Two brothers, Jairo and Zico Gonzalez — both former trainees at Primo Boxing —have created Five Directions Community Club, a new space for the next wave of young fighters to train and learn the “sweet science” of boxing, with a focus on well-being and self-confidence.
Jairo was training friends, their brothers, cousins, and kids in backyards around Santa Barbara prior to the pandemic, and when schools shut down and youth were left with a lot of extra time he noticed many were spending it at home and becoming restless. “That’s what we saw, kids stuck at home, on their video games, on their tablets, on their computers. Not really being active,” he said.
The idea of opening an actual gym to train his athletes seemed far-fetched at first, he said, especially given the timing. But after some encouragement from friends and family, he decided to go for it. “At first it was scary, cause of the times, and the virus,” Jairo said. “But something in my heart just told me to do it, there’s a need for it.”
From the beginning, it was important that the gym, its trainers, and equipment be accessible to all families, regardless of income. Kids train free every day at the space, which is near the Santa Barbara Airport, tucked behind Casey’s Garage on Aero Camino.
Soon after opening, word spread about the free classes. Today, during the kid’s session, Jairo’s wife, Dolores Torres, corrals a group of 20 to 30 children as young as age six, and leads them through a gauntlet of skills stations. Some kids strap gloves on and get one-on-one time on the pads with Jairo and Ziko, some work on footwork in the ring, and some work the bags for speed and power.
After three minutes, the bell goes off. The kids have one minute to catch a breath, swill some water, switch stations before the next round begins. It’s a coordinated, familiar dance, and the children listen to the trainers’ instructions with focused attention.
Over the years, with the concerns over violent sports like football and boxing, youth participation has dwindled. Boxing fell out of favor to more popular martial arts, and gyms that offered courses were priced toward the upper middle class with disposable income. Community gyms, and the grassroots boxing pipeline, nearly faded away.
“It became commercial. Almost like a luxury. Everywhere you go, it’s like a car payment just to get your kid involved,“ Jairo said. “These things are needed, and they’re priced at such a high rate. These parents can’t afford to send their kids there.”
The gym recently had a few members fight at an amateur event in Santa Maria, and many of the kids and families drove up to attend. Two fighters, Eduardo Lino and Josh Inda, came home with championship belts. Zico and their youngest fighter, Isaak Huerta, lost in tough decisions, but they are taking them in stride and using their losses as chances to grow.
“Luckily we don’t come back to the drawing board empty handed; we got a lot of things we can work on,“ Zico said. “Instead of coming out with an ‘L’ for a loss, we definitely came out with a lesson learned.”
Growth is key to the culture at Five Directions. Jairo works with nonprofit Generation Red Road, which promotes generational healing and revitalization in indigenous communities, to provide group sessions, called “circles,” to allow a chance to process personal issues.
“You sit in circle, you get some of that stuff off your chest, get rid of the clutter, and you start to feel amazing,” Jairo said. Even the name of the club is a nod to Aztec folklore, and the directions of the compass with the addition of the center. “The heart, you can’t forget the center,” he said.
It also represents the different nations of humanity, the seasons, the elements, and balance. “What we’re trying to work on is balance: the mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. That goes a long way in the ring: you’re able to stay more composed, you’re not so frantic in the heat of the moment, you’re able to settle down in a way.”
Some parents have told the brothers that their children have made huge strides under their training. One student struggled with acting out aggressively at home and at school, Zico said, and after daily sessions the student has learned to manage his anger and behavior. It’s providing him the same outlet Zico and his brother found at Primo when they were young.
“Being able to see kids reenact what I went through and better themselves, it feels amazing. It’s a feeling that can’t be described,” Zico said. “It’s beyond just fighting, beyond being just a gruesome sport. It’s a beautiful sport.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled Eduardo Lino’s last name.