I don't know about you, but I sometimes tire of hearing about so much bad stuff going on in Bakersfield, Kern County, the nation and the rest of the world. It can be downright depressing. That's why when a story comes along about something good, it's something you want to share.
It's about 15-year-old Joel Iriarte and his family. The Ridgeview High sophomore is a brawler, he is good with his fists and he uses them to fight, but in a good way — in the boxing ring. He developed a love of the sport when he was 6 by watching fights on TV. And like Rocky Balboa, he did his best to do push-ups using one hand. One day he overheard his father talking with a friend, Jose Cardenas about a boxing gym Cardenas had just opened. It was called Refuse to Lose.
"He told me, 'Dad, take me with your friend,'" recalls Cuauhtemoc Iriarte, Joel's father who goes by the diminutive "Temo." (It's pronounced TEH-mo.) When Cardenas saw the child, he said no, he was too young, too small. Come back next year, kid.
And he did. Joel's persistence eventually paid off and he got his first fight when he was all of 7 years old, four months after he started training. Held at the Golden State Mall, the fight would be one of the few he has lost. "But I did win a rematch!" he points out.
With training under the late Jose Cardenas for three years Joel learned the fundamentals of boxing. He trained under another coach before his father took over three years ago. And he's made a name for himself, winning seven USA Boxing amateur national titles in the last three years. Just last October he was ranked No. 1 by USA Boxing in the 106-pound Boy’s Intermediate Division. He's put on weight and is now in the Featherweight Division. But he keeps a grinding schedule of hours of work outs seven days a week including running 4 to 5 miles every day. All this while taking GATE classes at Ridgeview.
But Joel hasn't made it this far by himself. He comes from humble roots starting when his dad left his native state of Sinaloa, Mexico, to go north in search of a better life. That was 20 years ago when he was 17 years old.
"I came to this country for the same reason so many others do. I was hungry," Temo said.
Arriving in San Fernando, Temo took on whatever work he could find including as a roofer, gardener or feeding animals at a feed store. He hung out at the parking lot at Home Depot where hopefully anyone who needed workers for the day would hire him among a group of others all vying for work. A good day would fetch $45 to $50 for working 8 to 10 hours. Sometimes he wasn't picked and there was no money coming in.
He married his wife Erica and the young couple lived with her parents unable to afford their own place. "We had absolutely nothing when we started," Ericka said.
They moved to Arizona for a while for construction work and then back to California, eventually settling in Bakersfield in 2006 where they were able to buy a house. But it hasn't been easy. Temo commutes every day to his job in San Fernando at Republic Services, a waste disposal and recycling company.
The couple have three children all born in the U.S.
Daughter Yoely, 18, is the oldest of three siblings. Interestingly, she, too, began training lessons with brother Joel, but now leaves the fighting to him. Yoely just completed her first year of college at San Francisco State University where she plans to major in psychology. Youngest daughter Valeria, 11, is an avid fan of her brother and attends his fights.
"I like to see him box," she said. Mom Erica admits she'd rather not go see her son get hit.
"I still get nervous, but I know he can defend himself," she said.
Temo and Erica believe it's important to teach and remind their children of their heritage and roots. The family occasionally travels to Sinaloa to visit relatives who live modestly and it is there where their kids observe a different lifestyle that makes them appreciate what they have in Bakersfield. Joel likes going because he can ride horses there, he said.
"I took him there so he could see where he comes from," Temo said.
Neither has Temo forgotten his humble beginnings and gives back the best way he knows how. He built a regulation-size ring right in his backyard complete with punching and speed bags. And he makes it available at no charge to neighborhood kids and others who want to work out. It gets plenty of use.
Joel has a promising future. He doesn't care too much for today's boxers, preferring the older pros such as Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. who is considered Mexico's greatest boxer of all time and one of the greatest boxers of all time. He credits his dad as his biggest inspiration who has taught him dedication, character and discipline.
Already selected as part of Team USA, Joel's eyes are set on the prize. Qualify for the 2020 Olympics and go for the gold. There's a chance he might not make it because in 2020, he'll be a little shy of his 18th birthday. And then what?
"He could turn pro," said his dad.