TOKYO — Richard Torrez Jr. belonged to the robotics and chess clubs at Mission Oak High School in Tulare, Calif. He graduated as class valedictorian in 2017. He solves Rubik’s cubes in a matter of minutes. He loves magic tricks, shuffling decks to reveal certain cards. And even his favorite musician—the composer Beethoven—speaks to a diverse array of intellectual pursuits.
Richard Torrez Jr. is also an Olympic boxer, which seems counterintuitive, given everything else. Given that he doesn’t need to fight, that his future involves maximizing the capabilities of a healthy and highly functioning brain, that his parents both work in education. This isn’t meant to peg all fighters as dumb, or lean into the usual, inaccurate stereotypes. It’s more that so few fighters enter a profession that all but guarantees some level of brain damage with better academic credentials than (already immense) athletic ones.
Sometimes, Torrez Jr.’s mother, Kim, asks things like, “Doesn’t it hurt to get hit?”
The answer: Of course.
That’s part of the fun.
So, no, Torrez Jr., the first U.S. boxer to compete at super heavyweight in a Games since 2012, is not an accidental Olympian. He trained under his father, Richard Torrez Sr., from the day he threw his first punch. He embraces the challenges inherent in his sport: the physicality, the pain, the way that two fighters enter a ring, without teammates, with nowhere to hide, at once surrounded and very much alone. He laughs when mom asks, “What’s wrong with golf?”
And yet, for anyone who thinks brawn and brains in boxing are mutually exclusive, Senior would like a word. The best fighters, he says, need both, have both—and he believes a higher acumen allows his namesake to more easily and more forcefully impose his physical will. That can play out in the corner between rounds, where father and son take a cerebral approach to deciding on which strategy will yield the maximum pain inflicted. “It might surprise you that he would pick boxing,” Senior says. “But not me. I’m happy and elated he’s so good at it.”
Speaking of, Junior arrived in Tokyo and received the No. 3 seed in his division. He will face Chouaib Bouloudinats of Algeria here on Thursday in the Round of 16. Senior cannot attend these Games in person but speaks with his son regularly over Zoom, often from the family gym where they trained for thousands of hours over the last decade-plus. On one call, Junior showed off clothes, shoes, a laptop and a watch from his hefty swag bags.
On another, they discussed the moment at hand, what’s possible, the vast, potentially life-altering stakes. The United States owns the most medals in Olympic boxing history (114, or 43 more than second-place Cuba). But the glory days for American amateur fighters ended long ago. Once, many legends—Floyd Patterson (1952), Muhammad Ali (’60), George Foreman (’68), Sugar Ray Leonard (’76), Pernell Whitaker (’84) and Oscar De La Hoya (’92), among others—nabbed golds en route to professional glory.
Not anymore. The last male American boxer to wear a gold medal around his neck was Andre Ward, back in 2004, which he won in honor of his late father, who died shortly before the competition. Not only did Ward break an eight-year drought between U.S. gold medalists, but he turned pro, went 32-0 and retired four years ago. In the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. won three total medals, one of each, combining both the men’s and the women’s sides. The last U.S. super heavy to even medal was Riddick Bowe in ’88, and he won silver, losing to Lennox Lewis.
Torrez Sr. understands that history. He lived it on the ’84 team. First, though, he grew up on a 250-acre farm in California’s Central Valley. His father loved describing his favorite boxers, who ranged from Joe Frazier to Roberto Duran, passing on the joy he found in his favorite sport. Senior worked on those acres, too, mainly in weed control, tending to corn, alfalfa and cotton, helping to rotate the crops.
Eventually, the boy became a boxer, won nationals and earned a spot in the Olympic trials. Just making that ’84 team that won nine gold and 11 total medals qualified as a remarkable feat. Senior fought alongside Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor, Evander Holyfield and Tyrell Biggs, the last super heavy to win an Olympic tournament. Senior didn’t need to carry the expectations of a program, of lifting an amateur sport in a country with a strong but long-ago history, the way his son is trying to. “There was that spotlight on amateur boxing that has died down a little bit,” Senior says. “I want my boy to bring that back.”
Junior understands that many of America’s best boxers actually roam football fields as linebackers or dunk basketballs as power forwards now. But, he told reporters in Tokyo, “You will always have that one guy who wants to bite down on his mouthpiece and punch.” (Sorry mom!)
How Junior might do that starts with the same unexpected duality of his existence. Meaning his brain, his smarts. He did not grow up like his father, toiling in fields, told to be quiet, go in the corner, read a book. Junior learned to read and write as a toddler. He went to the zoo and memorized facts about all his favorite animals. He held deep discussions with his mother, a teacher, about topics like, was there life outside of earth? “You’re destined for greatness,” Kim told him, and she did not mean boxing, or even sports. Her son was curious. He wanted to learn. He absorbed information, especially complex information, quickly. Maybe he would become a scientist, or an academic. Certainly, he could become anything he wanted.
Junior excelled in advanced and honors class, his GPA never dipping below 4.0. On the school’s robotics team, he helped concoct a mechanical arm that could pick up a small ball and throw it over a rope of increasingly greater heights. He spent most of his time studying, doing homework or participating in meetings for his clubs.
He also boxed, of course, named his golden retriever Dempsey, after Jack Dempsey, the long-ago heavyweight champ. Teachers worked with Junior to do independent studies as his amateur career took off, starting in 2013, when he won a U.S. Junior national championship.
Senior laments that he still owes his son a car, the gift he promised Junior if he won not the National Golden Gloves (’17), Elite national championships (’17, ’18), or the Boxam Tournament (’20), but if he graduated as valedictorian. (For now, Junior makes do with a stick shift Toyota Tacoma, which he worked on—of course—between Olympic training sessions.) Senior did nudge his boy toward boxing earlier in their lives. But once Junior turned 16, dad told him to make his own decisions, given the attendant risks. The boy chose boxing, always, without a second thought.
Perhaps those choices will yield the most coveted of medals. Senior is hopeful but not exactly sure. “Gold would be awesome,” he says. “But if he can perform to the best of his ability and show the world that he’s good, we’re done. I’d be happy with that.”
He continues: "In boxing, we’re missing someone who people can watch and say, hey, I like that kid, I want to know who that kid is, I want a boxer who’s a sweetheart. My boy can do that. He’s just a nice kid, a nice guy.”
That’s not a sentiment often associated with boxers, not a positive one, anyway, after so many stories of childhood hardships, with one champion after another escaping the most difficult of environments to rise to championship glory. Junior did not grow up scrapping on the street. He did not come from a broken home. He does not need professional purses to make sure his parents and sister can live comfortably; they already do. That’s not to say that Junior is a boxing unicorn, one of a kind, the only fighter with a positive upbringing. Of course not. But he is rare, and maybe, to his father’s point, that’s what helps change the paradigm for a sport that has seen a heavyweight revival in recent years and would benefit greatly from another, American champion who bursts into the pros with a gold medal hanging from his meaty neck.
Senior says his son does not plan to enroll in college after the Olympics. Junior will turn pro instead, where his prospects remain unclear. Matchmakers wonder if his style and size—big for the Olympics, not as much for a pro—will translate. He might take online classes; already has, in fact, setting himself up for a future beyond fists. But that’s a ways off. For now, it’s boxing, regardless of the damage. Or the risks.
As Senior wrapped up a FaceTime interview last week, he held up his phone to show off their gym, the Tulare Athletic Boxing Club. They moved into the current space more recently, but the gym itself was created back in 1972, in the adobe brick building next door. Senior points to a picture of his younger self, competing at a national competition; at a snapshot he’s in alongside Mike Tyson; at an image of him training his son, preparing him for now, this moment, potential Olympic glory.
That’s the thing about the Torrez family. They’re smart enough to realize both the risks they’re taking and the potential rewards, which is how a person who ranks among the smartest boxers in U.S. history decided to, well, actually box. There’s a contradiction there that’s not all that contradictory, not to the Torrez’s, on the eve of potential Olympic glory.
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