Jose Gonzales Jose Gonzales
X Logo

Like the tattered canvas of the 16-by-16-foot boxing ring in front of him, Antonio Gonzalez is worn out. But it doesn't show.

Wearing a long-sleeved black hoodie and gray sweatpants, he stands with arms crossed like a guardsman, studying six of his students and how their bodies move inside the ring.

"I don't want to hear your feet," says Gonzalez, voice booming with gusto. "I want it real nice and quiet in there."

His young fighters, all under the age of 17, struggle to keep the pace. They trot sideways in a closed circle, changing directions on the leader's mark. Their wrapped hands protect their youthful faces as if they could be attacked at any moment.

On the floor nearby, a timer ticks off the seconds of the two-minute rounds. When it turns yellow, Gonzalez barks out: "All right, let's work! Thirty seconds. Push, push, push!"

For Gonzalez, these dwindling moments matter most — it's when the boxer must push past the pain and meet the opponent head on.

"Who is sliding their feet?" asks Gonzalez, stepping up to the edge of the ring, eyes darting from one pair of legs to the next. "Benny is one."

An 8-year-old black boy in a gray T-shirt snaps his head up in attention. It's what the rest of them need to fall in line. Suddenly, they're bouncing on the balls of their feet, and Gonzalez takes a small step back.

"I used to have a kid that was 13-years-old, 178 pounds — solid — and it was BOOM, BOOM-BOOM," says Gonzalez, stomping his feet on the tile floor.

"I had him being able to do 25- and 50-yard dashes, and you couldn't hear nothing but a whisper," he says, smiling as if a vision of his former student suddenly appeared in front of him. "That's when you know an athlete is peaking."

As part of a five-week introduction to boxing at Cleveland's Cudell Recreation Center, Gonzalez has set up several workout stations on the second floor to condition his athletes so they get used to the standard two-minute rounds in amateur boxing competitions.

While one group jumps rope, another climbs up and down on milk crates, keeping their eyes forward while careful to step in the center so their weight isn't misplaced.

At the end of each round, when the buzzer rings three times, the athletes stop to take a break. But that minute is quickly over, and then they're back at it again, doing whatever they can to stay ahead.

Many of the jump-ropers take things slow, doing three to four rotations at a time, building up strength for that final push at the end of each round. When a 7-year-old trips over his feet and falls in the ring, he gets out and does a round of situps instead.

To even spar in the ring, or for Gonzalez to catch their punches, these young boxers must survive the grueling hour of conditioning and demonstrate they want it.

"The way I demand respect here, people stop at the door," says Gonzalez. "I'm at a stage in life where if you want me to catch your hands, you've got to earn it."

At 44-years-old, Gonzalez volunteers 3 1/2 hours a day three times a week at the rec center. He's turned kids into champions: In 2003, an 11-year-old Sabrina Calloway won the Women's National Golden Gloves, making her the youngest female to ever earn the title. His youngest son, Carlos, took home the 70-pound intermediate title at the Ringside World Championships in Kansas City, Missouri. And while he's never boxed competitively himself, Gonzalez is a driven, tactical and courageous fighter.

Look into his eyes, and you get a glimpse of his opponent.

The light green hue is frosted over like glass. It's a side effect of a rare genetic disorder known as lecithin-cholesterol acyltransferase deficiency that causes a buildup of cholesterol in the kidneys. Gonzalez has been in end-stage kidney failure for the better part of five years. He undergoes hemodialysis three days a week, a process that cleans out toxins from the blood in his body.

"Right now, I'm in a bigger battle than a boxing program," says Gonzalez. "I'm battling to just coexist on planet Earth and watch my children grow."

At 5 a.m., 19 patients settle in at the Fresenius Medical Care dialysis center in Brook Park. Almost all of them are dragging their feet, carrying bags with magazines, Kindles, and yarn and crocheting needles to keep their minds occupied over the next four to eight hours.

Within 45 minutes, most are huddled under thick blankets to keep warm, eyes closed as they drift into an uncomfortable sleep to the bleeps and blips of machines that are keeping them alive.

Gonzalez sits on the edge of his bed. With his left arm stretched out on a small wooden table, he keeps his eyes on the blood traveling through the tube that runs from the underside of his forearm through the machine that filters the toxins, extra salt and water his kidneys can no longer process.

The 6-inch area at the hinge of his forearm — where needles attached to tubes enter and exit — is his lifeline. Although he's been coming to dialysis three days a week since 2011, the process hasn't gotten any easier.

It's like a parasitic worm has burrowed beneath his skin. The damage caused by the insertion of 16-gauge needles has been irreparable. His skin is darkened, and the opening in his fistula — the fusion of the main artery and a vein that allows for a more rapid rate of blood flow — has narrowed over time, making it difficult for nurses to withdraw his blood without breaking the artery.

That's happened nearly 30 times. So in April his doctors widened the passage, because each time it breaks, Gonzalez runs the risk of destroying the pathway — the one thing that's keeping him alive.

"This weakens the body," says Gonzalez, through gritted teeth, during dialysis. "I don't really respect weakness. I respect strong character."

Born with a rare genetic disorder that interferes with the body's ability to breakdown cholesterol, he's among the less than 1 percent of all people on dialysis with lecithin-cholesterol acyltransferase deficiency.

"It's a very difficult diagnosis to make," says Dr. Jonathan Taliercio, a nephrologist at the Cleveland Clinic. "People get into trouble and get into end-stage renal disease usually around the fourth decade of life."

Gonzalez doesn't want to be seen this way, dependent on a machine for life support. When he's not in dialysis, he wears long sleeves to keep his arm hidden.

Only his family, including his six children and best prizefighters, know of his illness, but it's getting harder for him to keep it guarded.

His classes at Cudell are growing, and he wants to dedicate more of his time there coaching young athletes, but he's often left too tired and worn down from the treatment process.

"A certain type of fatigue comes with it where your decision-making, your understanding and comprehension is altered," he says. "There are days when my body can't take this."

Antonio Gonzales Arm

Four years of dialysis have left Antonio Gonzalez’s arm purple and scarred. In early April, he underwent an operation to improve his blood flow during dialysis. 

Antonio Gonzales on Operating Table

Around 1999, other kids in the East Side neighborhood began to take notice of Gonzalez's training: Sabrina Calloway was the first.

The second-grader lived down the street in an apartment with her mother and three brothers. Her father had left the family, and from an early age, she was raised to be strong. When she saw Jose throw a jab for the first time — the dead-centered eyes, the sudden step forward and the thrust of a fist — she was enthralled and wanted to fight alongside him.

"There was something about me that has always wanted to fight," says Calloway. "I just wanted to get in the ring and take my anger out on whomever."

Like Martin, Gonzalez gave her an audition and discovered she had a lot more strength than he had anticipated. "She hit hard and I fell in love with that," says Gonzalez. "I knew I had the future of women's boxing right there in my hands."

It wasn't long before Calloway's brother, Dwayne, followed her into the ring. And just like that, Gonzalez had his first team.

The Calloways trained with Jose nearly every day. Gonzalez thought he could help them outside the ring too. After talking to their mother, he let the kids stay at his house and helped them get into the Horizon Science Academy, a public charter school.

"We wanted them to have a chance," says Gonzalez. "It was to develop a form of structure that to this day has affected them, because they were raised right alongside my kids."

Soon, others in the neighborhood wanted to be a part of what the kids called the Basement Boxing Club — but if they were going to train, they had to work.

"His golden rule was to work them hard at first," says Sherri Coon, Jose's mom and Gonzalez's partner for more than 20 years. "If they kept coming back, you knew they were going to dedicate themselves."

When Al Jones, leader of the Cleveland Kronk Gym, caught word of Gonzalez's camp just a few blocks away, he told Gonzalez to bring the kids to the facility.

Jones was impressed by what he saw.

"All of his boxers had the same attacking ability," he says. "He was able to relay that warrior spirit."

And like with Martin before, Gonzalez soaked it up like a sweat rag. Jones' gym was a sister organization to the one in Detroit led by Emanuel Steward, who was responsible for training world champions including Evander Holyfield and Thomas Hearns.

"He was so hungry for knowledge about coaching," says Jones. "He wanted to know every aspect and everything I knew."

Jones worked at getting into the psyche of each fighter, molding them like fine clay and using positive reinforcement to push them. Even when an athlete was having an off-day, they were good in Jones' eyes.

"He taught me when I was a young coach that if you're not convinced in here that you're great," Gonzalez says, pointing to his head, "you're not going to perform great."

The opportunity also allowed Gonzalez to travel. In 2002, when Olympic gold medalist and Jones' prize pupil Juan McPherson competed in a two-day dual meet with the Olympic Team USA in Beaumont, Texas, Gonzalez stepped up to coach.

But when tensions rose between Steward and Jones, Gonzalez pulled his team out of the gym and set up in an empty studio apartment behind the Subway franchise he and Coon owned on East 61st Street. They dubbed themselves Team Subway Boxing.

"We were a family," says Jose. "Our father called us a tribe."

Gonzalez's fighters ate every meal together, often slept in the same house and woke up at 5 a.m. to run from East 55th Street to Kirtland Park and back.

After school, they'd do it all over again, splitting up cardio breaks with sparring matches inside the apartment until 7 or 8 p.m.

His training took on the same importance as those childhood family gatherings. Suddenly he wasn't just building champions, he was building support and finding purpose.

"He always knew there was something more," says Coon. "These kids weren't looking for a gym, they were just looking for a release, an outlet, somewhere they could go to call theirs."

He built champions along the way. Calloway became the youngest competitor to win the Women's National Golden Gloves Championship and ended her career with a 17-0 record. Meanwhile Nora Yorko, the daughter of his business partner, became a three-time Junior Olympic champion.

"He made us face that challenge head on and learn to get passed it," says Yorko, now 24, who helps Gonzalez train at Cudell. "We had to figure out how to succeed, and we had no choice but to do what we had to do."

"My boxers are an extension of me," says Gonzalez. "That's how you think of yourself: I'm a winner."

Gonzalez showed signs of the disorder as early as 12 years old. His eyes began developing a clear blue opacity. His mother wasn't sure what caused it, but Gonzalez's vision was near perfect. His doctors hadn't seen anything like it before, so they left it alone.

Over time, the pupils were overtaken by a glassy sheen caused by cholesterol deposits. Meanwhile, similar deposits were building up in his kidneys.

It went unnoticed until 2007. Gonzalez and Coon were recently separated, but devout on raising their children, both by blood and boxing. When Gonzalez accidentally cut his hand on a pane of glass, he went to the hospital to get stitches. He discovered his blood pressure was irrationally high, and his kidneys were only functioning at 27 percent.

"You have a boxing program, you're creating champions, and everything is in full swing with the future wide open and then you get smacked," says Gonzalez. "It was like nothing could put a dent in my armor, but something was destroying me from within."

Gonzalez was given medication and a steroid treatment, but his body turned against him. He was retaining too much water, causing his legs to swell and making it difficult to walk. Bouts of insomnia left him bedridden and unable to coach. The medication caused unannounced mood swings resulting in daily arguments with Coon and his children.

When Coon sold the Subway franchise in 2009, Gonzalez shut down Team Subway Boxing. "I couldn't let them see me like that," he says. "It was something I had to deal with on my own. I had to pull away from everything to get it right."

To lessen the side effects, Gonzalez began weaning himself off the medication. He was without a team and without his family. But without the medication or dialysis, he only had a couple of months to live.

"I made the decision that I was going to just let myself expire," says Gonzalez, shaking his head. "I was tired of living so dark."

Antonio Gonzales and son Carlos

Training his youngest son, Carlos, helped Antonio Gonzalez fight through his battle with renal failure.

Before he could tap out, Gonzalez found a reason to fight back.

His then-12-year-old son Carlos announced he wanted to be a professional boxer and wanted his father to train him. It took six months of convincing, but Gonzalez took Carlos on as his student, teaching him in the attic of his mother's house with the equipment he kept from his reign as a coach of champions.

"There's a fine line between being a dad and a coach," says Gonzalez. Some fathers live out their dreams of being a prizefighter through their children, he says, but that wasn't his goal. "I was always a fan."

Unlike Jose, who meticulously thought out his attacks, Carlos was vicious. He came in swinging, throwing himself into each jab with lightning reflexes, each punch building off the last. Every day was spent in the attic or out on the streets, running drills and conditioning his body to Gonzalez's liking. But while the two found strength in each other, Gonzalez's illness was still brewing inside him.

One night, Carlos was having trouble sleeping and woke his father for a 2 a.m. training run — Carlos on foot and Gonzalez following on his bicycle. On the way back, Carlos began sprinting, pushing that last quarter-mile as Gonzalez instructed him.

When he arrived back at the house, Carlos realized his father wasn't behind him. He ran back and found his father standing beside the bicycle under a street lamp, wheezing, out of breath and unable to continue.

Weakness wasn't a part of their language. So Carlos grabbed the bicycle and threw his father's arm around his shoulder. The two walked back in silence, knowing they'd do it all over again the next day.

"It showed me he was even more of a fighter than I thought he was," says Carlos. "It made me want to give him his wish, to win a championship title."

Within a year, Gonzalez signed Carlos up to compete in the 2010 Ringside World Championship in Kansas City, Missouri, which draws about 1,400 amateur boxers each year.

Carlos advanced to the semifinals. But just minutes before the bout, the boy was struck with an overwhelming surge of emotions, tears welling up in his eyes, his hands going stiff. He didn't want to disappoint his father.

Gonzalez got down on one knee and looked Carlos in the eyes. "Win, lose or draw, I'm your father first," he said. "I love you."

It was everything Carlos needed to hear. When the referee announced Carlos the champion the next day, he ran to his father and hugged him over the ropes.

"Having that title was important to me," says Gonzalez.

"He doesn't let his sickness beat him," says Carlos. "He fights for us kids. For all of us."

That same year, after a routine checkup at an ophthalmologist, doctors diagnosed Gonzalez with lecithin-cholesterol acyltransferase deficiency. The change in his eyes and renal failure were both symptoms of the disease.

Gonzalez began weaning himself off the medication and started peritoneal dialysis — an at-home process that requires an injection of minerals and sugars into the abdomen through a catheter while a machine withdraws the toxins out of the blood overnight.

The process came with new risks. The area in which the solution was injected was highly susceptible to infections and required anyone nearby to wear a mask during the process. But Gonzalez saw it as an opportunity to travel with Carlos to more competitions.

But two months after beginning the treatment, 4 liters of peritoneal solution seeped into his right lung, and Gonzalez was forced to begin hemodialysis.

It's been more than four years. "It can be very daunting," says Taliercio. "He accepts it, moves on and just continues with his life."

But it isn't easy. His blood leaves his body warm and comes back cold, making it difficult to regulate his temperature while in dialysis.

He barely sleeps, pushing himself to exhaustion simply to keep his boxing program alive. With his deficiency, the risk for heart attacks and strokes increases.

According to Taliercio, some studies show there's roughly an 18 to 20 percent risk of death every year for patients in end-stage renal failure. Without dialysis, he would die within 10 days.

In the back of Julia Gonzalez's attic, past the teardrop of the speed bag and the five punching bags of various sizes hanging from the exposed wooden ceiling, there's a shrine. Nine championship belts are on display, tokens of former students who gave them up in the hopes they will inspire other young fighters who come up here looking for strength.

Sitting vigilantly on a ledge above them, a bronze bust of a conquistador stares out from behind the tiniest pair of blue boxing gloves strung on a nail hammered into the wood.

"Those are Jose's first gloves," says Gonzalez. "I got them when he was just a little guy."

Carlos, 18, is tall enough now that he almost hits his head on the ceiling when he gets on the treadmill in the back. The two still come here occasionally to practice.

Over the next year, Gonzalez plans to pull some of the more advanced students out of Cudell to train them privately in this old and archaic place.

"You don't need a boxing ring to make champions," he says, as he laces up Carlos' gloves and takes a step back. "Everything you need is up here."

As Carlos squares off against the heavy bag hanging closest to the shrine, Gonzalez maneuvers around the attic, keeping him in his sights while Carlos dances and jabs — right arm extended beautifully out in front of him without fear, backed by the power-hand he keeps tucked at his side.

"When I put gloves on and put a headgear on, and you see fear but fear being conquered — that's gratifying," says Gonzalez. "They're conquering their fears by entering that ring."

For two years, Taliercio has advised Gonzalez to seek a kidney transplant.

And yet only recently has he even considered being put on a transplant list — the only possible solution in his fight for survival.

"I had to experience everything in between to make sure I could be responsible enough to take care of what someone else sacrificed," says Gonzalez.

There's no cure for his genetic deficiency, so even after the procedure, his new kidney could potentially begin collecting cholesterol deposits again.

Although he'd be given more time and a better quality of life, immunosuppressant drugs required to keep the new kidney alive could also potentially make his body more susceptible to a whole slew of infections.

But Gonzalez is willing to take a chance.

For now, Carlos is setting aside his boxing career to attend Cleveland State University and help coach at Cudell while Gonzalez is in the process of getting on the transplant list.

"You can choose to be strong," Gonzalez says. "That's what I teach: how to be strong."

X Logo