Sports

Richard Torrez Jr. fought his way from Tulare to Tokyo’s Olympics. Now, he’s got bigger plans.

For a contender whose dream has been delayed by a global pandemic, Richard Torrez Jr.’s true A-ha moment arrived nearly six years ago, just before hopping a flight to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Torrez Jr, then 15-years-old and set to compete in the Junior World Champions for USA Boxing, received a bag filled with gear and apparel from the American governing body for his tournament appearance.

“It had the American Flag on my jersey and the American flag on my uniform,” Torrez Jr. said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m really fighting for Team USA right now. I’m really going. I’m going to fight different countries across the world.’” 

But the apparel was not the only draw for Torrez Jr., a native of Tulare. While having the opportunity to wear red, white, and blue was certainly a special one, having a little lunch money in his pocket made a difference as well for the teenager. 

“I remember I was on the flight to go to Russia, and they gave me a per diem for lunch,” Torrez Jr. said. “I was like, ‘Man, I’m getting paid to go overseas to box. This is insane, this is amazing, it’s a dream come true.’ That was the first time the dream was coming true. I’m like, ‘I’m doing something right. We can go somewhere with this.’” 

He was right.

Six more years of hard work to build off of his experience with the juniors team, a foreshadow of his future, catapulted the Valley native on the verge of something bigger.

But his lifelong dream dream of being an Olympian was nearly stolen out from under him.

A dream delayed, not dashed

As it has for so many others, the lengthy coronavirus pandemic appeared to have cancelled Torrez Jr.’s dream of making the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

How close was the kid from Tulare to punching his ticket? Just one Olympic Qualifying tournament away.

Handed a No. 1 seed for a qualifying tournament in Argentina and a clear path to Tokyo, Torrez Jr. saw it all vanish when the tournament was cancelled one week out due to the intense spread of the coronavirus.

“It felt like I got punched in the gut a little bit, and I didn’t know what hit me,” Torrez Jr. said. “I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t know what to do.” 

His father and longtime boxing coach, Richard Torrez Sr., said the cancellation let the wind out of their sails. 

“You can get right to the golden rings and suddenly they don’t let you touch them. We were right there,” Torrez Sr. said. “For him I’m sure it was a little depression, like, Man, what’s next? I worked all this time. It’s been my life dream. I busted my hump in order to get to this spot, and now they pulled it away from me.” 

“It was hard for me to find my goal again,” Torrez Jr. added. “But then I go back home – I talk to my Olympic coaches, I talk to my dad, I talk to my friends – and they say, ‘That goal’s still there, but you just have to keep working for it. It’s just a little harder to see.’” 

Now, one year later at the age of 22, Torrez Jr. is finally realizing that lifelong dream.

He departed Tulare to train with Team USA at its Olympic training facilities in Colorado Springs.

And in less than one month, the team will fly to Japan for an acclimation camp before the 32nd Olympiad begins.

“This has been in the works for the past two years, and when I finally got that OK that I’m going, it was like a wave of relief,” Torrez Jr. said. “That was what I was feeling, and then a shock that I’m going.” 

That shock, relief, and excitement that Torrez Jr. experienced was the culmination of a dream that started for him when he was first handed boxing gloves at the age of four. 

Carrying a family legacy across the Pacific

The path from Tulare to Tokyo in 2021 begins with the opening of the Tulare Athletic Boxing Club in 1945 by Manuel Torrez, the Olympian’s grandfather.

The eldest Torrez was no slouch in the ring and was once a Southwestern United States Golden Gloves champion.

A love for the ring was passed on to Torrez Sr., who was a competitive boxer himself in his younger days. When he had his own son in 1999, he knew he wanted to pass on the sport of boxing, just like his father did with him.

However, getting his wife, Kimberly, to sign off on letting their son get in the ring and take punches took some strong convincing. 

“She initially didn’t know I boxed,” Torrez Sr. said. “I boxed pretty extensively when I was younger, and she didn’t even know I boxed until people started telling her, ‘You’re seeing Richard Torrez, that guy’s a fighter.’” 

Torrez Sr. ranked as high as fourth in the world as an amateur with a career record of 226-36-4. Much like his son, Olympic dreams called him to the 1984 Olympic trials. But they ultimately rest there, as he faltered in the semifinals.

To the father, boxing instilled in him a set of leadership skills and built character unlike anything else. When Torrez Jr. was born, he worked out a deal with his wife to keep boxing in the family. 

It was a simple deal: Torrez Jr. would box until the age of 16. After that, he would be free to leave it behind if he wanted. 

Kimberly had one other stipulation if she was going to see her son in the ring.

“Finally she relented and said, ‘As long as you’re in his corner every time, I’ll let him box,’” Torrez Sr. said. 

That spurred on another relationship between father and son: mentor and mentee.

“My dad knows when I’m tired. My dad knows when I’m angry. My dad known when I’m upset, happy, anything,” Torrez Jr. said. “He could tell by my eyes, and I feel like that feeling is mutual. I do the same thing with him when he’s in the corner, if he’s nervous, if he’s telling me the truth. He knows what to say, what to do to really keep me focused or keep me refocused, so having him in the corner is definitely a blessing. It’s kind of like talking to myself almost, in a way. I love him as a coach.” 

The family partnership has proven to be beyond successful.

Torrez Jr. competed in his first boxing competition at the age of eight. By age 10, he won his first national title.

As the current No. 1 ranked super heavyweight (200 pounds and up) in North America, he has not lost on U.S. soil in eight years.

Excellence for the younger Torrez wasn’t limited to the ropes of the boxing ring, either, as he matched his brawny accomplishments with considerable brain power.

Torrez Jr. graduated from Tulare’s Mission Oak High School in 2017 as its class valedictorian, a football and track and field standout, along with the president of the school’s chess club and member of the robotics team.

“I really tried to busy my day up,” Torrez Jr. said of his high school pursuits beyond the gym.

Yet, the coaching relationship between father and son worked, in part, due to Torrez Sr.’s aversion to living out his dreams through his son, a common problem in athletic families.

And though there is a shared the dream of representing the United States in the Olympics, Torrez Sr. is conscious about staying away from the “overbearing father” trope and allowing his son to guide his own path.

“It’s difficult, you never want to live vicariously through your kids, because he’s the one getting punched,” Torrez Sr. said. “I’ve told him many times, ‘In the event that you tell me one day ‘I don’t want to fight anymore, I’m done,’ that’s your choice. I’m not getting hit anymore. If you allow me to, please let me go along on the ride with you, because this is going to be a ride.’” 

That ride has certainly been a challenge at times. Both father and son noted that it’s never fun to have to go home with the coach. 

“When I was a little kid, coming home with the coach is never a fun thing to do, maybe after a bad sparring or something like that,” Torrez Jr. said. “They weren’t always my best moments, but I wouldn’t change it for the world. And I’m really happy that I went through all those struggles with him to have the relationship we have today.” 

While the father and son have traversed the road to Tokyo, come July Torrez Jr. will go at it alone.

While Torrez Sr. had the opportunity to join Team USA as a coach for the Games, he has a different set of responsibilities that keep him in Tulare, as the Dean of Students for Tulare’s Mission Oak High School.

That means he’ll have to settle for watching the Olympics on TV. He won’t be screaming and yelling as his son throws punches in the ring, and he won’t have a huge party to celebrate. Instead he’ll sit with his wife and quietly analyze the fights. 

“Even right now when I think about it I get this nervousness,” Torrez Sr. said. “I’d rather be the one in there getting hit, rather than my son. It hurts when I see him get hit.” 

Inside Olympic preparation

In Torrez Sr.’s stead are the various Team USA officials set to guide Torrez Jr. and his teammates to gold-medal glory.

One, Team USA Boxing High Performance Director Matt Johnson, will travel to Tokyo along with the various coaches and support staff. His role is to oversee all operations and planning for the boxing teams. 

Johnson has worked with Torrez Jr. since the boxer was 15-years-old and has seen immense growth over the years. 

“He’s always been a really smart kid, so he’s always had the unique set of skills and just kind of a mindset both in boxing and out,” Johnson said. “As we’ve seen him grow within the program, he’s really taken a lot more on. He’s always a leader in training, and he works his butt off on a daily basis. So when you put that together for the amount of years that he’s been in the sport of boxing, it’s no wonder that he’s gotten to the place that he’s at and now headed to Tokyo this summer.” 

Johnson said Torrez Jr. has been one of the most competitive boxers on the team over the years, and the key to coming out on top in Tokyo will be to maintain his focus amid all the distractions of the world’s biggest stage. 

“We see a lot of people that try to change something from what got them there to the games,” Johnson said. “So for us, for Richard, and for the rest of the team, it’s continuing to do the little things on a daily basis, continuing to focus on performance and one-fight-at-a-time type mentality. And if we do that and get the best performance out of Richard, we have no doubt that the results will speak for themselves and he’ll continue to move on in the tournament and end up on the podium at the end of it.” 

That challenge of staying focused on the task-at-hand might actually be a little easier because of the on-going pandemic. Athletes will be confined to the Olympic Village and will not have an opportunity to do any sightseeing around Tokyo. 

That is a welcome restriction for Torrez Jr., making the Olympics feel more like all of the other tournaments that he has competed in. 

“When we’re training for boxing and when we have an international tournament, usually all we get to see is the hotel, the fight venue and then the podium,” Torrez Jr. said.

“It turns it from the Olympics back to another day on the job, and I appreciate that in a way.” 

The journey isn’t enough. The Tularean has a destination in mind.

What is Torrez jr. looking forward to in Japan? It’s simple.

“The gold medal. That’s what I’m really looking forward towards. It’s something I’ve been planning on,” Torrez Jr. said.

“My journey’s not done. We’re about halfway there now. The way I’m thinking about it is I kind of have my world in my hand right now, my world that’s going to be set for the next 10 years, and the next two months dictate my world for the next 10 years. I’m ready, I’m eager and I’m yearning for that gold medal.” 

What’s the path to the podium?

Torrez Jr.’s biggest roadblock to gold might be against Uzbekistan’s Bakhodir Jalolov, who knocked him unconscious in the first round in a 2019 fight, the first time that ever happened to Torrez.

Jalolov competed at the Olympics in 2016 and turned professional before that fight against Torrez Jr. 

The Tulare boxer has had Jalolov in mind during his training and is hoping for a rematch to turn the tables from last time. 

“I actually got knocked out by him in the world championships, got caught with a good shot, and I’m yearning for that fight,” Torrez Jr. said. “I’m really looking forward for that fight. I’ve been training really hard, not just for him, but there’s been him in the back of my mind that I really want to get. I want to get that back.” 

Regardless of if Torrez Jr. gets a shot at redemption against Jalolov in Tokyo, humble beginnings in Tulare have propelled the youngster to the brink of global victory. 

For Torrez Sr., the 76-year journey through the family-run Tulare Athletic Boxing Club, has allowed him to take pride in passing on a family tradition not only to his Olympic-bound son, but to others in the south Valley community.

For Torrez Jr. the chance to take an often down-on-its-luck region and a three-generation dream to the next level are only just beginning.

“This town really gave me some good outlets for growth,” Torrez said. “Tulare’s very much shaped me into the person I am today, and I’m bringing Tulare with me to Tokyo.”

Daniel Gligich is a reporter for The San Joaquin Valley Sun, focusing on Fresno State Athletics and the southern San Joaquin Valley. Email him at daniel.gligich@sjvsun.com.