The Contender

Sunnyside High School's Armando Altamirano has boxing in his blood

The coaches who volunteer their time at Tucson Southwest Boxing. From left: Jesus Sanchez, Pete Quezada and David Villarreal.

This is no place for dreams, not this lost street off of a southside overpass, warehouse after warehouse lining the way in the darkness of a winter night.

The only light here shines through the door of a place called Tucson Southwest Boxing. You've never heard of it, and you've never heard of Armando Altamirano.

Mandito, as he's known, is a junior at Sunnyside High School. He comes here five nights a week to learn how to fight. He wants to be an Olympic champion.

"I plan on going places," says the 17-year-old. "I want to do big things in life."

Sure, kid. Fame and money are winking at you from up on the horizon. They're already engraving your name on the gold medal.

"No, Mandito's really got it," says Pete Quezada, his trainer. "I've coached a lot of fighters, and I can tell you, if he keeps improving, the sky's the limit."

But look at him. He's a skeleton with a thin layer of skin tossed over it. He stands 5 foot 3 and tops out at 125 pounds.

After a monsoon. He looks like he could fall through a crack in the sidewalk.

"Believe me, Mandito can take a punch, and he knows how to slip punches," says Quezada. "And he listens. He's only been fighting for a year, and he's already Arizona's junior Golden Gloves champ in his weight class."

But his record is a not-so-majestic 6-4.

"Look, when we go to other gyms for a smoker, Mandito always gets their rock," says Quezada. "He holds his own against kids who've had 35 or 40 fights. And you don't see Mandito slacking off in here too often."

The kid is nearby, working the speed bag, and he's really making the thing jump.

Bam! ... Bam! ... Bam!

OK, he looks pretty good. But the Olympics are a million miles from this jerry-rigged gym. There has to be something more.

Mandito crouches into the bag and throws a left jab, another, an uppercut, a right-left combination.

Bam! ... Bam!

"Boxing's in his blood," Quezada says.

Bam! ... Bam! ... Bam! ... Bam!

"I see so much of his uncles in Mandito, it's unbelievable."

The Olympics are a mountaintop. If a fighter can climb it, his boxing afterlife is a much sweeter thing, the losses not so haunting.

Javier Suazo is one of Mandito's uncles.

He fought Gary Jacobs for the World Boxing Commission international welterweight title in Vegas in 1988. The bout was on ESPN.

If he'd won, Javier's career would've soared. A champ gets big fights, big purses.

But Javier badly injured his hand, and the referee had to stop the match, calling it for Jacobs in the 10th round.

The following year, his body breaking down at age 23, Javier retired, leaving a professional record of 23 wins—10 by knockout—and 6 losses.

"I was ranked third in the world," he says. "I'm proud of myself. I did good."

But even now, at 45, something nags at him. Rather than stay an amateur and pursue the Olympics, Javier lied about his age to turn pro at 16.

"Everybody was saying, 'You're ready; you should go; you should go pro,'" says Javier. "I was thinking about money, and it was a mistake. I coulda made the Olympics. I know it. I regret that now."

Lupe Suazo is another of Mandito's uncles. For six consecutive years in the 1990s, he was Arizona's state champion in the 139-pound weight class.

In 1992, at the Olympic Trials Championships in Worcester, Mass, Lupe fought Oscar De La Hoya, and it was a war, two great fighters trading blows and blood for a possible birth on the U.S Olympic team.

The consensus in the arena was that Lupe beat him.

When the judges awarded a lopsided win to De La Hoya, the reaction was surprise, if not shock. Lupe's assistant trainer buried his face in his hands and shouted, "No! ... No!"

Even De La Hoya's trainer approached Lupe afterward to tell him he was robbed. But it didn't matter; Lupe's Olympic idea was over for 1992.

De La Hoya went on to win the gold medal in Barcelona, the only American fighter to win gold that year. The distinction earned him the nickname Golden Boy, and he has gone on to earn more money than anyone in the history of the sport.

Saul Suazo is another of Mandito's uncles.

In 1997, after winning the Arizona state championship, also in the 139-pound weight class, he went to the regionals in Colorado Springs.

If he'd won the gold or silver medal there, he would've automatically qualified for the Olympic trials. In the key bout, Saul was on fire, banging away with his lightning hands on Mark Salas from East Los Angeles. Salas' strategy was to grab Saul to shut him down.

Salas did it once, again and again, Saul pushing him away each time. The referee warned Saul, and when he pushed away again, the ref stopped the fight—giving a stolen victory to Salas.

Saul's trainer was so outraged that he tossed a chair into the ring.

Salas won the silver, Saul the bronze, and his Olympic dream died, too.

Quezada joins Mandito at the speed bag to practice the kid's strongest punch, his uppercut. It needs to get better.

"Turn your hips!" Quezada shouts over the crowd noise. "Turn!"

When he demonstrates the motion, Quezada's glasses slide down his pug nose. It happens each time he mimics the punch, and each time, he fingers the glasses up again.

He is 51, born in Nogales, Sonora. He has salt-and-pepper hair and stands heavily on his feet, his big arms hanging wide.

"Come all the way up, and turn your hips!"

Following his trainer's lead, Mandito drops his right shoulder, pivots on the balls of his feet and lifts up, his whole body rising with the surging arc of his right hand.


The bag shakes.

"That it!" Quezada calls out. "That's good!"

It's a Thursday at the gym, and there's an extra buzz in the old building this night. The Suazo brothers are here, all three of them—Javier, Lupe and Saul.

They make their way across the floor, the youngsters nudging one another and stepping aside to give them room.

The brothers man-hug old friends, trade a few words, catch up.

Lupe stops to talk with Mandito's sparring partner, Tino Acosta, Arizona's Silver Gloves champ at 125 pounds.

He tells the youngster the Suazo boys couldn't have accomplished a thing without their parents pushing them.

Dad, Guadalupe, worked as a waiter at El Dorado and El Zarape, two well-known Mexican restaurants on Tucson's southside. Mom, Juanita, cooked at the same places.

They stayed on top of their boys, and wouldn't let them sit around waiting for gangs and trouble to come knocking.

"My dad got me up at 4 a.m. and took me running every morning in junior high and high school," says Lupe. "I ran 10 miles a day. My dad followed me in the car. Not just in town, but over the mountains.

"The legs are the biggest thing. A fighter has to keep running."

The Suazos are Tucson's first family of boxing. And Quezada is the common thread between the generations, between Mandito and his uncles, between Olympic dreams past and present.

The fellow who covered his face in shock when the judges robbed Lupe in Massachusetts? It was Quezada. He was the assistant to head trainer Roger Lau.

The fellow who tossed the chair in the ring when Saul got jobbed in Colorado? Quezada again. He was Saul's head trainer.

"I know I shouldn't have done that," he says. "But that decision was outrageous."

Quezada's competitive fire still burns hot when he thinks of Saul as a young fighter, the ability he had and where it might've taken him.

"I'll get in trouble for this, but of the three brothers, he was the most gifted," says Quezada. "Incredible hand speed."

Saul retired as an amateur in 2002, at 25. "I started when I was 10," Saul says. "It was time to go to work."

No one could talk him out of quitting.

"I tried, and his dad tried, and he wouldn't come back," says Quezada. "But that kid, he could've gone places. I can honestly say he was as quick, if not quicker, than Mayweather."

Floyd Mayweather Jr. has won world titles in five different weight classes.

"Saul was so good defensively, you couldn't hit him," Quezada says. "It came naturally, and Mandito has the same gift. Fighters have a hard time getting a glove on him."

When Quezada sees Mandito, he thinks, Man, this kid's gonna be a project.

It's 16 months ago. Mandito comes into the gym, and Quezada gives him the once-over, sees a shy kid, looking lost, un-athletic.

And he's wearing these weird striped socks—like the ones the wicked witch wore in The Wizard of Oz.

This is a fighter? Are you kidding me?

But the story goes back a lot further.

Quezada first met Mandito when the kid was 6. His father brought him into the gym Quezada was running at the time—at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 25th Street.

Tucson Southwest Boxing started there in 1994. Later, it moved to Main Avenue and University Boulevard, then out on the eastside to Rincon High School, its location for 11 years.

His gym is a youth nonprofit, run with coaches who volunteer their time, and used equipment donated out of garages and back porches.

He moved into his current location—on 37th Street near the Palo Verde overpass—in March 2009. The rent is $1,500 a month, and Quezada pays every penny out of his own pocket. Once in a while, a grateful parent will press some cash into his hand to help pay utilities or buy water bottles. It's mostly small bills.

A lot of the parents are themselves laid off, flat broke, barely hanging on. But they bring their kids to Tucson Southwest because—like Guadalupe and Juanita Suazo—they want them to be active, athletic, striving.

Quezada started here with 10 or 12 kids on a given night. Word got out. Now, he and his coaches sometimes work with three times that many—maybe 25 trying to get in shape, another 15 wanting to box.

"Every one of these kids has a story," says Quezada. "I've had everything you can think of in here, and I lay the law down immediately. Here's how it's going to be, in order: parents, teachers and then the gym."

He makes the kids bring in their report cards so he can look them over. If he sees an F, they're barred from fighting in tournaments.

During the day, Quezada works in the Ford service department at Jim Click Automotive at 22nd Street and Wilmot Road. Five nights a week, he goes to the gym. He runs it like a family, and he's the patriarch—training, mentoring, scolding.

In 2010, with coaches David Villarreal and Jesus Sanchez, Tucson Southwest produced four state champions.

"When we crown a state champ, and the parents are there, tears running down their faces, that's my payment," says Quezada.

Quezada tells a story.

He's maybe 8 years old, riding in the family's Plymouth station wagon with his dad, Luciano, and mom, Angie. They see a man, down and out, on a bench near St. Mary's Road and Interstate 10.

Luciano, who worked in sheet metal and drove a cab, pulls over and learns the fellow is trying to get home to Los Angeles. But he's out of money.

The Quezadas take him in, feed him and remake the station wagon into an overnight apartment. Next morning, Luciano drives the fellow to the Greyhound bus station and buys him a ticket, handing him a bag of sandwiches and a few extra bucks to get home.

"That always stuck with me," says Quezada. "I grew up with parents who believed you have to help out. You have to do something."

When Quezada teased Mandito about his Wizard of Oz socks, the kid didn't tumble to what was up. He's never seen the movie.

Dorothy? A tin man? A cowardly lion? They're from a different time and way of thinking, a whole different universe.

"I like action movies," says Mandito.

Tonight, he has on two diamond-like earrings and a similar stud in the center of his chin. He likes to rotate his bling. Three star tattoos decorate his left arm.

"I liked S.W.A.T. and Jackass. That was funny. Did you see Jackass?"

No yellow brick road goes through his neighborhood.

Three mornings a week, Mandito gets up at 6 a.m. to run at Mission Manor Park. Then it's off to school—academic trouble has him repeating his junior year—the gym at 6 p.m., home at 9 p.m., homework after that.

On Thursdays, Quezada takes the kids to Reid Park to run in the early evening. He packs them into his Ford F-150, 10 in the open bed in back, six more jammed inside.

Quezada tells them, "You better have your papers ready, because Border Patrol's coming after us!"

They do 4.2 miles, circling the park together and building a sense of unity.

On Saturday and Sunday mornings, Mandito gets up at 4 a.m. to get to his job at grandpa Guadalupe's restaurant—Suazo's Mexican Food. It's at the Tohono O'odham Swap Meet at Mission and Drexel roads.

The restaurant is a busted-up van with no tires. It sits on jacks. The food comes from old family recipes, and at the noon hour, the wait can be 15 minutes or more.

Mandito cooks while his cousin and brother work outside collecting trays.

"I really like it," he says. "I've been doing it two years. I work seven hours on Saturday and seven hours on Sundays. I make a lot of menudo, cabeza tacos."

He hands over some of the money he makes to his mom, Angelica, a supervisor at an airport parking lot.

"It helps us pay the bills," says Angelica. "Mando cooks for me at home sometimes, too. He's a good cook."

The kid is standing by his locker, polite as can be, smiling as he talks.

"My tata tells me I can open my own restaurant when I get older," he says. "I like cooking and all, but that's not what I want to do. I want to be a fighter. I want to go to the Olympics, and I want to fight as a pro, too."

But it's a tough life. And to be the best, you have to work the hardest.

"I know," says Mandito. "My uncles tell me all the time how tough it is. But they were good fighters, and they accomplished a lot."

Yes, the Suazo boys put together impressive careers. But boxing only prepares you for the next fight. When your body tells you it's over, when your mind hollers "Stop!" what then?

Javier Suazo works in the warehouse at Big Boy Ice Cream in Tucson.

Lupe is a guard at the Arizona State Prison on Wilmot Road.

Saul worked as a crew manager at Horizon Moving Systems, across the road from Quezada's gym—until masked men shot him three times in a nighttime robbery attempt in May 2008. The case remains unsolved, and Saul is on disability, unable to work.

Boxing didn't take the Suazos to the mountaintop, or even to a big house on a hill. But none have any regrets. Fighting was good for them, and for a long time, the hard center of their lives.

"I started boxing to defend myself on the street," says Javier. "But boxing taught me about work. And respect."

Mandito fought the biggest match of his young career in Phoenix last month—at the qualifying tournament for the U.S. Nationals.

It's the starting point for anyone hoping to go places as a boxer. Winners become Arizona champions in their weight class, go on to fight in the regionals, and then the nationals.

"All the big boys are there," says Quezada.

He expected a war going in, and talked about the fight beforehand the way a trainer does when he knows winning is a long shot.

But he had no idea Mandito would go nose to nose with the fifth-ranked fighter in the country at 125 pounds. His name is Octavio Munoz, a tough southpaw who opens fast, connecting with jabs and straights and hard body shots.

Bam! ... Bam! ... Bam!

Quezada always looks to see how his fighters react to being hit.

"A fighter either shuts down and runs, or he says, 'Wait a minute; this guy ain't better than me,'" Quezada says. "Mandito didn't back up an inch."

In the second round, they battle to something close to a draw, and now Quezada knows the fight will hinge on the third and final round.

"Open up on him!" Quezada tells his fighter. "He's tired! ... Back him up!"

Mandito charges into Munoz.

Bam! ... Slip! ... Bam! ...Slip! ... Bam! ... Bam!

"Yes!" Quezada shouts from the corner. "Go after him! Go after him!"

Bam! ... Slip! ... Bam!

Midway through the round, Mandito sees his chance. He has Munoz against the ropes and winds up for a left-hand uppercut.

He gets his body into it, comes from way down low, like Quezada taught him.


The punch is a truly sweet thing to behold.

Munoz buckles, and the air goes out of him. He staggers away, half bent over, one arm gripping his aching gut.

Mandito thinks, "Now I need to finish him."

He gives chase, but it's like running in the ocean. His legs and arms weigh a ton.

"I couldn't catch him," says Mandito. "I got so tired, I couldn't throw as much. I lost my wind."

In the locker room afterward, Munoz congratulates Mandito on the uppercut, and says, "I don't know where that came from. I've never been hurt like that before."

Quezada thinks his fighter won the bout, but the judges call it the other way. Even so, the trainer is proud down to his shoes at how his kid fought.

"He stood in there against a national-caliber fighter," says Quezada. "Mandito can hang with anybody right now, and he's only going to get better."

Lupe called Mandito right before the fight with some final tips. He called again when it ended to get a blow-by-blow.

"I tried my best, but I let him get away," says Mandito. "I have to pick up my training. I have to run more. That's what Lupe always tells me. Keep running!"

It's in the blood. It flows through the generations.

"The apple don't fall far from the tree," says Quezada.

The Olympics.