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Rios headed in the right direction — in boxing and life

25
Aug

Ronny Rios is the type of person who instinctively knows which role models to follow.

The talented junior lightweight was surrounded by wayward peers in his rough Santa Ana, Calif., neighborhood but emulated his older brother, Salvador, a hard-working kid who always wanted to make something of himself.

When Rios started boxing, he sensed that trainer and soon-to-be father figure Hector Lopez understood how to succeed in life and followed his lead.

The end product is impressive: A young man who works extremely hard at his craft and has his feet on the ground, the kind of kid who could serve as a role model himself for other boxers who grow up under difficult circumstances.

“Ronny was a very quiet, shy kid when I met him and not much has changed. And, from day one, he has worked his ass off,” said Lopez, whose protege faces Leivi Brea in the main event of the “Fight Night Club” card Thursday at Club Nokia in Los Angeles (televised on Fox Sports Net and streamed live on RingTV.com).

Rios’ father abandoned the family when he was a toddler. The void doesn’t seem to have been traumatic, though. An uncle served as a male influence and he had Salvador, his elder by three years.

The boy walked into the TKO Boxing Club in Santa Ana when he was 12 and immediately demonstrated that he was gifted: He won a national amateur title after only six fights. He also worked harder than the other kids from the start.

Where’d he pick up that habit? By watching Salvador. And he had special motivation: His mother, who cleans buildings and houses for a living with help from Sal and Ronny.

Rios remembers that, as a 10 or 11 year old who watched too many scary movies, he worried that something bad would happen to his mom when she cleaned alone at night. He would accompany her as often as possible “to protect her,” he said.

“My brother worked hard at everything he did,” Rios said. “He wanted to do everything perfectly. I got that from him. And I’ve always been motivated by my mom. She got into a car accident. I can see she has back pain. We never had the money to get her back adjusted or anything like that, though.

“I want to give my mom a better life. I remember thinking that even when first started boxing.”

Rios (11-0, 5 knockouts) appears to be headed in that direction, although nothing is ever certain in boxing.

The 20-year-old was one of the more-successful amateurs of his era, winning multiple national titles and losing to Olympian Gary Russell Jr. in the 2008 Trials. And he has won impressively as a professional, building momentum toward bigger and better things.

At his age, though, he must be moved slowly.

“He’s only 20,” Lopez said. “We want to challenge him without getting him in over his head. I think Ronny will be special. He’ll be one of those kids who wins the titles. But he’s a good two, three years away.”

Rios uses the word “if” he makes it big instead of “when,” another example of his level headedness. If he does, chances are he won’t squander his earnings as so many successful young fighters do. He got that from Lopez.

Lopez took a significant interest in Rios almost from the beginning. Rios always dreamed of winning championship belts, which was fine with Lopez, but the trainer had a stipulation: No boxing without at least a “B” average is school.

Rios thought his mentor “was crazy,” Lopez said, but the boy went along because he knew he was heading in the right direction. From there, Lopez, not a family member, would attend Rios’ school meetings and other functions normally required of parents.

“In our culture ÔǪ they say, ‘Get a job and help the family.’ I said, ‘No, you gotta finish school.' To me, that was important,” Lopez said.

Lopez, who is in sales and marketing for a medical group, has taught Rios about finances, knowledge so few fighters have. Rios, who still lives with his mother, is saving money to buy a house and build an emergency fund. He spends frugally. For example, he bought a used Nissan 350Z instead of blowing his entire signing bonus on an expensive car.

Most of his relatively meager earnings at the moment go toward helping his mother.

“I always want to have a plan,” he said. “I never want to live paycheck to paycheck.”

Rios gives credit where credit is due. He is thrilled to be fighting in the main event on Thursday but is more excited that Sal is making his pro debut on the card. The two are very close. He is still motivated by the prospect of helping his mother, who asks her son to live at home because she can't bear for him to go.

And he doesn’t know where he’d be without Lopez.

“I know I wouldn’t be where I am now,” he said. “I would just be working with my mom, maybe going to community college. I wouldn’t be in this position. No way. I don’t think I would’ve gotten into trouble. I’m too nerdy. I don't drink or anything. I just like to play X Box and watch movies.

“Hector steered me in the right direction, though. He’s a good person to have in my life, a really good person. I love my life. I have nothing to complain about.”

Michael Rosenthal can be reached at [email protected]

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