VISTA — A trio of local youths has punched their way through the regional boxing circuit to compete at nationals next month thanks to a former Air Force boxer’s dream of giving kids a fighting chance.
Under the direction of Vista Boxing Club coach and founder Rudy Moreno, amateur boxers Uleena Torres, Victor “Tony Boy” Villagomez and Antonio Padilla will represent the local gym at the National Silver Gloves tournament starting Feb. 8 in Independence, Mo.
Moreno and his wife, Kenia, started the boxing program in 2018 through their nonprofit organization H.E.RO. Inc. — Helping Everyone Reach Opportunity.
Earlier this month, all three boxers won their respective divisions at the Silver Gloves Region 8 Championships in Compton, earning a chance to compete at nationals.
Silver Gloves is a national amateur boxing program for youth ages 8 to 16. Amateur fighters age 16 and older compete in the Golden Gloves program, which has produced numerous competitors for the Pan-Am and Olympic games.
In December, Torres, 13, won the USA Boxing National Championships in the intermediate female division at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center in Texas. Earlier this month, the 85-pound fighter advanced to National Silver Gloves as the uncontested Region 8 champion.
“My brother was boxing and wanted to see what it was like,” said Torres, who’s only in her second year of the sport. “It was exciting (winning nationals) because I have cousins that box and who are also national champs, and I wanted to be like them.”
At last month’s USA Boxing National Championships in Texas, Villagomez, Moreno’s 10-year-old grandson, took second place in the male bantam (55 pounds) division nationwide. Villagomez, known as “Kid Flash” for his speed, also punched his ticket for the National Silver Gloves tournament after a strong showing at regionals.
Padilla, 16, has returned to the ring after a two-year hiatus but advanced in the junior division to this year’s National Silver Gloves. According to Moreno, the 176-pound Padilla, who previously trained under Chula Vista’s Bobby Lopez, recently beat the No. 3-ranked boxer in his division to qualify for nationals.
For Moreno, the kids’ success results from hard work, which is the heart of the HERO foundation.
“For me, watching these kids’ hard work, dedication and success, that’s what this is all about,” Moreno said. “I’m trying to build champions inside and outside the ring and show them how to be good citizens.”
But years before he started churning out top-ranked boxers and uplifting the lives of Vista’s youth, Moreno had first to conquer his demons. Retiring from the Air Force in 2013, Moreno slowly fell into depression, suffering from anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder that developed after two decades in the military.
Boxing, Moreno said, helped him deal with his symptoms. Two years later, Moreno and his wife started working on plans for a gym to use boxing and fitness “as a vehicle to empower … our youth to feel physically and mentally strong,” according to the HERO website.
The gym eventually grew to serve around 80 kids and gave Moreno the energy to help make a difference in the lives of local youth.
Since the pandemic, Moreno’s HERO nonprofit was forced to leave its old facility along North Santa Fe Avenue. Moreno quickly set up a temporary facility in his backyard, complete with a covered structure, ring and equipment.
And while the club is still in its temporary location, Rudy and Kenia Moreno are soliciting donations and sponsorships to help facilitate the move to a permanent site.
Moreno, who has been coaching boxing since 2005, said the kids are attracted to boxing for various reasons — building self-confidence, making friends, preventing bullying, or just having an after-school activity.
When training boxers, Moreno said it’s all about the fundamentals. Moreno works with each kid to develop their stance, balance and footwork. Learning to throw a punch doesn’t come until the kids are comfortable moving around the ring.
“It’s positive reinforcement,” Moreno said. “You’re going to learn, lead, and you’re going to grow. You’re going to learn the ‘sweet science,’ and once you learn, you can lead as you will teach others. Then you’re going to grow. Not just as a boxer, but as an individual outside boxing.”