At the Matt Dishman Community Center in Northeast Portland, the music is loud, the punches are hard and the athletes are young.

Inside a workout room, speed bags drum against the mitted paws of three young boxers. Hip-hop music — some of it in Spanish — softens the sound of punches thrown by boys sparring in the ring. The force behind each throw is obvious, the energy palpable, the smell of sweat pungent.

Eleven-year-old Exson Sanchez makes the one- to two-hour trek to the gym from his home in Longview several days a week, braving Portland traffic with his father, 32-year-old Oswaldo Sanchez.

Sanchez, a 6th-grader at Monticello Middle School, is a wide-eyed boy of average height with a head of black hair and a smile that betrays the tough boxer persona. He trains in the weight room a couple of times a week. The remaining days are reserved for sparring. “If they don’t get in the weight room, (the boxers) are seriously weak,” said Sanchez’s coach, Stanley Dunn.

After a Tuesday evening practice in early March, Sanchez rested on a workout bench, guzzling water. Sweat clung to his hair. Inside the gym, he’s a boxer, but when the gloves come off, he is like any other kid.

“The biggest challenge is I have to train like every day, and sometimes I don’t have time to play with my friends and stuff like that,” he said. “But then I also think if I train I can have a good future. ... It’s better doing that than going out and playing with my friends.”

That determination, among other things, is what keeps Sanchez undefeated. He began training in Seattle with his father when he was 8 1/2 years old. He had his first fight when he was 10. He now has 24 fights under his belt and has yet to be defeated.

“To have a kid that has more than 10 fights, they’ve probably been boxing for more than a year,” Dunn said. Most kids who come to train at the gym leave once they receive their first punch to the face or realize the time commitment of training, Dunn said. Only about 10 percent of kids stay for the long haul.

“Any sport you need to work hard, but boxing, to me, Exson has to train really hard to win,” Oswaldo said from the community center’s weight room. It was a Tuesday evening, and Sanchez was shadow boxing alongside his training partners, 11-year-old Isidro Acosta and 12-year-old Santiago Franco. Physically, Acosta and Franco are opposites. Franco is the tall, lean one; Acosta short and stocky. But Acosta’s big personality makes up for the difference in height.

“See this chin right here?” Acosta asked with a smirk. He pointed to his jaw. “It’s made of steel.”

The three boys train at the Matt Dishman Community Center’s small weight room while gym-goers carry on. No one seems to notice the three young boxers throwing air punches opposite the treadmills and elliptical trainers. The boys carry on like that for two hours. They switch between jumping rope, curling a weight bar and shadow boxing — all without complaint of being too hot, too thirsty or too tired.

“I work hard,” Sanchez said at the end of practice. “I just think about how much time I put into it, and I like boxing. I like training. I want to keep in shape, too, because, you know, I want to be strong like my dad.”

Competitive regimen

Sanchez first began boxing in Seattle. His dad, he said, introduced him to the sport as a way to stay in shape.

“After that I liked boxing and I stayed on it,” he said. His first fight was against Franco -- it was Franco’s third fight. Though Sanchez won, he said the former rivals share no hard feelings. They train together and tease each other. Their former rivalry is now a medium to improve.

“In the beginning, Exson would beat Santiago enough that he would just beat him up,” Dunn said. “Now (Santiago) is good enough that they’re competitive.”

Franco and Acosta each have more than 30 fights under their belts, and they’ve won more than they’ve lost. Sanchez has an undefeated streak to defend, though, which Dunn said is unique for a boy his age.

“It’s rare. Very rare,” Dunn said. “(Exson) has a tremendous amount of speed. I knew he was going to be a big plus -- a huge plus -- in his weight division.”

Earlier this year, Sanchez won his second straight National Silver Gloves Championship in Kansas City. Despite the win, Dunn said there’s room for improvement.

“Even though he won, he could’ve done a lot better. And one of the reasons he’s not doing better is because he’s not here with me.”

Unlike his training partners who live in Portland, Sanchez only practices three to four days a week at the community center. To make practicing at home possible, his dad transformed a storage room in their home into a place where he can shadow box -- practice punching without a partner and without actually hitting anything. His dad, who coaches his son at home, began boxing when he lived in Guadalajara. He moved to the U.S. when he was 17, later settling in Seattle before moving to Longview last June. While in Seattle, Sanchez and his father practiced at the White Center PAL Boxing Club.

After Sanchez moved with his family to Longview, he began practicing at a Kelso gym. But his father said Knott Street Boxing provided more opportunities than what the local gym could offer.

“They get more sponsors, and they pay for him to travel,” Oswaldo said. “I know it’s good for him.”

Knott Street Boxing acquired a nonprofit status a few months ago, which makes it possible for the club to receive money from such sponsors as the Multnomah Athletic Club, Laborer’s International Union of North America and Stanich’s in Portland. They use the money to pay for monthly expenses and travel costs.

“A lot of kids can’t afford (the cost), period,” Dunn said. “Our sponsorship keeps us alive. In the beginning, we were doing no shows. I had to go out and hustle money in order for us to do something.

“Without our sponsorship, we would probably not be going nowhere.”

Knott Street, past and present

A portion of Knott Street Boxing’s history sits in a showcase at the Matt Dishman Community Center. Trophies of various heights are stacked alongside black-and-white newspaper clippings that detail victories of wrestlers who have come and gone. The contents of the glass case date back to the 1950s; its most current trophies are relics of the ’80s.

The boxing club has been around for decades. One newspaper clipping details the life of Clyde Quinsenberry, who began coaching the club back when the Matt Dishman Community Center was still operating as the Knott Street Community Center.

“He’s like the godfather of the Knott Street Boxing team,” Dunn said. Other clippings detail the careers of Bill Cross, a national champion, and Chuck Lincoln, the original coach hired when the club came to fruition in the ’50s.

According to a sign that hangs in the hallway of the community center, the decades-old boxing club has graduated a number of champions. From the 1950s through 1972, Knott Street boxers claimed 40 individual Golden Glove titles in weight divisions ranging from 112 to 178 pounds. It also has won team championships spanning Oregon, Tacoma, Seattle and Canada.

Other newspaper clippings tell a different side of the boxing paradigm. One headline reads, “Portland boxer turns life around.” It’s the story of a man who overcame a troubled background to become one of the top amateur boxers in the country.

In addition to grooming boxers for fights, the boxing club provides guidance and mentorship to at-risk youth. Dunn’s own son became involved with the wrong crowd after missing a chance to compete at the U.S. Olympics.

Dunn, who was born and raised on Knott Street, said he decided to coach when he first brought his son Cory to the community center. Cory was 9 years old at the time, almost the same age as Dunn’s current young boxers. During his boxing career, Cory earned the title of Tacoma Golden Glove Champion three years in a row. In 2011, he placed fifth at the Olympic trials, just missing a spot on the team that competed in London..

Dunn said his son had trouble moving on after not placing in the top four.

“He came in 5th and hasn’t been right since,” Dunn said.

“Right now he would either be on Spike or HBO or those other fighter channels, but it happens to a lot of kids in the boxing world. A lot of kids don’t stay straight,” Dunn added. “That’s what I’m trying to avoid these kids getting into.”

Dunn said that boxing helps kids stay on the right track by keeping them focused.

“It’s a desire,” he explained. “But once you lose that desire and pick up other activities, you get lost.”

Dunn sees the same potential his son Cory had in several of his young boxers, including Sanchez.

“They’re getting there,” he said.

Sanchez’s father has just as much faith in his son’s talent. He said his son’s strengths lie in his ability to read his opponents.

“He adapts,” he said. “He reads the moment. Kids jump in the ring and throw punches. Exson reads the moment and he listens to his coaches. That’s important.”

“A lot of coaches tell me he has a future,” he added. Oswaldo Sanchez said he eventually wants to relocate to Portland to be closer to the gym and provide his son the ability to practice more often.

Exson Sanchez’s own dreams are in the same vein of his coach and his father. Someday he wants to become a professional boxer, he said. When asked to name fighters he looks up to, his answer is typical of an 11-year-old boy: Oscar de la Hoya and, of course, his dad.

“My dad inspired me because he works hard, too. He works hard to support me and my family. He likes me doing boxing because he knows I have talent,” Sanchez said after one of his evening practices. He sat on a workout bench, sipping from one of the bottles of water his dad purchased for him and his teammates.

“I look up to probably my dad because he works really hard and stuff,” he said. “I try to work my hardest in boxing so I can make him proud.”

With an unbroken record, the future looks bright for Sanchez. “I mean sometimes like I train a lot and stuff and sometimes I get tired training, but then I think how much I put into it and I think, ‘why quit now?’”

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Contact Daily News reporter Sarah Grothjan at sgrothjan@tdn.com or 360-577-2541.


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