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Joseph Del Real and Benjamin Tovar Martinez 

The dragon keepers

Wednesday, May 14 2008
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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.

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“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.

Born in Mexico City, Tovar Martinez grew up in Echo Park with Minor Threat, the Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and the Circle Jerks as his soundtrack. He gravitated toward the visual arts at a young age.

“I painted my first oil painting when I was 9. I just love art. I love the history of art ... all the great painters. That’s one of the things that I love about boxing — it’s an art form: the sweet science.

“I’ve done all kinds of art — landscape, abstracts. And then I got really into birds. For one year, I got really into painting nothing but owls. In oil ... some acrylics. Another year, I got very deeply into clowns. I would paint happy clowns, sad clowns. To me — my art is very personal. I relax by painting.”

Tovar Martinez, who is as quick with a smile or a joke as he is with his jab, is more reserved when it comes to discussing his boxing career. “I had a very short career, only three professional fights. Sometimes I wish I could go back and do it differently. But there are no second chances in life. And there are no regrets either.”

Tovar Martinez continued to work in professional boxing for several years, sparring with professional fighters, including world champions. At 27, he started working as an administrator for the World Boxing Council. Before long, he was supervising matches all over the world and ran several world-championship bouts. But having a wife and kid at home didn’t jibe with globetrotting for the WBC. Coaching enabled Tovar Martinez to work closer to home and realize his true calling.

There is an economy to Tovar Martinez’s speech — he chooses his words carefully and applies them deftly, like a good fighter picking his shots in the ring. But when it comes to the most intimate experience of his life, the floodgates open.

“I delivered my little baby girl,” he says, smiling. “She’s 5 months old now. My second wife, April, was pregnant and the baby was coming. She said, ‘Call an ambulance!’ She wasn’t going to make it to the car. She was scared and in pain. And she let out a yell ... I’ll tell you, I’ve never heard anything like that before in my life ... I get chills now just thinking about it. I knew I had to do this — now. I had called 911, but when I heard that yell, I dropped the phone and came to her side. It’s do or die. If I panic, the baby dies. Maybe April dies. I said, ‘Do not faint, baby ... push ... push ... you have to push, baby.’ By the fourth push, the baby’s head came out. By that time, I was in the zone. Something happened to me, and I honestly think that God was there with me. I was just so focused. With a little help, she came completely out, and in two to three seconds after she came out, she was crying, which was the most beautiful sound I’ve heard in my life. That sound was telling me that my baby was alive and well.”

 

Photo by Kevin Scanlon 

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