Four decades after the classic novel, Stockton continues to instill hope and pride in the ring.
Just where is the legendary fighting town known as Fat City? Stockton, California, is only a 90-minute drive from San Francisco, but is, in many senses, worlds away. It isn’t defined by technology or tourism as much as it is by agriculture and, to an extent, fighting. For generations, it has been a hub of the San Joaquin Valley, one of the major produce regions in the United States.
In recent years, Stockton has mostly been known for its problems: violence, drugs, and empty or abandoned homes. In 2011, Forbes ranked Stockton the worst U.S. city to live in, citing foreclosures, unemployment, and crime. The city moved to the 11th position in 2012, but according to most reports, it’s not a place you want to be. It’s a place you should leave.
Stockton is also the setting of Fat City, perhaps the greatest boxing novel written in American literature. The title of the 1969 novel is ironic—it means that you’ll reach for the good life but never achieve it. Author Leonard Gardner, who grew up there, perfectly captured the rogue’s gallery of fighting: the strivers and the marginal characters who populate gyms and corners. Four decades after the novel and John Huston film adaptation, fighting is still a point of pride for Stockton, whether it’s the exploits of hometown MMA stars Nick and Nate Diaz or the boxers who compete in local gymnasiums and clubs.
It’s easy to see that Stockton is having tough times. The downtown is largely quiet in mid-summer, although a few people make their way into bars and businesses. Storefronts are vacant. But the downtown streets only tell part of the story.
Legendary boxer Alvaro “Yaqui” Lopez’s Stockton gym has thick bars on the windows and a fenced-in parking lot. Classic boxing photos line the walls, including one of Lopez smiling with Muhammad Ali. Younger boxers hit speed bags. The salty smell of sweat lingers, and air conditioning is a daydream. Lopez’s old cornerman, 88-year-old Hank Pericle, watches the action from a chair near the ring.
Lopez, a boxing Hall of Famer, was born in Mexico and later raised in Stockton. When his legendary career ended, he worked as a garbage man in Stockton. Boxing helped him purchase a home in town for his mother but didn’t give him financial security, so he went back to work. Two discs in his spine dissolved after years on the job, and he looked for ways to give back to the city that built him into a boxer. He settled on a downtown gym. It wasn’t just meant to be a place where people came to learn to fight. It was also meant to build a community.
“My goal is to help youngsters go straight,” says Lopez, who is still agile and strong despite the battles. “There are plenty of people in this town who go to the wrong places and do bad stuff. If I save even one or two people than I’m more than happy.”
Yaqui Lopez’s Fat City Boxing teaches that salvation comes from discipline rather than championships. Gritty optimism and hard work reign. Many of his boxers had troubles before they came here for a second chance. The gym has become a second home.
If they don’t have enough money to pay the monthly dues ($65 if you are older than 13 and $45 if you are younger) Lopez will sometimes cover them. The boxers see part of their story in Lopez’s journey—a glimmer of hope, a shot at the American dream, a chance to make something of themselves.
One of Lopez’s boxers is 26-year-old Abel Michael Carreon. Carreon’s brother was killed several blocks from the gym in a shooting. Carreon called Lopez repeatedly years ago and asked him to teach him to box. Lopez finally agreed.
When he first trained with Lopez, Carreon stood in front of a heavy bag and threw random punches. Lopez taught him to move properly, to stand on his toes, and punch efficiently. The workouts quickly got harder and more rewarding. In his two-plus year pursuit of boxing, Carreon sees a way to grow and avoid the temptations of the street. “When my brother passed away, I was out in the streets and it slowed me down,” he says. “Before I trained with Yaqui, I was trying to build a routine. He was the one who told me ‘let’s do this.’ Now, I try to talk to kids and get them to come down here and see if they might have talent. This place keeps me focused instead of being out there chilling and drinking and smoking. I feel like I’m doing a lot better. When I got here, I thought it would just be throwing my fists, but this is a thinking game.”
Ask someone from Stockton about their home and you’ll hear nothing but pride. It’s what makes Nick Diaz wear Stockton sweatshirts at UFC press conferences and shout “Stockton” in the cage. Surveys can’t measure heart, which is what defines a fighter or a city. Even after his successful boxing career, Lopez didn’t leave Stockton. Heart is why Lopez is revered here for going 14 rounds with light heavyweight champion Matthew Saad Muhammad in 1980 before a TKO stopped the fight. It wasn’t about what he wore around his waist. His spirit is what mattered.
Lopez says his gym is all about honoring that spirit and instilling it in younger fighters who might be tempted with crime or gangs. He’s heard the bad things about his hometown but insists he can find something greater by creating a makeshift family. He’s even offered his services to MMA fighters. They come here to work on hand speed, to learn to move with punches, and spar with boxers. Lopez, however, hasn’t become a fan of mixed martial arts. “I don’t like it because people are knocked down and they are still kicking!” he says, laughing.
He teaches his fighters the old ways: early roadwork; hard and frequent sparring; nimble counter punches that find elusive openings. Jose Chavez, 23 years old, has embraced his methods. The 1-1 amateur decided to start boxing again after high school. He now wakes up in the morning to do his road work and spends hours in the gym in the hopes of becoming a professional boxer. “When you are with Yaqui you can just feel his energy and experience, “ Chavez says, as sweat pours off his forehead. “He’s firm and he is really a perfectionist. He doesn’t want you to try to hit hard with improper technique. The power and the speed come later.”
The novel Fat City ends on a sour note. The aging veteran Tully wins a fight but realizes that his career—which never really took off—is an afterthought. The green, young boxer Munger starts his professional boxing career, but his path is uncertain. There’s a slight implication that he needs to leave Stockton behind to avoid becoming a jaded former fighter imprisoned by memories of the ring.
Lopez doesn’t ever plan to leave. In some senses, his gym offers a hopeful epilogue to the novel. He doesn’t want to abandon his city because of the challenges. He wants to work to make it better. His mission is to offer people a sense of purpose no matter what people say about Stockton.
Lopez shares a story to illustrate the importance of his work. Two of his young boxers knew each other from the streets. Their beef continued when they got to the gym. Lopez told the boys—both about 150 pounds—that they had to spar, but they initially resisted. “They got into the ring and they wanted to kill each other, but now they are good friends,” Lopez says. “Before that, they hated each other.”
With that, Lopez returns to the gym. There are plenty of mitts to hold.