For Fernando "Ponce" Laspina, boxing has always been more than a sport. As a teenager growing up in Puerto Rico, it was something that he excelled in, that made him proud. "I used to do a lot of fighting in Puerto Rico. People told me that I was good with my hands, and that I should join boxing," he said.
In 1970, when Laspina was 15 years old, he moved to the South Bronx with his family and siblings. He had no knowledge of English and had difficulty adapting to his new school and neighborhood.
"I missed the river, the mangoes, the weather. I missed my neighbors. Everyone over there was like family. It was a small community, like a village," said Laspina.
The young Laspina, whose nickname became "Ponce" after his hometown on the island, joined the notorious NYC gang Savage Skulls when he was 17, quickly rising up the ranks. A year later, he was arrested for extortion and sent to jail. "I was arrested the same week that I was supposed to join a community boxing program," said Laspina, who is now 58 years old.
For the other inmates at Rikers Island, boxing was a way to stay in shape, but for Ponce, boxing was a glimmer of hope to make a better life for himself and others. "I wanted to get some other guys into boxing and lead them in the right path and take care of their community. I had read about a lot of famous Puerto Rican champions, and some of them grew up in the same community here in the Bronx, but a lot of them, they came from my hometown in Puerto Rico. And that was something that made me proud," Laspina said. During his time in jail, Ponce made a promise to his mother that he would change his ways and start a new life.
And he did. During his time at Elmira Correctional Facility, Laspina worked for his GED. After being released from jail, in 1976, Ponce went back to school and received his Associate's Degree from Hostos Community College in the Bronx. He continued his education and received his Bachelor's degree from Lehman College and Master's degree from Buffalo State University. He joined youth baseball leagues to coach kids. But he still wanted to fulfill his dream to open his own boxing gym.
In 2003, Ponce founded El Maestro, Inc., a non-profit organization named after Puerto Rican nationalist Pedro Albizu Campos, that offers boxing, fitness, and cultural activities to young people in the South Bronx. Besides being the Executive Director of El Maestro, Laspina also works for NYC's Housing Authority and is the director of an afterschool program located a few blocks away from the gym.
Many of Ponce's students are practicing to compete in the Golden Gloves tournament, a big step into becoming a professional boxer. In fact, several professional boxers were born out of El Maestro Boxing Gym, including Eddie Gomez, who is now signed to Golden Boy Promotions, and José 'Silver Boy' Rodriguez, who is an IBF North American Middleweight Champion.
One of Laspina's current students, 20-year-old Enrique Rijos is hoping to compete in the Golden Gloves next year, and loves spending time in El Maestro's gym. "I feel like I'm in Puerto Rico when I'm in this gym. I feel comfortable in here. When I come in here, it's like Puerto Rico. I don't have to take a plane and pay for a flight, I just come here," said Rijos.
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