Octavio Lara’s locker room inside Joe Louis Arena is starkly different from one next door, where boxers preceding him on the night’s card raise a cacophony. Music there blasts from wall to wall. Lara has a radio on, but it’s low enough for casual conversation.
He sits patiently, entirely at ease with his surroundings. He laces his boots as he hums a Tupac Shakur track.
Arena officials, meanwhile, are scrambling to handle the gate for the June event. The unexpected and overwhelming response causes delays and confusion. Hundreds of fans wait outside as the boxing matches begin to unfold inside.
Lara, 19, is largely responsible for the turnout. Though this is only his second pro fight, word is out on the streets, especially in the boxing-crazy Latino community, that Lara is destined for great things. People are clamoring to get aboard the young Detroiter’s bandwagon.
Personnel at the Joe apparently didn’t get the word that Lara’s pro debut, at the Palace at Auburn Hills in February, drew in excess of 12,000 fans.
Lara relaxes by wandering into the arena and taking a seat on the floor. He watches the early card bouts in anonymity, then returns to his dressing room.
After the first few fights have elapsed, Lara’s trainer, the legendary Emanuel Steward, arrives. He orders everyone but essential personnel to leave.
Lara shadowboxes in front of a mirror. He applies Vaseline to his face, stretches and prays.
Steward — trainer of champions and the force behind Kronk gym on Detroit’s east side — prepares to tape Octavio’s hands and break in his gloves. Little is said.
Finally, Octavio’s father, Javier, helps him into his robe.
The fighter is composed and ready.
The atmosphere in the arena is electric. Chants of OC-TAV-I-O echo as thousands of feet stomp rhythmically, making the place shake.
Inside the ring, Lara’s left hook nearly defies description. One can’t help but cringe when it lands. At 135 pounds, he’s a superflyweight, but he hits much heavier.
Lara knocks down his opponent, Ohioan Randy Dobbs, four times. Three come in the second round, resulting in a technical knockout.
The fight lasts six minutes.
Octavio Lara’s relationship with the Kronk gym began with a lie.
“When I was about 6, I tried to go down to the Kronk gym, because where my dad used to work there was a Puerto Rican guy who told him about it,” Lara explains.
“But they told me I was too young; I had to wait until I was 8. So I waited one year, and I went back and told them I was 8. I was 8 for about two years,” he says over lunch with his dad at the Taqueria El Rey, a restaurant his cousins own and where, until a month ago, you could find him behind the register when they needed extra help. He now works at the Honey Bee Market, which supplies the taqueria.
Spending time with Lara, one can’t help but notice his humility. He is warm and inviting and given to big smiles, yet he is not a big talker. He remains modest despite all the attention he’s beginning to receive. His tone is soft, making every response to a question seem confessional. He goes to Holy Redeemer Church on Sundays and attends the church’s youth group on Mondays.
It’s not Lara’s style to boast of his ring skills. He says he only talks to opponents after they’re flat on their backs.
“I don’t really see the point to it,” he says of trash-talking. “You can talk a lot of junk but then you get in the ring and lose, and you’re the one who’s going to look bad.”
Boxing is in his blood. His grandfather boxed as a means of survival when the family lived in Mexico, an hour outside Guadalajara.
Javier Lara had a different plan. He took his family to California. However, cheaper housing, more job opportunities and an easier way of living lured the Laras to Detroit. Octavio was only 3.
“When we first got here, there wasn’t much,” he explains. “It’s kind of amusing how in such little time, all these new stores and restaurants have opened up.”
He learned about boxing from his grandpa and from fights on television.
Lara’s first years at the Kronk were challenging. He was short, shy, pudgy, and too young to be taken seriously. However, he didn’t go unnoticed. Floyd Logan, a longtime trainer, and Marlon Thomas, a seasoned fighter, saw something special in the youngster.
“Marlon was already grown, so he’d box me on his knees for about two years because I couldn’t really box anybody because I was so small,” Lara says.
Even when his sparring partner had to kneel, Lara had visions of a pro career.
“That was my childhood dream,” he says with a smile. “While other kids were saying, ‘I want to become an actor’ or something else, I wanted to grow up to be a fighter.”
Enter Emanuel Steward, a man who knows a thing or 32 about boxing (the number of world champions who’ve trained under him or at the Kronk). Steward’s reputation in the sport is unrivaled. He’s a virtual encyclopedia on anything with two fists. Boxing champs around the world covet his expertise and wisdom.
“I remember I got a call once from Julio Cesar Chavez. This was back when I was training him,” Steward says in an interview at his Bretton Drive compound, which serves as office, home and headquarters of the business end of Kronk Boxing International. “He asks me to come and visit him in Chicago and already arranged a plane ticket for me. So I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I bring that little Mexican boy along with me?’ I called up the gym and got him on the phone, and not even 20 minutes later, my doorbell rings, and there’s Octavio standing there, in his boots and shorts. He didn’t even change his clothes.”
The meeting turned out to be a bust. Lara didn’t get to meet Chavez. As regretful as Steward felt about not being able to introduce Lara to his idol, it was the boy’s response that forever changed the dynamic between the two.
“After we got back, I got a card in the mail from Octavio that thanked me for everything I had done,” Steward explains. “I decided right there and then that I was going to take him under my wing.”
He says no young boxer had touched him in such a way since 1974, when a reversed decision cost a promising teenager on Steward’s Kronk team a bout during a big tournament. That evening at the motel, the fighter went to Steward’s room and apologized, even though he had nothing to do with the reversal. That fighter was Thomas Hearns.
Lara’s amateur career had a rocky start. He lost his first three fights. What Lara lacked in ability, though, he more than made up for in dedication.
He realized that his technique was a far cry from his opponents’.
“After the first 10 fights, Emanuel started working with me,” Lara says. “I felt good, I felt different, because a lot of the amateur kids do what they call shoe shining — you know, like, pitter-patter, slapping around. And Emanuel was showing me how to punch with power.”
Lara learned quickly, and well.
With all of the training camps and Steward’s close supervision, Lara developed so rapidly that it made sense to forgo the traditional path of aspiring boxers.
“His punches were so hard, and so often in those amateur tournaments, the fights become slapping contests,” Steward explains.
So Lara took the streets, figuratively. Steward began setting up fights for Lara at Holy Redeemer Church. His first main event was against a national amateur champion, an opponent with nearly 70 matches under his belt, compared with Lara’s 10. Both were about 14. Lara won in a three-round decision.
“That was the first national champion that I beat,” Lara says. “From then on, I started beating a lot of national champions,” including a three-time winner Lara knocked out. The victim became a Kronk teammate.
In 46 amateur fights, Lara won 36. Most of his losses came early on. He had planned to turn pro at 17, but a hand injury meant a one-year delay for his professional debut. In that time, he won three Junior Olympics medals, along with numerous tournaments.
When he made his professional debut in February, Lara didn’t disappoint. He knocked Rafael Sierra out in the third round.
His reputation already extends beyond Detroit. Steward says promoters overseas are eager to have Lara fight on their turf. Longtime HBO boxing correspondent Larry Merchant has yet to see Lara fight in person, yet it doesn’t stop him from regularly asking Steward for updates on his newest protégé.
“Octavio is the most independent and organized fighter I have ever seen,” Steward says.
That’s a mouthful, considering that Lara is 10 years younger than most of the fighters Steward trains. This might explain why he takes Lara to most if not all of his training camps he conducts for world champions like Lennox Lewis, Chavez and others.
Steward tells of a well-known pro who refused to spar with Lara after seeing the teenager drop an experienced sparring partner.
“He’s extremely strong, and has tremendous punching power,” Steward says.
And a work ethic to match. Lara is never late for his workouts at the Kronk, and he doesn’t linger when they’re finished. Perhaps that’s because it’s always at least 85 degrees in the Kronk’s basement. Add 30 or so fighters, along with the trainers and hangers-on, mix in the heat that has built up all afternoon and is now pounding through the walls, and then you might get an idea of what it feels like inside. There is hardly room to mill about. Every inch is used up to shadowbox, jump rope, hit the bags, spar. Spectators feel like they’re taking a steam bath.
Lara drives past train tracks near his parents’ home. A few years ago, he was on these tracks with his friends, applying graffiti tags to boxcars. Octavio’s was “Shadow.”
Today, his rising stature in the community has made him and his family a target to young thugs intent on making names for themselves. Some decided to harass his younger sister.
Last week, Lara went to his 12-year-old sister’s school and confronted her tormentors, whom he describes as 16 or 17 years old. They fled in a car; Lara and his cousin gave chase but lost contact.
A half-hour later, the gang-bangers returned to the area and fired guns from a distance toward Lara and his cousin. He says two bullets hit the school.
Lara’s friends do his best to keep him out of such turf battles.
“If I didn’t have boxing, I’d be out there with them,” he explains. “Actually, I’d probably still be in school, but you can only be in school during the day. … At night or on the weekends, I’d be with them. But they won’t let me get into any trouble.”
His family hopes he won’t face the same arduous path his mother and father traversed. Javier and Ana Lara have worked at numerous automotive and food plants across Detroit, most of which have gone bankrupt. Currently, they’re both employed at the same automotive plant installing windows in sunroofs or adding leather to steering wheels and headrests.
The money Octavio makes from boxing goes straight into a bank account he and Steward have set up. The money he earns at Honey Bee Market he spends at his leisure.
His biggest extravagance came just last week, when he got a gift, a new big-screen television, for his parents’ living room.
He takes his brother, Adrian, 9, and sister, Juana, 21, and Juana’s 2-year-old daughter, as well as Steward, to pick out the TV at the Dearborn Circuit City. An employee recognizes Steward and says he once planned to train with Thomas Hearns at the Kronk. Steward places his hand on Octavio’s shoulder and proclaims, “Well, this is the new Tommy Hearns.”
As Lara waits for the television to be loaded into Steward’s van, he tells his brother to pick out any video game he wants. Adrian chooses the newest Pokémon adventure. Juana picks out a couple items she needs. Octavio grabs the newest album from Lil’ Jon and the Eastside Boyz and Mr. Shadow. He pays for everything.
The TV notwithstanding, his family is reluctant to cash in on his success.
“It’s his money, he earns it, and we do not want to take it from him,” his mother says.
For years, his mother begged Octavio to forsake boxing.
“I was hoping as he grew that he would change his mind,” she explains. “But around the time he was 15 or 16 and fighting as an amateur, I knew he wasn’t going to quit.”
Eventually, Ana accepted her son’s career choice. She never attended his amateur fights, but now is in attendance for his pro bouts.
“I know this is what he wants to do, so all I can do is be there for him,” she says.
Lara’s future looks bright. He has Steward, arguably the best trainer in the world, by his side. Steward believes Lara will be a champion within a few years.
Lara has goals beyond the ring.
“I was planning to retire when I’m 25, and go to college,” he says.
He says he wants to study criminal psychology or business.
“For me, it’s kind of interesting, trying to see why criminals think the way they do,” Lara says. “Or maybe I can open up my own restaurant.”
For now, however, the focus of this one-time Western International High honor-roll student is on boxing.
In the event that something goes awry, there is a contingency plan. The contract Lara signed with Steward contains a stipulation stating that if Lara has to quit boxing before he is financially secure, Steward will pay for his education.
“Because he has been so loyal to me with his boxing career, this was my way of guaranteeing he’ll be successful in life, and I’ll be damn sure he’ll be a success story,” Steward says.David Valk is an editorial intern at Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]