The Champ

Jasica Rojo has used boxing to turn her life around

Boxing writer Bert Randolph Sugar is probably the sport's greatest champion. But he doesn't care for women in the ring; Sugar has compared female boxers to a circus sideshow.

But Sugar has never met Tucson's Jasica Rojo, a 27-year-old who grabbed the Arizona Golden Gloves women's championship title in March, earning her a spot in the Golden Gloves nationals this July in Miami.

Her success in the amateur women's Golden Gloves has propelled her to the next level, something that every dedicated boxer aspires to: Jasica Rojo is going pro.

Right after the Arizona win, Rojo signed with Gregory Bloom, a Miami-based boxing manager who takes young boxers, like Rojo, men and women, and gets them those first few years of pro fights.

The way the business works, Rojo could have her first pro fight before the national Golden Gloves. Bloom is working to attract promoters and sponsors, and is getting the word out that he has a 135-pound fighter ready to go.

And Rojo is ready.

If Sugar or anybody else doubts that women can legitimately lace up the gloves and fight, perhaps they should head over to the Old School Gym on East 22nd Street to watch Rojo spar in the ring with her trainer, Chris Valdez.

Surrounded by other boxers, Rojo chats after jumping rope or shares a laugh before hitting the bags. She is obviously in the company of her own; nobody treats her any differently. Her dance in the ring and the punches she throws seem effortless and natural.

"I think I was born a fighter. I've always been a fighter," she says.

Rojo was raised in a South Tucson neighborhood that some would describe as tough. Her mother was on her own raising four children.

Rojo says she didn't start fighting until she was about 12 years old, in reaction to being teased and bullied by other kids in the neighborhood, and tussles she had with her brother.

"Finally, I'd had enough, and I stood up for myself, and that's when I started fighting," Rojo says. "I couldn't stop. Someone just had to look at me the wrong way or say something I didn't like. That's all it ever took."

The fighting grew more intense, and eventually, Rojo's mother couldn't control Jasica. Rojo was sent to live with her Nana (her grandmother, Pearl Rojo). Jasica says that being with her grandmother was helpful, and she adored her--but Jasica still continued to get into trouble with kids in the neighborhood.

After one fight, assault charges were filed against Rojo, and she spent four months in juvenile detention at the age of 14. Detention helps some kids turn around their lives, but Rojo continued fighting and wound up back in juvenile court.

There, she was given a choice: Either attend VisionQuest, a national organization with a residential program in Tucson that works with the juvenile-justice system, or try a new probation program called Project RISE.

"'Are you kidding me? I'm not going to juvie. I'm not going to jail, and I'm not going to do VisionQuest,'" Rojo remembers saying. Therefore, she agreed to Project RISE and was formally placed with her grandmother.

Rojo and a handful of other kids in trouble were taken out of their schools and put in a set of portable classrooms at Howenstine High School. Her probation also included an introduction to boxing at a church near Pima Street and Grant Road with Valdez, a former pro fighter. For the past 15 years, Valdez has run a Tucson Youth Corps of America program that aims to decrease violence and gang activity with schools and local law enforcement.

But that's not the end of Rojo's story, about how boxing saved the life of a southside girl. While Rojo completed her probation, Valdez did not show her the way to the ring--at least not yet.

After her probation was completed, she lost touch with Valdez--and she continued to get into trouble. She got pregnant at 18 and gave birth to a baby girl she named Zellyanna. But even the birth of her daughter didn't squelch her temper.

When she turned 21, her mother told her she needed to stop fighting.

"My mother was worried. She heard about the fights. Finally she pleaded with me and asked me, 'What can I do to help you? What do you think you need?'"

Rojo says she remembered passing by a gym on East 22nd Street, where she saw a sign for boxing classes. She wanted to check the classes out, but she was shy about going by herself.

"'Get in the car,'" Rojo remembers her mother saying.

They drove straight to the gym. Rojo's mother led her inside and took out the last $30 she had in her wallet, and signed them both up for boxing classes.

A man on the other side of the gym walked over. "Hey, remember me?"

It was Valdez. Rojo says her mother told him her daughter needed his help.

Like Rojo, Valdez says he feels he's been a fighter almost all his life.

"I've been fighting since I was 9 years old and got into plenty of trouble," Valdez says. Joining the Marines is what set him straight: "I joined up, and I never looked back," Valdez says.

Valdez remembers the day when Rojo's mother first brought her to the gym. He says that he reminded Rojo that the more she put into boxing, the more she was going to get out of it, and to keep in mind the big difference between fear and respect--the same things he tells other kids that make their way to Old School.

Valdez says he's not surprised that Rojo's life changed after coming to Old School. Boxing is a discipline that demands attention, and the gym provides a good alternative to the streets.

"We're a gang," Valdez says. "But we start with respect. We are a family."

Under Valdez, Rojo watched male boxers train for amateur fights, while she saw others aim for pro careers.

Rojo says she also discovered the discipline that Valdez was teaching.

"My mother was so troubled," Rojo says, remembering the worries that her street fights produced. "When I started boxing, I started to mellow. I don't look to fight anymore. I avoid it. Everything I had inside me that made me so angry, I brought it here. I released it here."

After a year, Rojo went to Valdez and asked him to train her for amateur fights. He said no.

Valdez says he always saw a little bit of himself in Rojo, but when she told him she wanted to box and eventually go pro, he thought about his time in the ring as a professional fighter.

"Look, she's a pretty little girl. I was a former professional fighter. Boxing was good for me, but I thought about the possibilities of her face getting smashed in. That's the reality of boxing," Valdez says.

Rojo says she turned to Vincente Medina, a former pro in his mid-60s who works in the gym and trained Valdez during his ascent to the pros. Medina, a Mexican-American fighter with more than 150 pro fights on his record, was once called Arizona's own Rocky Balboa.

Medina opened the gym a little earlier to give Rojo extra time to train, and he took her to her first amateur fight on April 4, 2007.

She won.

"When it was over, I was asking about my next fight. I just wanted to train even harder," Rojo says. "We came home with a win. I think that was when Chris saw that I was in this all the way. That's when he decided he would train me."

Rojo says Medina works in the gym with anyone who needs help, but she needed the younger Valdez to get in the ring with her and be more hands-on.

"I proved we had the same goals. I'm in the gym faithfully every day. You don't have to baby-sit me. He saw that this girl is really determined."

Rojo isn't the first female boxer he's trained who went into the amateurs, and while Valdez has helped numerous kids over the years, he admits that training Jasica is different.

The year before Rojo came to Old School, Valdez's 17-year-old daughter died in a car accident. The coincidence that her birthday is March 2, while Rojo's birthday is March 3, isn't lost on Valdez.

"When we're on the gym floor, most of the time, we talk about Jasica's future. I want her to start thinking about what she will do after boxing," Valdez says. "With Jasica, it is more personal. I check in with her all the time. I realize I am mentoring a friend. Maybe it's because she reminds me of my daughter. And that's the way I try to treat her--like my own daughter."

Family remains a key to Rojo's continued success. Her mother comes to most practices, along with Rojo's now-9-year-old daughter, who has developed her own set of skills since coming to the gym with Mom: jumping rope.

"The gym has been part of her life the last four years. When she waits for me during practice, she jumps ropes. She's so good at it, she jumped rope for her school's talent show," Rojo says about Zellyanna.

"You know, I used to think that raising a child on my own was tough, but training to go pro is the hardest thing I've done in my entire life. But it's her support I love most. She calls me her 'champ.' If I'm doing this for anyone, I'm doing this for her."

When asked if it's hard to watch her mother fight, Zellyanna doesn't hesitate.

"No. I like to watch her fight," she says. "She's my role model."

Zellyanna's wire-rimmed glasses and little furrowed brow give her a wise appearance that most 9-year-olds don't have. When asked if she thinks she's a fighter, too, Zellyanna shrugs her shoulders and looks off the side to think for a moment before shaking her head no.

Zellyanna's grandmother smiles at her granddaughter's answer as she watches her daughter move on the gym floor. Elizabeth Rojo says her daughter and her granddaughter have a lot in common: They're both quiet, a little shy and very smart.

"Jasica was very quiet and shy and liked working alone. She was on the school honor roll for many years, but when she got to the seventh-grade, I remember that was when everything changed. She came home and said she was tired of being a nice guy," she says.

"Honestly, there was nothing I could do to calm her down. If people were mean to her in anyway, or she just thought they were mean to her, it would turn into a fight. I had a huge concern for Jasica's safety. Then one day, I had enough, too. I sat her down and pointed to Zellyanna: 'If you keep going in this direction, you are going to lose your daughter.'"

From Elizabeth Rojo's perspective, that was what finally motivated Jasica to go to the Old School Gym.

Shortly after Jasica Rojo started boxing, a relative shared a little family history that made the mother and daughter feel there was even a deeper connection to the gloves that Jasica puts on every day.

"We found out my father (Jasica's grandfather) fought in the Golden Gloves, and her father's father (Jasica's other grandfather) was a boxer, and his father (Jasica's great-grandfather) was a boxer, too," Elizabeth Rojo says, laughing.

While female boxing has proven to be popular in Great Britain and other parts of Europe, the sport has struggled to gain serious recognition in the United States.

The 1990s saw the sport grow, with names like Laila Ali and Alicia Ashley garnering some degree of celebrity. However, just look at the International Olympic Committee to see how far women's boxing still has to go. The International Boxing Association (AIBA) pleaded with the committee last year to introduce women's boxing at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, but the request was rejected. Like any good fighter, however, the AIBA plans to try again, and wants women's boxing in the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

Rojo's own attempts to enter professional boxing have encountered obstacles. After Rojo's first fight, Valdez and Medina would sometimes head out to amateur fights and find no female boxers close to Rojo's 135 pounds.

"We'd drive all the way to another town for a fight, never find anyone, and drive all the way back home," Rojo says.

Valdez says that's the way it is right now in women's boxing. On some days, Rojo is the only woman standing in a crowd of male boxers, weighing in and matching up.

Even at the Golden Gloves fight, Rojo says she had to wait for hours before another female walked in; luckily for Rojo, it was a weight match. They didn't enter the ring until 10:40 that night.

Rojo had won two previous amateur fights when she entered the Golden Gloves, but there was still something special about that night on March 2 in Phoenix at the Central Boxing Gym.

"It was a Golden Gloves fight. It felt special, and I'll never forget that night--the flag, the national anthem, the crowd. I knew I was going to win, and I did," Rojo says.

Valdez admits Rojo's win and success in the amateur fights is partially due to the lack of women boxers. Most of Rojo's sparring partners are professional male boxers who work with Valdez.

Rojo concedes that her wins have come easily because she's sparring with male boxers who are stronger and more experienced. During those practices, she takes hits, like everyone else.

"I've come home with a bloody nose," Rojo says. "I yell out for an ice pack, and Zellyanna will yell out at me, 'Mom, you're the champ.' Even before the Golden Gloves, when I'd come home from training, she'd stand there and yell, 'Mom, who's the next Golden Gloves champion? You are.'"

Rojo's manager, Gregory Bloom, says he decided to sign Rojo after talking to Valdez and other trainers who've seen her in action. Bloom says there is a pro future for Rojo, and a successful future for women's boxing.

"Keep in mind, women's boxing has just begun to establish itself in the past 10 years, while male boxing has been around more than 200 years and is established as a way of life," Bloom says. "I also look at boxing's fan base: men. Men are saying they like watching women's boxing as much as male boxing."

Bloom says he thinks he'll have a pro fight set up for Rojo before the Golden Gloves nationals in Florida, and he wants that fight to be as close to Tucson as possible, to help Rojo build a local fan base. In pro boxing, getting the right promoter and sponsors are crucial--win or lose, Bloom says.

If you ask Rojo how long her professional career will last, she's giving herself three years. But after that, she wants to continue going to Old School Gym every day.

"When I'm done, I want to see if there is anything I can do to open doors for another fighter," she says. "Professionally, you never know, but I feel I have at least three strong years ahead."

Between training, Rojo works with Valdez in the Tucson Youth Corps of America program, working with kids who come to the gym--including many youngsters who've been to juvenile court, just like Rojo.

Valdez says those kids come in and look at Rojo in awe, both girls and boys. They are impressed to be in the company of a pro fighter, especially one who seems to understand them.

As Rojo awaits her first pro fight, whenever and wherever it may be, her only regret is that one person will not be there to see the fight--her Nana, Pearl Rojo, passed away last year.

"She never gave up on me. She told me I had to push forward, no matter what happens in life. She told me, 'I want nothing but the best for you.' She always offered her support and was always there," Rojo says. "Even with boxing, she said, 'You keep it up.' I have my mom now, and I'm blessed to have her. But my Nana was my mom, and she really raised me, along with my brother and sisters."

While Nana might not be there, Zellyanna will be, and so will Rojo's mother. Rojo says her mother never flinches during her fights, although she prays most of the time--especially for the other boxer and that boxer's family, if they're sitting nearby.

"I have to be there," Elizabeth Rojo explains. "I've been there since day one. She's like a work of art, like making a statue--the way she handles herself and her technique. Any time she's in the ring, I'll be there."

After the Golden Gloves fight, Elizabeth Rojo says she found herself in tears, sitting down on a bench in the dressing room to find a quiet place to pray.

"I do have compassion for the other family, but I do feel for myself too. I get a little nervous, but this is my daughter's dream. I will not stop her, but I do pray."

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