Fresno’s youngest professional boxer (and quite possibly America’s) rarely stops smiling – even though he has braces.
A freshman at McLane High, Kevin Mendoza isn’t old enough for a driver’s license. Nor is the 15-year-old legally permitted to box professionally in California, where 18 is the minimum age.
In Mexico, however, the rules are different. Which is how Mendoza, well past his bedtime on the evening of April 29, found himself in a Tijuana warehouse attached to a sports and billiards bar named El Perro Salado.
Climbing into a boxing ring is nothing new for Mendoza, a veteran of more than 100 amateur bouts out of Aleman Boxing Fresno.
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This time, however, Mendoza wasn’t wearing protective headgear or a shirt. The gloves on his hands weighed 8 ounces instead of 10, a difference that can be felt with every punch.
Which Mendoza discovered right away when his opponent, 17-year-old Carlos Lopez of Tijuana, landed a straight right above his left eye moments into their bout.
“When I got hit with that first punch I thought, ‘Man, things are real now. This is not amateurs no more,’ ” Mendoza said.
After that first punch, I was good.
Fresno’s youngest pro boxer retreated a couple of steps and rubbed his eye with his glove to ward off blurry vision. The 108-pound light flyweight collected himself and went on to win a four-round unanimous decision.
“I wasn’t too nervous,” Mendoza said. “It kind of felt like another fight, just a little tougher and with less protection. I felt ready enough.”
“He felt the first punch they threw at him,” said Frank Aleman, Mendoza’s trainer. “But once he shook that off he dominated the rest of the fight.”
For his 12 minutes in the ring, double the length of an amateur fight, Mendoza earned a $400 purse. Subtract $50 for a Mexican boxing license and another $50 for required blood and urine tests, and what’s left hardly covers the cost of gas, a hotel room and food.
So, no, this isn’t about money. At least not for now.
“I just love being in the ring,” said Mendoza, whose second bout is scheduled for Friday night – also in Tijuana.
Why a 15-year-old is boxing as a professional – and whether that’s truly in his best long-term interest – is a completely different discussion.
The idea came from Aleman, the burly, soft-spoken former pro boxer who has been honing Mendoza’s ring skills at his southeast Fresno gym for the past seven years.
“I threw it out there for him,” Aleman said. “I told him this was an opportunity for him if he was interested.”
We didn’t make too much of him turning pro because we know it would raise eyebrows. So we just did it.
Frank Aleman, Mendoza’s trainer
Mendoza was interested. But his mother, Sonia Minjarez, initially wasn’t, for the most obvious of reasons:
She didn’t want her teenage son absorbing punches thrown by fully grown man.
“I told him ‘no’ at first. Actually I told him, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” Minjarez said. “But he convinced me it’s what he wanted to do, and I trust Frank with my son. He’s had him since he was 7. I know (Aleman) wouldn’t do anything bad for him.”
The plan is to take things slowly. For now, Mendoza will stick to four-round bouts for at least a year until he gains experience and stamina.
The plan is to take things slow. For now, Mendoza will stick to four-round bouts for at least year until he gains more experience and stamina.
“His skills will be higher than most people’s (in four-round fights),” Aleman said. “The only thing that worries me is looking into the future and seeing him at 17 or 18 being able to fight contenders in a 10-round fight.
“It crossed my mind that he could get hurt. But before that, I’m not worried.”
Unsurprisingly, that view isn’t shared by the medical establishment.
In 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Paediatric Society issued a joint statement warning children and teens not to participate in boxing because their brains are more vulnerable to concussions, which could lead to consequences later in life.
“We recommend young people participate in sports where the prime focus is not deliberate blows to the head,” said Dr. Claire LeBlanc, the statement’s author.
What’s more, as a pro Mendoza does not wear protective headgear designed to reduce the impact of those blows.
“There are a lot of people who think we are crazy for letting him do this,” Minjarez said. “But boxing is his passion.”
There are a lot of people who think we are crazy for letting him do this.
Sonia Minjarez, Mendoza’s mother
As the only pro in the Aleman Boxing Fresno stable, Mendoza can no longer compete alongside his friends in amateur tournaments. Nor can the Fresno native vie for a spot on the U.S. Olympic team.
At 15, Mendoza is too young and inexperienced for the 2016 Games this summer. He didn’t want to wait for the next chance in 2020.
“I think I experienced about everything I could as an amateur,” said Mendoza, whose gold medal at the 2014 Desert Showdown counts as his top result. “If I didn’t (make the 2020 Olympics) I’d feel like I wasted some years that I could’ve been accomplishing something else.”
To bring Mendoza to the attention of Mexican fight promoters, Aleman relied on a Fresno-based promoter/trainer/only-in-boxing character named “Repo” Ric Steve. (Yes, the nickname comes from his days as a car repossessor.)
$400 prize money for 15-year-old Kevin Mendoza’s victorious pro boxing debut in Tijuana
It is “Repo” Ric who touts Mendoza as America’s youngest pro boxer – a distinction that might very well be true but can’t be verified.
As you’d expect from a hype man, “Repo” Ric is full of bluster when discussing Mendoza’s prospects. Probably a little too much. Only when pressed does the promoter concede the 15-year-old needs to be treated with kid gloves.
“Frank and I have to watch out for everything,” he said. “We can’t make no mistakes. We’ve got to do the best that we can for the kid.”
Mendoza is a boy competing in a grown man’s sport. Just three months ago he was fitted with a new set of braces and must wear an extra-thick mouthpiece to keep the metal fittings from cutting into his gums and lips.
Despite the braces, Mendoza seems to always have a smile on his face. Even when Aleman asked him to pose for a photo that was used in the promotional poster before his pro debut.
Despite the braces, Mendoza seems to always be wearing a smile. Even when Aleman asked him to pose for a photo that was used in the promotional poster before his pro debut.
“I told him, ‘No, you’re a boxer. You’ve got to look mean,’ ” Aleman said with a grin of his own. “So we had to take two pictures.”
Mendoza may train five days a week in the gym, but boxing is not his entire life.
Every day after school he gets a ride to his uncle’s ranch west of Highway 99 to take care of a rescue horse named Jack that was so skinny and weak the animal could barely stand up before he started looking after it.
School is important to Mendoza; he sports a 3.5 GPA. He sings in a Mexican banda group that performs before Aleman club fights and has learned from his father, an auto mechanic, how to change the oil and brakes on a car.
Quiz Mendoza about his goals and it’s clear he wants to follow in the footsteps of his idol, undefeated super-lightweight contender Jose Ramirez. It’s also clear he doesn’t want to wait.
“That’s why I started young,” he said. “Hopefully by the age of 18 I’ll have 15,000 (fans) for a fight. Hopefully I’ll be the main event in a big fight here, just like Jose Ramirez.”
Hopefully, hopefully. For now, though, it’s back to the undercard at a Tijuana warehouse.