Gabriel Flores Jr. Continues To Succeed With A Heavy Heart
The beaming smile and big, round almond eyes never missed a fight. Up and down the California coast, they were omnipresent regardless of where Gabriel Flores Jr. was. Sometimes those drives would take 10 hours in a car alone—just to see her son.
Seven years later, Flores would like to think the smile and the eyes are still on him.
Time is a great panacea. Dealing with the death of a loved one, it’s often times the only cure, especially if you’re a 12-year-old boy whose life was shattered by the news his mother was murdered—as Flores learned on March 18, 2013.
Juanita Maldonado was doing something typical the previous day, attending a child’s birthday party in Stockton, California, when three men reportedly walked up and started shooting at a room full of mothers and kids. Five victims were shot—two were killed, including Juanita, Flores’ mother, who was 36 when she died the next morning.
It was senseless. It was brutally raw. It took time for Flores to comprehend the emotional gamut. He’s 20 and the loss still tugs at him.
Flores is a sharp-looking lightweight that Top Rank has high hopes for. He’s 17-0, with six knockouts, and the weighty burden he once carried buoys him today.
When Flores first heard the news of his mother’s death, he couldn’t believe it. Many mornings afterward, he still had a hard time grasping it, hearing eggs sizzle in the frying pan thinking Juanita was in the kitchen cooking breakfast, only to find she wasn’t there.
Flores had two choices—either sink into despair or confront the truth and move forward.
“For a little amount of time there was rage, though not for very long,” admitted Flores, who wears a t-shirt depicting his mother into every fight. “You think about why it happened, how it happened. It’s still unsolved. What got me through it was my family.
“God helped me through it—and when I say that, I really mean it. I was angry at the world. I grabbed control of it. Boxing saved my life. I don’t know what I would be doing now if it wasn’t for boxing.”
The turning point came early.
Gabriel Flores Sr. was also deeply hurt. He was lost, too. He lost his wife, and feared he would lose his son.
Gabriel Sr. stuck by Junior.
Two months after Juanita was killed, Gabriel Sr. gave his son an option. There was a tournament being held in May 2013. Gabriel Sr. asked his son if he wanted to fight. If Junior didn’t, it was understandable.
A boxing ring had been Junior’s sanctuary, the one place where he could leave the real world behind and chop away at the frustration coursing through him.
Boxing is and always has been his second home.
“That was the first step in helping Junior get over it,” Gabriel Sr. said. “Junior not only competed in the tournament, but he won. Boxing is all he really had, and he liked his mother there at all these tournaments he won.
“He’s very spiritual and he tells me he feels his mother’s presence.”
Junior and his father have made the move from their hometown Stockton to Las Vegas on February 18, just before Junior won an eight-round decision over Matt Conway at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on the Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder2 undercard.
“It’s been a big life-changing experience for the better,” Gabriel Sr. said. “We’re training at 10,000-feet elevation and Junior is getting far better sparring. In Stockton, we had to pay people to spar. Here in Vegas, we have people lining up to spar Junior.
“It’s been great.”
Can Junior be great?
He’s pretty good right now. He turned pro at 17. He fought five times in 2019, and with the boxing world slowly climbing out of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown, he’s hoping to fight at least three more times before the end of this year.
“Gabriel seems motivated and dedicated, and is good at this at a young age, which is great,” said Carl Moretti, Top Rank’s fabled matchmaker. “He’s really adjusting to the pro style very well. As young as he is, he’s continuing to get stronger, which is something he needed to do.
“Those two things are going to help him going into the lightweight class, and eventually to where he wants to be. He’s having almost a better, extended amateur career, which is not uncommon today. When you see him with 25 or 30 fights, he can still be in the development process, which is fine.”
Moretti said there is no timetable on Junior. Top Rank will look at him on a fight-by-fight basis against an increasing quality of opposition.
As for Junior himself, his goal is simple.
“I’m going to continue fighting for my mom, because she loved to see me fight,” he said. “Seeing me win was all worth it for her. She was so supportive, and giving up on my dreams would be like giving up on her.”
Joseph Santoliquito is an award-winning sportswriter who has been working for Ring Magazine/RingTV.com since October 1997 and is the president of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be followed on twitter @JSantoliquito.
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