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OKLAHOMA CITY (Free Press) — A boxing gym in South OKC serves the community by offering an atmosphere centered around family, commitment, structure, and a disciplined goal-oriented work ethic. 

An almost empty space that started with a few punching bags and a boxing ring made out of duct tape now offers Oklahoma City youth and adults a safe place to come together and build community, family, and character through disciplined training. 

Today, Rival Boxing Gym has 15 heavy bags, eight double end bags, four speed bags, and a roped and padded boxing ring among the regular equipment found in any exercising establishment.

The boxing gym opened its doors eight years ago after Nikki Burleson and Eric Puente decided to take over what used to be Azteca Boxing located in the back alley South of 25th Street just east of South Hudson Avenue within the Historic Capitol Hill District.

The nonprofit establishment runs a low-budget operation where coaches volunteer so that members of the community, especially kids, from all backgrounds can decompress from the day, connect with other fighters and learn the ropes.

Burleson is the owner and backbone of Rival Boxing Gym.

She coaches almost 50 people alongside Juwan Cubit and Rodney Porter, who replaced Puente after taking time off to focus on his health.

Porter has been around boxing for over 30 years and met Burleson at Azteca Boxing when he started coaching her.
After a few years of training, she decided to take over the gym and get serious with the creation of a safe space for kids and members of the community to develop boxing skills and grow as humans. 

Rival Boxing Gym currently offers the Little Rivals training sessions for kids between 5 to 10 years old, Junior Rivals for 11 to 15-year-olds, and the adult session for people 16 years old and over.

Burleson also coaches a women-only class every Saturday at 10 a.m.

Out of the 50 members of the community who train at Rival Boxing Gym, about 20 compete on some level and three are getting ready to participate in the national tournament next week.

Lucy Armendariz, 15, Eric Valencia, 18, and Brandon Noriega, 12, are getting ready to compete again at the 2021 USA Boxing National Championship in Shreveport, Louisiana.

For this tournament, the fighters will travel with coach Burleson and face their first opponent Monday December 6th. 

Qualifying for next level

As the boxers win, they qualify for the next fight the following day. 

Out of the 32 fighters participating in the nationals, only one will claim the title after winning a fifth consecutive fight on December 11th.

Armendariz recently became the first Rival Gym boxer to win a national competition after claiming the 2021 Silver Gloves Championship.

Eric Valencia is originally from Garden City, Kansas, and has been in Oklahoma City for the past months training with coach Burleson at Rival Boxing Gym.

Valencia met Burleson over eight years ago and decided to come to this boxing gym to focus, deepen his skills and stay out of trouble.

Saving lives

“Boxing gyms around the country save a lot of lives. [Boxing gyms] keep a lot of people out of trouble. Keeps me out of trouble and I know boxing keeps a lot of other kids off the streets,” Valencia told Free Press. 

He said the sport helps people from harsh backgrounds stay focused and off the streets.

“For like two hours of the day [boxing] keeps people away from their lives outside the gym and other things going on,” he said.

“Forget about the world”

Edgar Trejo-Santos was born and raised in Oklahoma City. 

He has been boxing for over ten years and has trained with Burleson since she opened Rival Boxing.

Trejo-Santos is currently training hard for his professional debut in February 2022.

The 19-year-old works full time as a construction worker laying floor and trains at the gym between 4 and 5 days a week.

“You come in here and you forget about the world and you just worry about what’s between you and the [punching] bag,” Trejo-Santos told Free Press. 

He also said that everyone that comes to the gym “becomes family, gets treated as a family and is accepted as a family.”

“We grow bonds together and those bonds don’t go away with time,” Trejo-Santos told Free Press.

Dez Rush, 21, originally from Lawton, is attending college in Oklahoma City and has been training at Rival Boxing Gym for more than a year.

“This gym particularly attracted me because of our coach. She is a woman in a male-dominant sport, you know? Women don’t really get respect. But seeing how she controls this environment and coaches the boxers, all you see is greatness. It just shows that women are capable of doing big things and that keeps me motivated and confident,” Rush told us.

Coach Rodney Porter said he is constantly inspired by the kids and their commitment.

He volunteers at the gym after his full-time job.

“The commitment that these kids are bringing is inspiring. Some of these kids have jobs, and they come here after a day’s work and that ain’t easy, you know? These kids are coming here, they have a goal in mind and they’re dreaming,” Porter told the Free Press. 

Owner and coach Burleson said she charges enough to pay the rent and keep the nonprofit open. 

“I know people would help us if they knew about us but we are in a back alley in the Capitol Hill District,” Burleson said. 

“Positive impact”

Oklahoma State Representative of House District 93 Mickey Dollens has boxed since he was young.

He wanted to exercise and entered the Southside boxing gym after seeing the sign on the street. 

“I could hear the bags clanging and the people sparring as I was walking up the stairs,” he told us. 

He said the first thing he noticed was how many kids were involved in the extracurricular activity and how spaces like Rival Boxing Gym have a positive impact on the OKC youth, especially when it comes to academics, sports, health, and overall success.

He also said it is important to have safe and affordable outlets to practice, stay active and healthy within parts of the city that get overlooked and neglected.

“These kids bring a lot of pride to the Southside and the City because they compete at different levels and that has tremendous value,” Dollens said.

Last Updated December 2, 2021, 8:28 PM by Brett Dickerson – Editor