Friendship starts with a fight, blossoms into a boxing club training at-risk youth

David Ortiz and Antonio Beniquez’s friendship began 25 years ago with a brief tussle in their high school gym class.

They were on the Lakeview High School basketball court when someone said Ortiz, a freshman, was a wrestler. Beniquez, a sophomore, decided to see if it was true, and put Ortiz in a headlock until a teacher blew the whistle for them to stop.

“After that, I put my hand out, said ‘I’m Antonio.’ He said, ‘I’m David,’ and we’ve been friends ever since,” Beniquez said.

Now, decades later, they’re teaching the lessons fighting can impart at their own boxing club with free training for at-risk youth.

“The vision for the gym is to be able to serve the community we’re in and the neighborhoods we grew up in,” said Beniquez, 39.

They opened the Barracks Boxing Club in Logan Square, near Armitage and Springfield avenues, in 2021. That Northwest Side spot puts them between Irving Park, where Ortiz grew up, and Humboldt Park, where Beniquez is from.

Antonio Beniquez (left) and David Ortiz (right) founders of The Barracks Boxing Club stand inside the ring at the Northwest Side-based gym, where at-risk youth from nearby neighborhoods have been able to access free training through funding from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Antonio Beniquez (left) and David Ortiz (right) founders of The Barracks Boxing Club stand inside the ring at the Northwest Side-based gym, where at-risk youth from nearby neighborhoods have been able to access free training through funding from the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

“We really wanted to create a home base where we know the people and their struggles, and give them an opportunity we didn’t have,” Beniquez said.

Beniquez, an artist known for his muralsdesigned the space and helps fund it with Ortiz, who is lead trainer and handles day-to-day operations.

The gym has about 80 members. The youngest is 7; the oldest, about 50. Memberships cost up to $135, but donors have recently helped cover that cost for some new members.

Round one

Fighting might seem like an unlikely way to help young people, but Beniquez and Ortiz say it opens doors and teaches life lessons.

It’s also what first brought the two friends together in high school, nearly 25 years ago, and since then they have since supported each other through school, family and business ventures.

After seeing how Ortiz coached his son, Jeremy, to becoming a nationally ranked boxer, Beniquez decided to join Ortiz and help open the gym.

Ortiz grew up wrestling, like his dad and uncle, but threw himself into boxing after his son took to the sport. Initially, he brought his son to train at a gym in West Town and then eventually the Chicago Youth Boxing Club in Little Village.

At the time, the gym was run by Rev. Victor Rodriguez, who besides helping to coach prize-winning fighters, offered free training as a way to keep kids off the street by doing something positive. Rev. Rodriguez died in 2019.

“That’s where my inspiration came from, learning under him and working alongside him,” said Ortiz, 38.

Jordan Gearey, 27, a case manager with a Puerto Rican Cultural Center violence prevention program (right) helps train Christian Colunga, 24, (left) at The Barracks Boxing Club on the Northwest Side.

Jordan Gearey, 27, a case manager with a Puerto Rican Cultural Center violence prevention program (right) helps train Christian Colunga, 24, (left) at The Barracks Boxing Club on the Northwest Side.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

A fighter enters the ring

Like Rodriguez, Ortiz and Beniquez wanted to offer free training, but needed outside help to do so. At first, they only could offer some discounts, such as for families, first responders, veterans and teachers.

Through Beniquez, a mentor at Kerry Wood’s Pitch In foundation, they were able to bring in students from the West Side schools the foundation supports, but Ortiz also wanted to reach out to the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, known for its violence prevention efforts.

So it was a stroke of luck when Jordan Gearey, a case manager with one of the center’s violence prevention programs, walked into the gym.

Gearey, 27, works with youth ages 14 to 24, in the Belmont Cragin, Hermosa and Logan Square neighborhoods. He also likes to box.

He joined the gym around the same time he joined the center and when Ortiz pitched his idea, he recognized the potential benefits.

The center now provides membership funds for about 41 at-risk youth for up to two years with an option to extend the program and add participants.

“There’s nothing more humbling than getting in a boxing ring,” Gearey said. “If you do three, three-minute rounds, or just 9 minutes, what you’re going to take away is discipline and respect for the person that’s across from you.”

Plus, it offered a new way to reach kids that might find other forms of mentorship unappealing.

“A lot of kids involved in street life or gang affiliation don’t have a huge interest in case management, because — as toxic as it is — they already have a support structure in their lives,” he said.

Christian Colunga, 24, trains at The Barracks Boxing Club on the Northwest Side, which offers free training to at-risk youth through the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Christian Colunga, 24, trains at The Barracks Boxing Club on the Northwest Side, which offers free training to at-risk youth through the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

A clean fight

Christian Colunga isn’t new to boxing, but because of the cultural center’s program, he’s been able to train regularly and hopes to have his first professional bout soon.

The sport, he said, changed his life. “It gave me confidence, taught me about myself. It made me a peaceful person,” said Colunga, 24.

Colunga grew up in Franklin Park got into the sport around five years ago, after his dad pushed him into the sport to lose weight. It came into his life di lui at just the right time, too, he said, as there was n’t much supervision at home. His dad, a single father with seven kids, was often gone for work.

“When you don’t have someone telling you how to behave, it’s easy to get caught up in stuff that can get you in trouble,” he said.

After dropping from 160 to 135 pounds, Colunga stuck with the sport for its other benefits, from the community at the gym to the potential to earn a living by doing it. But above all, it helps maintain its equilibrium — and avoid confrontation.

“I have a lot of guilt about getting physical now,” he said. “I ask myself if it’s worth it, and 99% of the time, it isn’t.”

Michael Loria is a staff reporter at the Chicago Sun-Times via Report for Americaa not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster the paper’s coverage of communities on the South Side and West Side.

Christian Colunga, 24, trains at The Barracks Boxing Club on the Northwest Side, where the group has been offering free training to at-risk youth through the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Christian Colunga, 24, trains at The Barracks Boxing Club on the Northwest Side, where the group has been offering free training to at-risk youth through the Puerto Rican Cultural Center.

Anthony Vazquez/Sun Times

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