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When you walk down a flight of steps to a basement off an alleyway behind Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena, you leave the yuppie bustle of Old Town and enter the dragon. At least, that’s how it felt about six months ago when four of my Silver Lake cronies and I joined the California Kickboxing and Fitness Club (cakickboxing.com). Inside, the Misfits playing at 11 isn’t enough to drown the sound of gloves hitting mitts; legs, knees and shins hitting heavy bags; trainers barking orders and encouragement; students wailing as they push their limits. In here, blood, sweat and tears isn’t just a figure of speech, it’s on the floor.
The fighter’s journey is ultimately one of self-discovery, and Joseph Del Real and Benjamin Tovar Martinez are eager guides — whether your goal is getting in shape or competitive matches. Del Real is a muay Thai and mixed-martial-arts expert, Tovar Martinez a traditional boxing specialist. And while they both look their roles, it doesn’t take long to realize these guys aren’t your average mooks.
For example, it’s not unusual to see Del Real lugging a guitar into the gym with him.
“I grew up with music,” says the handsome, olive-skinned Latino with jet-black hair that rises into a natural pompadour. “My very first memory is being in my mom’s lap at a family gathering and singing to a corrido. Y volver, volver ... Volver. En sus brasos otra vez,” he croons, flawlessly.
“I play guitar, I play bass, I sing and I write songs. I learned to put chord progressions together kind of like putting together combinations in a fight. I’d write songs to hang out with my friends and play, and then we started playing gigs in Silver Lake and we got kind of good. But then one of my buddies got married, and that kind of put our music on the shelf.”
Del Real, who, in the tradition of the master sensei, looks you directly in the eye when shaking your hand, discovered martial arts the time-tested way.
“I was walking to the gym in Montebello, where you have a mixture of real gangsters and wannabe gangsters ... I was about 14 at the time ... ‘What’s up, white boy? Where you from — eh?’ ” At the time, Del Real’s long, sun-bleached blond hair belied his Mexican-American ethnicity.
“They wouldn’t let me pass ... there were four of them. This kid threw a swing at me ... I ducked, and as he overshot, he went right over my hip, but it looked like I threw him! I didn’t throw shit. I just didn’t want to get hit. And all his homeboys started shouting at him: ‘Aaaah ... little white boy fucked you up, eh?’ ”
Del Real went straight to the yellow pages and looked up martial-arts schools. “I felt like I was wasting my time working out in a gym to become strong when I didn’t even know how to defend myself.”
“I trained every day after school, and I started competing and winning. I was a Junior Olympic guy in tae kwon do. They were going to fly me out to Colorado Springs to the Olympic training facility ... when I got that letter, I thought, I’m good at something. Then one day, I took a kick to my knee in a competition, and it was completely blown out. And that ended my career as a martial-arts competitor. But you could say it’s where my life as a trainer, as a coach, began. That’s when I started doing judo, because I couldn’t kick anymore. Then I started learning jujitsu and muay Thai.”
Del Real adds, “You have Benjamin and you have me, and we have a unique understanding of the game, and we know how to help you maximize your skills. We get happier than you when you do something right. We say, ‘Yes, that’s how you do it!’ because we want you to memorize the feeling, the emotion of doing well. When you do something right, I always ask, ‘What did that feel like?’ So you can remember that emotion. That’s how the connection is made ... by memorizing the feeling of doing something right.”
Tovar Martinez’s physical presence — a lean and powerful 6 feet — is all business. The speed, power and grace with which he demonstrates the boxer’s classic arsenal — jab, cross, hook, uppercut — can be frightening. But like Del Real, he’s far from the asshole jock you hated in high school.