Family propels Jajaira Gonzalez into Olympic boxing trials

AZUSA, Calif. (AP) Neighborhood kids flow into the Azusa Youth Boxing Club moments after the door opens on a weekday afternoon. The time-worn joint barely contains the tiny tornado of action on an otherwise sleepy residential street.

The cramped, sweltering gym’s spotted mirrors reflect the plywood floors, rusted metal lockers and duct-taped heavy bags surrounding the compact ring where exuberant kids learn how to fight.

And in the middle of it all, Jajaira Gonzalez’s big brother won’t stop hitting her.

She trades jabs and combinations with Joet Gonzalez as they shuffle in circles, testing each other for defensive weaknesses. The gym occasionally stops to watch as the nation’s most promising teenage female amateur boxer spars with a 22-year-old pro.

Jajaira absorbs Joet’s punches as fuel and wears them as armor.

”I like getting bruises,” she said. ”It makes me feel like I did something.”

The 18-year-old has reached unprecedented heights in amateur youth boxing, but the two-time world junior champion’s talent is rooted in her family.

Her father, Jose, trains her, while Joet is her hands-on tutor. Her second-oldest brother, 20-year-old Jousce, is a fellow Olympic hopeful and a less pleasant sparring partner who leaves Jajaira seeing stars when he gets angry and hits her too hard.

”They don’t go easy on her,” Jose says with a grin. ”They don’t play games. In order to help her, they’ve got to go harder. She says when she goes to the fights, she don’t feel no power in the other girls.”

Almost every day, after Jose finishes work for a bail bondsman at the courthouse, Jajaira and several of her siblings gather at the Azusa gym a few miles from their Glendora home for an afternoon of boxing and bonding. A third brother, JonJairo, also fights, and their youngest brother, Jason, cheers on the family from home despite cerebral palsy.

”There’s no way I could get out of the sport, because we all do it and my dad is my coach,” Jajaira said. ”Some people say, `Oh, you don’t look like a boxer,’ or, `You look too nice to box.’ When I get in the ring, it’s like I’m a whole different person.”

Gonzalez has spent months away from family and high school while winning two world junior championships and a Youth Olympics gold medal in the last three years. She returned from a tournament in Taiwan two days before doing a jetlagged graduation walk in May.

She is the first American boxer of either sex to medal at the Youth Games, and the first female American to win junior and youth titles – but everything was preparation for her step up to the U.S. Olympic women’s boxing trials in Memphis next week.

One winner in each of the three weight classes will advance to an international qualifier, earning a strong shot at a place in the second women’s Olympic boxing tournament in Rio de Janeiro. Gonzalez would have to win four fights against women in a field that includes an attorney, an accountant, a former model and a police officer in training.

”I think the girls at trials aren’t ready,” said Joet, an 11-0 pro preparing for his fourth fight in seven months. ”Everybody knows who she is, and I think they’re not at that level. I think she’s going to try to walk through everybody.”

Jose Gonzalez was a boxer in his native Guadalajara, Mexico, but he didn’t set out to build a fighting family. Instead of taking the kids back to Mexico for vacation one summer, he and his wife decided to allow the boys to try boxing just for the exercise.

A couple of years later, 8-year-old Jajaira came along to watch because Jose didn’t have a baby sitter. When a boy in the gym told her that girls couldn’t box, Jajaira demanded to spar him, and she punished him so viciously that he never returned.

”She didn’t want to do it,” Joet says, still reveling in the joy of a 10-year-old family story. ”She was the baby of the family and a little girly-girl. After she beat up that kid, she just stuck with it.”

Jose had no problem allowing his daughter into the hurting business.

”At first, my wife said, `No, her beautiful face!”’ Jose recalls. ”But I told my wife that if I train her the right way, no one is going to be able to touch her. I trained her so she’s not supposed to get hit, and then when I watched her fight, nobody could take her punches. It’s stayed that way for a long time.”

And 12-year-old Jason provides ample motivation whenever Jajaira needs a boost.

”He’s a little sweetheart,” Jajaira said. ”I’m always messing with him and trying to make him laugh. In the beginning, it was super hard for me. I would cry every single time I would get off the phone with him. Even on FaceTime, I would just start crying. Now, I think I’ve been gone for so many trips, I’m starting to get used to it. Family is something I look forward to after competition.”

Gonzalez gets the occasional Twitter attack from the dwindling ranks of trolls who find women’s boxing unseemly, but she has managed to stay in her tunnel of preparation for the Olympic trials. Her only passion is the daily grind of the family pastime and the quest for Olympic gold.

”They don’t care if something is wrong one day. I’ve got to work,” Gonzalez said. ”My dad is always saying, `I’d rather have you cry in the gym than cry in a fight.’ He’s the best.”