer buzzes, and the fighters rotate stations. A small child, sporting American flag designed gloves, gets in the ring and begins working the mits with one of the trainers. Joe finally approaches me.
“This kid in the ring is Roman Ruiz, he’s the youngest fighter we have; he is ten years old. He has fifteen fights and just won the championship for the Junior Olympics in Los Fresnos, Texas. He doesn’t qualify to go back for state because of his age (it is for age 13 and up),” Joe is leaning against the ropes sporting his hand mits. “There were people from all over the state at the event. My son fought for the 101 lbs. championship, and lost a decision.” Joe’s son, Jesse Sandana, fourteen years of age, is shadowing boxing in the back corner in front of a mirror.
The timer behind sounds, and the kids rotate again. Joe and I continue our conversation beside the ring ropes.
“We’re some of the younger coaches out here, so when we started, we really didn’t get too much respect. Not until our fighters started winning fights did a lot of them begin calling up asking us, ‘can you bring your fighters out to fight in our show?’ So we get invited to fight in almost every show in Texas. It’s gets tough financially, but I try to take our kids everywhere. Since we are tight on money, I first ask the parents if they are willing to pay for the gas to go on the trip. If they are, then I will match the kids.”
“Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we do a regular routine, which is four rounds on the bag, four rounds on the speed bag, four rounds on the double end bag, and four rounds with the jump rope. Before they begin in the gym, they run two miles. After they finish the work out, the fighters that are registered to do so will spar.”
“On Tuesdays and Thursdays, we do conditioning, which is nothing but cardio. Nothing but moving around, the legs, we do abs, we do tires outside. Nothing but repetition on the bag, speed, agility, mits, punches.”
It is beginning to get loud inside the gym as many fighters begin to utilize the bags, which rattle the foundation of the building. Sweat is pouring down the kids backs, and heat inside is unbearable. I ask if we can step outside to continue the interview.
“This started with Tough Enough Boxing. The bills weren’t getting paid, and the kids that wanted to come in and try boxing could not afford it because the fees were $75 a month. So it closed down. With the owner’s permission, I took all the equipment, and we started working out of my garage. The Boys and Girls Club here in San Marcos would not help us out, which is ironic because Boys and Girls Clubs are always at the events that we attend. Finally, we found this place, which used to be a bar. I told the owner that I could only afford $200 a month, which is what I was getting from the kids at the time, but she agreed to rent it. The woman was even nice enough to let us install a bunch of lights powered by an extension cord that leads from her house. The guy that had it before never paid his bill, so the city wanted $750 to get the lights turned on, which I did not have at the time.”
Joe returns to his fighters, and his son Jesse walks out. “My name is Jesse Sandana and I’m fourteen years old. In the beginning, my dad heard about a gym in town. I tried it, and found out that I was good at it, so I stuck with it,” he said. “When I was little I would always fight with my cousins, so my dad put me in boxing and I found that I was good at it.”
“I want to become pro, and go to the Olympics,” he added. “When I get in the ring, all I am thinking about is what I can do. Sometimes when I fight the tall skinny guys, I try to figure out how I can go to the body. If they are big, I just try to use my speed to my advantage by throwing quick combinations and getting out of there. I just get in there and have fun. I’m used to the crowd because I play a lot of sports anyway. I just think I gotta move my head around and hit my opponent back. I want to go undefeated and be the best.”
Moments later, David Lelira, a heavyweight prospect for Bully Unit emerges. He is drenched in sweat, and short of breath. He carries a thin build for a bigger guy, as should be the case for many overweight heavyweights. Sweat pours down his body, dripping off his hand wraps. He looks intimidating with his shaved head and his short, neatly trimmed beard.
“I’ve been boxing about four months,” he says, trying to catch his breath. “I am 2-0 in sparring fights. I have not produced a knock out, but I have had a stumble. One of the guys had three amateur fights, and the other had one professional fight.”
“My first day, I thought that it was pretty tough conditioning. Joe has lived in my neighborhood for about twelve years, and one day he told me that I should come out here, saying that I would be a pretty good fighter, so I agreed. I’m not giving up anytime soon. I’ve learned a lot in a short time.”
“Right now I have a daughter, and another on the way. I do construction ten hours a day, and I am doing this, so I am very dedicated to this so I can provide a good life for my kids.”
“When I step in the ring I’m always thinking. I’ll slip, throw a quick jab, maybe a hook, it just depends. If you come in strong, I’m going to watch you for awhile to see what’s open and see what’s closed. If I see that opening I’m gonna take it,” He holds his fists up mimicking his movement in the ring. “At the beginning I’m looking to use my reach. I’ll throw a double jab, throw the double jab again. If you ain’t swinging or dodging, I’m gonna go with another double jab, hit the body, and come back up and throw a right hook. It just depends really. If you come in soft, I can tell right away. I like to read people a lot. My best punch is my left hook.”
I depart the Bully Unit Boxing Club with a different insight on the great sport of boxing. I realize that the sport that I have followed throughout my childhood, and into young adulthood has always been portrayed by television networks such as ABC, ESPN, FOX, HBO, and Showtime with a false sense of glamour. Rarely does the average boxing fan get to see where it all begins. Rarely do a large percentage of boxers see the glory and dollars that mainstream fighters see. Yes, these fighters are raw; many of which have little chance, for whatever their circumstance, to make it in the politically flawed world of boxing. But this is the kind of gym that produces great boxers. In many cases, past greats have begun their careers at gyms similar to the Bully Unit Boxing Club. From that point, they went on to have fantastic careers. In the end though, as their careers take a tumble, they almost always return to where they began.
Boxing is not all bright lights and dollars. It is 100 plus degree Texas humidity in an un-air-conditioned gym in mid-Summer. It is working to the point of dehydration. Hitting a speed bag until you cannot pick your arms above your shoulders any longer. Running past the point of vomiting. Surviving un-televised brutal fights, many of which are front of a crowd consisting only of fighters competing in the event you are in.
At this level, there is no money involved. These coaches all have average jobs, and they use their evenings to train a group of lower-end, hard working kids, charging them between $40-30 a month to become fighters. Guys like Joe Sandana keep their gym running for the love of the sport. When you walk into Bully Unit Boxing Club, there is no time for socializing. In fact, after seeing the facial expression of the trainers when you walk through the white doors, I doubt you would have the courage to. You have two hours to get your work out completed, and then it is lights out.