By Madeleine Viceconte/Arizona Sonora News
The large, spacious Boxing Inc. gym, typically full of members doing their daily classes, is empty on a Tuesday morning except for Jaime Cuesta and his coach, Chris Gonzalez.
Rap music blasts over the speakers as Cuesta completes his rigorous workout consisting of lifting weights and hitting the punching bag. Sweat drips down his face as he darts around the boxing ring and Gonzalez calls out different hit patterns as he holds up a pair of punch mitts. Cuesta fires back rapidly with his vibrant red boxing gloves and the impact of his punches is so intense, that the sound reverberates through the gym.
At 5-foot-9 and 138 pounds with a scrawny build, Cuesta does not resemble what an average person may think of when they imagine an athlete, but his talent when he fights speaks for itself. Everyone who knows him can see his passion for boxing radiate through him; his dark brown eyes light up whenever he talks about the sport. He keeps himself humble and doesn’t like to brag about his success in his career, but Cuesta knows his strengths.
“In the ring, a lot of people think he’s cocky in some aspects, but it’s just confidence and what makes him fight better,” Gonzalez says. “Outside of the ring he’s just totally respectful, he’s humble, and he carries himself well, he doesn’t carry himself like a cocky S.O.B.”
A typical day for Cuesta consists of getting to the gym at around 8:30 a.m. to begin his weight training. After two hours of lifting weights, he’ll hit mitts with Gonzalez and use the punching bags for another hour. After that, he’ll take a break to shower, eat and relax, and then he goes for a six-mile run in the afternoon. At night he works as a boxing instructor, spars and then runs up Tumamoc Hill.
When he’s not at the gym, Cuesta is either going for a run or relaxing with his dog at his godfather’s house, in the Catalina Foothills.
But no matter what he’s doing, music of any genre (mostly rap) is always playing in the background to inspire him and keep him motivated during his training. He also watches boxing religiously on TV, but instead of looking at it from an entertainment perspective, he studies the fight.
Currently, 21-year-old Cuesta is an amateur boxer eager to start his career as a pro. According to BoxingOntario.com, there are differences in the equipment worn and scoring in amateur boxing compared to the pros. Pro boxers are not required to wear headgear and knockouts and technical knockouts do not count towards the score for an amateur boxer, whereas they matter for the pros.
As an amateur, Cuesta does not know who he’s fighting until he steps into the ring. Once he becomes a pro, he’ll have the opportunity to learn about his opponent. To win a fight, Cuesta has to quickly evaluate his opponent and figure out their weaknesses; observation is one of his gifts. He notices other fighters’ patterns and considers boxing to be just as much of a mental sport as a physical one.
“Boxing’s like music,” Cuesta says. “I say that to everyone and people think I’m crazy, but everyone has a rhythm. When they punch, they punch at a certain rhythm and then you figure it out, it’s the same pattern. I just dodge things because it becomes a rhythm.”
As soon as the bell rings, all eyes are on him and there is nothing standing in between him and his opponent. The individuality of boxing makes it different than a team sport and Cuesta has nobody but himself to rely on. Most of the time he likes being the center of attention and hearing an audience cheer for him gives him a rush of adrenaline.
“It’s really weird, because all the attention is (on) you,” Cuesta says. “It’s like being at a talent show in 7th grade, so you feel scared, embarrassed at first. Not so much scared of the other person, but scared to look bad in front of people because there’s an audience.”
Cuesta moves quickly and can dodge punch after punch. “I like to be pretty and stay pretty,” Cuesta says. “I like to punch, move, not get hit and have a little bit of style to it. Some people, they have no style when they fight.”
Cuesta views every fight he does as a learning opportunity. His first fight was a “smoker” (a fight with referees that isn’t recorded) when he was 15 and he fought a 17-year-old that he easily beat when they sparred. However, Cuesta was so nervous that he lost the fight and barely threw any punches. Cuesta continued to doubt himself to a certain extent even though his coaches constantly reminded him of his capabilities.
His mindset changed when he boxed a fighter who was ranked number six in the country and won as a novice-level fighter. After that, he became aware that his ability is no different from anybody else’s.
When Cuesta get nervous before a fight, Gonzalez is there to help him. He views himself as a mentor and friend to Cuesta and is there through all of the ups and downs.
“I just reassure him of his abilities and make sure that he’s focused on his goals and what he wants to do in life,” Gonzalez says. “He has a bright future and the thing that holds everybody back sometimes is themselves so I just try to make sure that he doesn’t do that to himself.”
Every fighter needs a ritual to help give them peace of mind and for Cuesta, his ritual involves his appearance. Before a big fight, Cuesta gets a haircut to help boost his confidence and ensure that his nerves won’t get the best of him.
“You can have all the skills in the world, but if you’re not right here, that ruins everything,” Cuesta says. “Like if you’re nervous, if you’re thinking about other things that are going on in your life, you just have to be fully focused on what’s in front of you. But if you have a haircut and you’re feeling yourself, you’re like, ‘Aw yeah’, you know what I mean?”
Cuesta has no doubt in his mind that boxing is what he was chosen to do and that he is on the right path, which is why he sacrifices other aspects of his life. “I’m pretty much full-fledged focused on boxing,” Cuesta says. “I cut everything off, like parties and a social life, so right now it’s just boxing, that’s all I think about.”
Cuesta was born in Tucson to a single mother. They lived with his godfather, Bill Gewirtz, until they moved to San Diego when he was 4 years old, because his mother wanted to be closer to their family. He moved back to Tucson when he was 18 to attend the University of Arizona as a marketing major and rugby player. But his heart wasn’t in it, so he decided to drop out after freshman year to pursue boxing full-time.
“I was in my dorm and it was funny because I had a poster of Muhammad Ali and I was looking at it and just started crying,” Cuesta says. “I was like ‘that’s what I should be doing, I don’t want to be doing this.’”
Cuesta was 18 when he made a deal with his mom that if he won the state championships, she would allow him to leave college and continue his boxing career even though she preferred that he stay in school and get an education. “I did it. I won,” Cuesta says. “And after that, I won nationals in Vegas and now I’m here. So I still kept the promise.”
Cuesta always had an affinity for fighting sports and participated in Mixed Martial Arts starting at the age of 6. When he was 13, a friend suggested that he should try Boxing Inc. while he was visiting Tucson during the summer. After seeing him in some classes, Gonzalez noticed his natural talent and encouraged him to participate in one-on-ones. At the end of the summer when Cuesta went back to San Diego, Gonzalez told him, “keep to boxing because you can do something well with it and you can go far.”
“I went back and he gave me a pair of his gloves, his personal ones, and that was the coolest thing ever,” Cuesta says.
From that point on, boxing consumed Cuesta’s life; whenever he was not at school or at home, he would be at the gym. He enjoyed martial arts but preferred to pursue boxing because he dreamt of being on TV and making money off of his skills. His mom worked a lot and was barely around to supervise him, which made it easier for him to cause mischief after school and get into fights. Boxing helped Cuesta channel his intense energy into a positive outlet and he ambitiously dove in headfirst.
“When I found boxing instead of getting in trouble I would go straight from school, because I would walk home and I walked straight to the gym,” Cuesta says. “So there were times I didn’t do homework because I just wanted to box.”
During his senior year of high school, Cuesta ended up getting kicked out of the nice private school he attended and transferred to a public school. He lost the motivation to strive for greatness and stopped boxing. He started getting into trouble with the law, but deep down, he knew that wasn’t the type of person he wanted to be.
Even with the seemingly endless roadblocks, Cuesta graduated from high school and was accepted to the University of Arizona on a rugby scholarship. His rugby coach from high school knew the UA coach and helped him get into the program. Despite his love for boxing, Cuesta took the opportunity because he wanted to prove to his mom and his peers back home who doubted him that he could succeed in life.
When he moved back to Tucson for college, he had a difficult time adjusting and went back home to San Diego almost every weekend. Once he began his amateur boxing career, he knew that he wouldn’t be able to go back because he would still continue to hang with the wrong crowd and be tempted into his old lifestyle. He was desperate not to ruin his chances of becoming a pro, so he decided to stay focused on his training no matter how great his desire to return home was.
“I was like, I know if I box it’ll keep me focused and I just didn’t go home for a long time no matter how homesick I got,” Cuesta says. “I just stayed to myself and I just kept training and training and training and used all my energy into that and it became successful. So in a way, it really did save my life.”
All of his friends back home in San Diego were either murdered or ended up in jail, and he knew he needed to box to ensure that his fate didn’t end up the same way. He asked himself why he was the only one who escaped that lifestyle, and that’s how he realized it was a sign that he was destined to be a successful boxer.
Cuesta grew up without a dad, so Gewirtz is the closest thing to a father figure he has. During his childhood, Cuesta spent a lot of time with Gewirtz, who would take care of him while Cuesta’s mom was working. They’ve traveled together to Russia, Panama, China, Israel and throughout Europe. Gewirtz also helped pay for his schooling and now he fully supports Cuesta’s boxing career by going to his fights and cheering him. Depending on Cuesta’s needs, Gewirtz gives him him funds needed for equipment and traveling.
“I’m sort of somewhere between his father, his grandfather and his friend,” Gewirtz says. “He’s a very, very good boxer, he needs to keep working at it and keep getting better. I’ve watched him fight many times and he’s very good, he’s very quick and he takes it very seriously.”
Madeleine Viceconte is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact the reporter at email@example.com.