Erick De Leon is an 18-year-old boxing star who grew up in Detroit’s Mexican community. He’s fighting to win matches–as well as his citizenship. Martina Guzman produced this radio story for Fi2W’s public radio partner WDET.[audio: Erick_De_Leon.mp3]
DETROIT–When Roberto Aguilar helped open the doors of a gym on the second floor of an old Veterans Hall in Southwest Detroit, he never expected to get a student who would make boxing history. His intent was simply to give Latino kids a safe haven in a neighborhood rampant with crime and a growing gang presence.
“Most importantly they’re not on the streets from four to seven, I know they’re up here and they’re safe,” Aguilar said.
A former boxer himself, Aguilar said he never intended to go into the boxing business, but he saw that Detroit’s Mexican community lacked sports outlets. Once he started looking, Aguilar found there were plenty of kids who wanted to box, so in 2001 he helped open the Southwest Boxing Gym in its present location. Aguilar was committed to mentoring young Latinos and teaching them the discipline it takes to train. But not all of the kids that came to the gym would stay. “Boxing is a revolving door, maybe 80 percent of the kids will go, they’ll be here for a couple of weeks,” Aguilar said.
That wasn’t the case with Erick De Leon.
Soon after Aguilar opened the gym, Erick showed up. He was a skinny eight-year-old who told Aguilar he wanted to box. Erick had started begging his father to let him box at the tender age of seven. The senior De Leon, an immigrant from Mexico who brought Erick to the U.S. as a small child, felt he was too young and waited until his son was eight years old to indulge his whim. Thinking he would grow out of it, the senior De Leon took him to Southwest Boxing, but once Erick began training the opposite happened–he fell in love with the sport, trained hard, and became a competitive fighter.
De Leon began competing in local tournaments almost immediately, and with the support of Aguilar he signed up for regional and national matches. De Leon loved competing, but the costs of getting to tournaments became more and more expensive. Attending tournaments was not always easy for a day laborer with three children and a stay-at-home wife. The senior De Leon would have to take time off from his construction job and cover the cost of transportation, food and hotels. But Aguilar was fond of Erick and began helping the senior De Leon and other boxing coaches take him to tournaments.
De Leon showed exceptional athletic ability and soon was ready for more professional training. In 2005, legendary boxing trainer Emanuel Steward watched De Leon knock out his opponent in the second round of a bout at the Palace of Auburn Hills, Michigan. Impressed by the young Mexican immigrant’s skill, Steward went to meet him after the match. The meeting led to Steward becoming De Leon’s trainer. It also allowed the boy to fulfill one of his personal dreams–to meet his hero, boxing champion Oscar De la Hoya.
“I told him if he would win a national tournament that was coming up I would take him to meet Oscar in person while I was doing one of my HBO broadcasts,” Steward said. Erick’s dedication to training paid off–while he was still in high school he won the 2008 Silver Gloves National Championship.
“And so I took him to Las Vegas, he had his suit and tie on and I had him meet with Oscar and he told Oscar, ‘You’re my hero but I’m going to be better than you,’ and Oscar liked him,” Steward said.
Back in Detroit, Aguilar is proud of the work he does and continues to train and mentor young Latinos from the city’s Mexican neighborhood, but he can’t help but light up when he talks about De Leon, his his prize pupil.
“I believe that Erick De Leon can do for Southwest Detroit what Oscar’s done for East LA. I do believe he’s that one, he’s that golden,” Aguilar said.
But Erick’s next high-stakes fight doesn’t involve gloves. He’d like to compete for the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics–but he’ll qualify only if he’s able to obtain a green card before the end of the year. Even then, no matter how hard he punches, this talented immigrant cannot compete on a national level until he becomes a U.S. citizen.