Boxing and community values take the ring in Walla Walla's hit club

Photo by Jeff Horner.

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Conducting an interview in the ring, with more than 20 boxers of varying ages pummeling training equipment in a circle around the raised platform, 47-year-old Ramon “Junior” Zamora can’t help but throw a few punches himself.

“Lets get him some head gear,” Zamora jokes at the chubby reporter.

With the pulsing of bilingual rap intermingling with the sound of leather on leather and physical exertion; and the scent of sweat permeating the sweltering horse barn at 927 W. Alder St. that has been transformed into a boxing gym, even the unathletic and out-of-shape reporter wants to oblige the jest.

What’s an interview without a little physical combat to go along with the usual sparring of the verbal kind?

Zamora excitedly explains the details of a training program that has grown from 18 boxers total in 2007, when he started the gym as a way to help disadvantaged youth and a way to escape a cramped boxing gym he built onto his house, to more 35 combatants who train at any give practice.

Standing in the middle of the gym, with Zamora answering questions as quickly as the Golden Gloves winner likely dealt out punches, it’s easy to see why the boxing center, named the Zamora Athletic Program Boxing and Youth Center, or ZAP for short, has proven to be so popular.

Boxing posters plaster boarded-up windows and an entire wall is almost covered with 3-by-5’s of former trainees. Downstairs, the walls are covered with drywall. But upstairs, where a pool table and study area reside next to battered weight lifting equipment, exposed timber reminds one of the barn’s roots. Oft-used pull-up bars are bowed from use, and back downstairs, one can’t go more than two feet without running into a piece of boxing equipment or an errant punch from one of its users.

All in all, one wouldn’t be surprised to see Rocky Balboa hammering on a dead cow in the corner.

For a boxing gym, it’s perfect.

“It’s what a boxing center should be,” Zamora said. “Hot in the summer, cold in the winter — you make do with what you’ve got. It just wouldn’t be the same if I put in central air and in an old barn like this, it just wasn’t meant to be.

“Boxing, that’s how it was started, you know. No sweat, no tears, no pain, no champion.”

And then there’s Zamora. The father of five dedicates nine hours a week, in the evening and aside from his full-time job with Inland Cellular, to training boxers. His enthusiasm and warmth gives the gym its character as well.

And for the youths who train at the center, who often are from disadvantaged families, ZAP is like a second home.

“I like that they treat you like family,” said Cecillo Flores, a 12-year-old Pioneer Middle School student known as “burrito” for the burritos he would often eat before practice. “They are always help and they are always there for you.”

The baby fat he brought to the gym as an 8-year-old is a thing of the past, and Flores has fought in five amateur boughts.

“It’s exciting and fun,” said Flores of sparring and live fights. “You learn stuff every time you step in the ring.

Flores’ sparring partner, 13-year-old Garrison Middle-schooler Luis Perez, said he enjoyed training for the benefits it provides him in other sports, namely soccer.

“I like it because the coach motivates us,” Luis said. “He treats you right. He motivates you, but at the same time, he’s very caring.”

It’s not just youths who train at ZAP. Boxers over 14 train with Zamora after the younger boxers finish. The older boxers range up to the mid-30s, and they vary in skill. Many are people with ordinary jobs who use the training as a way to stay in shape or blow off steam, while some have gone on to fight professionally.

Russian mixed-martial-arts fighter Anton Bushkovskiy, 23, moved to Walla Walla with his parents in 2000. Although he prefers MMA to other combat sports, he’s training wih Zamora to get a more well-rounded base.

“I want to do a boxing tournament to catch my hands up,” Bushovskiy said. “So far MMA is the most realistic I think, and boxing. That’s why I chose those two.”

Sometimes coming into a new gym can be intimidating, but 23-year-old Ismael Castillo said once inside, he felt welcome.

“I came by a lot before I joined but I never went inside,” Castillo said. “I was nervous to come into a new environment. Finally I decided to come in, and it was great. Everyone treats you like family. If you’re struggling, they don’t hesitate to jump in and help show you how to do it.”

Zamora wanted the gym to be free, but just keep the lights on he had to install a $25 monthly fee. For those unable pay, he says they often waive the fee. ZAP also benefits from donors who bring in extra gear or donate money for kids’ membership fees. The gym operates Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, from 6 p.m. to 7 for youth and from 7 p.m. to 8 for adults.

Those interested in donating or joining can contact Zamora at 509-386-4978.

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