Ex-boxing champions inspire youth through training, guiding them away from past errors

Second chance champions
Fres Oquendo, a former heavyweight champion, does pads work with his student in Melrose Park, Ill., in May. Dozens of kids come to Oquendo’s classes every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. (Rika Kojima/Medill)

By Jason Beeferman, Qi Zhao and Rika Kojima
Medill Reports

A former heavyweight champion, Fres Oquendo, and an Olympic bronze medalist, Nate Jones, have joined forces to teach boxing to teenagers and kids in Melrose Park, Ill. Boxing provided a safe haven during their troubled past as teenagers. Their mission is to teach disciplines keeping youth away from drugs and street violence. 



Jose Barragan:  When I was 11, I started watching boxing fights, and I kind of got into it. So I decided – so me and my parents decided to look for a gym. 

I have big dreams of fighting in an arena full of people, cheering my name, hoping to get a knockout.


Announcer: From Chicago, Illinois. Fast Fres Oquendo 


Fres Oquendo: I started at the age of 13 at the Chicago Park District. I was one of those kids, at the age of 13, growing up in the Chicago housing projects, Lathrop Homes, which is pretty rough. And boxing was a safe haven. It taught me to say no to gangs and drugs. If it wasn’t for boxing, I don’t know if I would be here with you today.


Oquendo: There you go, champ. Pay attention. One, two, three, four, five. 


Oquendo: Fres Oquendo Boxing Academy, which is FOBA foundation, preventing youth violence through boxing. I have several programs. I have a herb garden; I have yoga for the kids, mental health awareness. 


Harry Glass: Just. Just twos


Coach: Here’s our heavyweight champion over there. Fres, wanna come up here a minute? He’s the one that won the Open Heavyweight. This is Fres Oquendo 


Omar Perez: Fres, Fres is a great man, I’m not just saying that because he’s my friend. It’s like, seriously, if it wasn’t for him, God knows what I would have been. 


Glass: Cuz, if I was a kid and this program was around, I would’ve loved to be in this program. Especially with coaches like Fres and Nate. That’s like top-tier coaches. Like, you really can’t get much better than that.


Oquendo: There you go, you stay balanced. 


Barragan: Coach Fres is very a nice and humble person. He’s very loveful to us, all of us. He’s always recording us, telling us that we’re doing good and stuff.


Kevin Salinas: He’s such a nice and humble person, he’s always there when you need him, whether it be boxing or just life. He’s helping a lot with my mental health too. It’s more of the things he does outside of the boxing ring that I think makes him a great person. ‘Cause he does a lot of good things for boxing and for other kids, and I just think outside of the ring he’s such a humble and amazing person


Glass: One one, one one, one two, one two, one two. 


Oquendo: OK, take your time. No rush. There you go, a little better. Keep them up. There you go, champ. Stay balanced. Bend your knees a little bit. 


Oquendo: Me and Nate, you know, Coach Nate, we’ve been in their foot. We’ve been their shoes. You know, I’m a champion of second chances you know. After a quarter century ago, I finally got my pardon. The governor, (J.B) Pritzker, he ended up pardoning me, clemency, of a record that I had, a felony, when I was a teenager. You know, we all make mistakes. And that’s why I taught these kids,  I’m a champion of second chances ‘cause, you know, God, and, you know, people gave me a second chance growing up in the Chicago housing projects. You know, I probably wouldn’t be here if they still dwell on having a record.  But, you know, people change in life, and I’m an advocate to that and these kids see that. 


Nate Jones: No hard. Not too hard. Light. Smooth, smooth, smooth.

Being from the projects, in 1992 I ended up going to prison. While in prison I decided to start back training. And once I started training again, I fell in love with the game again. And when I came home from prison, that love just kept going.And so I didn’t wanna go back to the streets, and so I stayed stuck with boxing. One of my dreams was making the Olympic team. ‘Cuz I told everybody in prison I was going to the next Olympics. And they laughed at me. They thought I was crazy. Two years later, I was in the next Olympics. I believe in giving back because I was once that kid in the projects that was reaching out for help and some attention. I see these young kids, I see little Nate Jones. Don’t matter if they’re Spanish, Black, white; it doesn’t matter. These kids need a chance in life.

Omar Perez: I was, myself, was an alcoholic for many years. I got kicked out of school. I got, I was in fights with the police. I was, I was, I was all over the place. And, you know, there was, I was at really, really, really dark places that Fres knows, only Fres knows about. And ‘cuz when kids are dealing with that, I tell them, man,  it’s jails, institutions and death. If you’ve been to those two, the only thing that is expecting is death. The only way to rise above is to have faith in yourself and do, follow the lead of other people. Be with people that want, you want to be with. You see, I came out, I did it. You guys see, like my, my stuff that I do: Just follow my lead.

Oquendo: She’s a Labradoodle actually. She is a good baby. Come here, Sophie. Come on, Sophie. Sophie. 

Oquendo:  And this (is) the most prestigious fight in my career. Chris Byrd, he was the world heavyweight champ, and that’s one of the most controversial. Even George Foreman was the announcer, HBO and millions of people watched it around the world, seen that fight. And you know, that’s another world champ, Evander Holyfield, that the whole world seen me beat, controversial decision. 

Oquendo: You know, a lot of hard work and sacrifice I had to go through. There’s my peace. This is my peace. One of my little kids…Especially, coming from Puerto Rico, at the time, when I was born, it was kind of a third world. At the age of 1, when I moved to Chicago with my family, with Mom and the siblings, and we were at Humboldt Park, pretty rough, back in the days. Land of mine, you know. It’s like therapy. Great neighbors, you know.  Positive neighbors. Professionals. They work hard. 

Oquendo: You will see. Hey, Kev.

Salinas: Hi, coach. 

Oquendo: Are you at the gym yet? 

Salinas: Oh, yeah, started to get warmed up right now. 

Oquendo: Oh, OK, OK. We should be over there in like in 20 minutes. Are you, are you there? I mean.

Salinas: Yeah, I’m already here. 

Oquendo: OK, you wanna do a little pad work? 

Salinas: Yeah, sounds good.


Oquendo: Last one, left hook, right hand. So 10, left hook, right hand. Ten, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10. Bop. Bop. Beautiful.  One more time. Nice. Three jabs. 

You hit the bag, champ?

Salinas: Good, great. 

Rika Kojima: Are you ready to fight? 

Salinas:Yes, getting ready to win. Feel good already. 


Radio announcer: About summer kicking off in Chicago, 94.7…

Spectator: As a matter of fact, he was produced from the community. The Park District and the Golden Gloves. 

Oquendo: See it? Exactly, that’s how far we go.

Spectator: He came up in the same program, same thing. 

Oquendo: You hear that, guys?

Spectator: Don’t put your weight. Let me do that, OK?

Salinas: I’ve been very prepared for this, I’ve been bugging Fres to find me a fight, and it finally happened, so we’re gonna get to do it and have fun. Before I met Fres, I used to be like really bad and lazy and used like not want to practice or do anything. I’d go to work. Fres showed me that I wanna be someone in life, and I wanna bring my name up there, so people know my name in the future when I box. So I think he helped me a lot to become a man in a way. 

Spectator: What kind of moisturizer do you use?

Mario Melin: We’ve known Fres for two years already. And yes, my son was a little, he was really apart from us. But with the advice he has given him in fighting. Because you have to fight for it because Fres is talking to him every day: “How are you? What are you going to do? Where are you going?” Fres has really fought a lot.  But yes, he has gotten him through. Kevin has really gotten through it with the help of Fres, honestly. And the truth is that he’s a person that doesn’t just focus on himself. He helps the community a lot. He helps many men so that they become something in life. 


Salinas: The guy didn’t show up, and I guess he couldn’t make it on time. And I’m gonna fight next week. I already confirmed it with Coach Fres, and we are gonna be at Franklin Park for sure next week. 

Gabriel Ford: Working with Nate, he just put me in the right mindset. Right discipline. I think it made me a good person. I was just having so much fun in high school that I was like skipping classes, but when I got into boxing, I became more disciplined. Over the summer,  it was like I became more focused. And I started doing real good in school. 

Jones: Well, I wish he would have came because he would have fought. We would have weighed him in, we would have registered and signed his name up. He had to take those steps to fight. He had to be here at six o’clock. If he wasn’t here at six. He wouldn’t have registered. He had to register his name, show him his boxing bout and then you go from there. He messed up. He messed up. He should have came. It’s too late now.


Jones: Come on. Let’s go, Gabe. Put your hands up, put your hands up. Use your jabs. Come on, get up. We need a big round.  Come on. Work, Gabe. Good work. Work, Gabe. Work, Gabe. Work, Gabe. Don’t stop, Gabe. Don’t stop, Gabe. Oh yeah! Oh yeah. Oh yeah.


Referee: Out of the blue corner, representing Taylor. 


Oquendo: Boxing teach a lot of discipline. Discipline goes very far, especially for these kids, you know, a lot of them are rough on the edges, but the discipline with the sport, it changes the narrative, and that’s why these kids, not only successful in the ring, but most importantly, being successful out of the ring. 


Barragan: Boxing will help you achieve your dreams by — 


Oquendo: There you go, stay balanced. Stay balanced. 


Barragan: It makes you wanna work harder to help your parents out. 


Oquendo: Again. 


Barragan: They suffered for us. Now we want to pay them back. With everything that they did for us. 

Jason Beeferman is a combined bachelor’s and master’s student in the video & broadcast specialization at Northwestern University. He is also currently a government reporting intern at The Dallas Morning News. Previously, he was a reporting fellow for The Texas Tribune and an intern with the Chicago Sun-Times and The New York Post. You can contact him on Twitter

Qi Zhao is a master’s student of health, science and environment journalism at Northwestern University. She is currently a freelance writer for WebMD, Cicero Independiente and Chicago Health. You can contact her on Twitter 

Rika Kojima is a Medill graduate student in the social justice specialization at Northwestern University. She is passionate about creating documentaries of underrepresented communities through a social justice lens. You can contact her on Linkedin