Togetherness for Carlos and Jovita Castaneda includes going a few rounds—sometimes against each other—in the gym.
By David Murray
On a Thursday afternoon in early March, a couple of boxers are working out in the gym, training for their next fight.
To the rhythm of shrill tones that transform time in here into an
infinite series of three-minute rounds and one-minute breaks, the two
boxers skip rope, shadow box, slug the heavy bag and paddle the speed
They take little notice of other boxers in the gym. In fact, they take
little notice of each other, except between rounds, when he comes over
and helps her wrap her hands. She would do it herself, but her left
thumb is broken. She broke it a couple of weeks ago, punching him in
the forehead during a sparring match.
She’s worried the thumb won’t heal in time for her next fight in a few
weeks; he’s concerned she’s going to fight anyway and hurt herself
But he’s got his own fight to worry about.
Such is the strange married life of Carlos and Jovita Castaneda, two of
many upwardly mobile people who have taken up a sport long ceded to
young men who had to get hit to get ahead.
Of course, the hardscrabble ambition of these poor young men–and, now,
young women–still feeds the various professional boxing ranks. But
these days, boxing also serves a more comfortable class of people whose
hunger is harder to define.
"There’s tons of BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes in the parking lot at night,"
said Tina Park, who helps manage the Jabb Boxing Gym, where the
Castanedas work out.
Located in a surprisingly cheerful West Town loft, Jabb is a common
ground for the pro pugs and pugilistic business professionals. It
serves as the headquarters for 8-Count Productions, a pro boxing
promotion firm owned by Park’s husband, Dominic Pesoli. Jabb helps fund
8-Count with dough earned from what the industry calls "white-collar
boxers" like the Castanedas. They pay to work out at the gym, and some
of them participate in amateur "fight clubs" put on quarterly by
Jabb’s business model is similar to that of many boxing gyms these
days: Fund the professional boxing business by teaching professional
businesspeople to box. For instance, at the legendary Gleason’s Gym in
New York, owner Bruce Silverglade reports that out of the gym’s 1,100
members, 350 are white-collar boxers; each white-collar boxer pays
about $1,000 in annual membership fees.
And thanks to a spate of boxing in the entertainment media lately,
boxing is becoming more than just popular, says Park: "It’s becoming
Not that Carlos Castaneda started boxing because it was chic. Now 36
and the manager of a grocery store in the city, he joined Jabb three
years ago because he thought it would be a good way to lose some weight
he’d gained when he quit smoking a few years before.
Boxing quickly came to mean a great deal to Carlos–and to his wife.
No sports, no gangs
Both American-born children of Mexican immigrants, Carlos and Jovita
met at Bowen High School on the South Side. It was a tough place, and
they were gentle souls–not into sports, let alone the gangs that ruled
"We tried to blend in," said Jovita, a stay-home mom. But it wasn’t
always possible, she says with a rueful laugh as she remembers how she
and Carlos were once beaten up together.
Though the Castanedas have taken their two children far away from the
old neighborhood to the suburb of Tinley Park, Carlos says he still
deals with rough customers in the grocery store he manages. He handles
them more assertively since he has been working out at Jabb and
participating in the fight clubs. And as a fight club veteran–he has
fought three bouts, winning two and losing one–he walks around the gym
with a swagger that makes it hard to imagine his wimpy young years.
"Now I’ve got an `S’ on my chest," he said.
The tall (5 foot 9), shy Jovita joined Jabb after seeing a woman box at
one of Carlos’ fight club matches. Her tall side said, "I could do
better than this girl." Her shy side–the one that hunches a little to
hide her height–giggled, "I have to be crazy to do this. It’s so
The tall side won out, even over the objections of her family members,
who were displeased to see their daughter and sister sporting an
occasional black eye. Only her brother attended her first fight, last
Though she lost that bout, she sees herself having another couple of
fights, her only question on this day in early March is whether the
next one will be on March 31.
Hoping against hope, she hasn’t told the 8-Count people she’s out. And
she’s training almost as hard as Carlos, who works out at the gym five
nights a week, runs three days a week and spars. He diets and abstains
from alcohol (and, in the weeks before the fight, sex).
Thanks to her bum thumb, sparring is the one thing Jovita can’t do.
Which is just as well for Carlos. Although he enjoys their workouts
together and watching televised boxing with her–"we’ve been together
so long it seems like we’re brother and sister," he said–Jovita is not
his favorite sparring partner.
Her southpaw stance makes it awkward for Carlos. Also, she sometimes complains that he hits her too hard.
"The only reason I ever hit you hard is to teach you," he countered.
"He works me out well," she agreed. "He throws good punches."
The tension builds
With the fight club only a few weeks away, the Castanedas are battling
their emotions. Typically, Carlos is excited before a fight, while
Jovita is all nerves.
Whatever nervous energy they don’t expend in training goes to doing
their part to bring the hundreds of fight fans expected at Lincoln
Park’s Park West Theater on March 31. (For his first fight, Carlos sold
$2,000 worth of tickets to friends and relatives at $30 to $50 per
It’s just like the pros, says Tina Park. "The boxers get to keep a
percentage of their ticket sales. They get to pick their own entrance
music. They come in with their own corner men carrying their own spit
buckets, and everyone cheers."
The only difference is who’s cheering. Whereas 8-Count’s professional
fight nights draw working-class Hispanics, Park says, the fight clubs
"skew toward a Gold Coast crowd."
But for the fighters, it’s the same as any other boxing match–and it’s totally different from sparring.
Jovita summed up the experience: "She wants to win, obviously, and I want to win, obviously."
And how does it feel to get hit in the head by someone who wants to win? "It feels like you’re drowning," Carlos said.
Not that their 12-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter are worried.
They take their parents’ hobby in stride, Carlos says. On the quiet
ride to the Park West on March 31, he says, "The only question they’ll
ask is, `Can we have some pizza?’"
Leading up to his March 31 amateur "white collar" boxing match, it seems that Carlos Castaneda’s fourth fight might be his last.
At 36, maybe he’s getting to old for this stuff. The dieting is
difficult and he’s worried about making weight. He’s getting beat up in
sparring matches. He isn’t sleeping well. And his emotions are getting
the best of him.
A couple of weeks before the bout, he is asked by a writer for
permission to hang around on the afternoon of the fight, before he
starts getting charged up. "I’m getting charged up already!" Castaneda
says with a nervous laugh.
On the Tuesday before the Friday "fight club," Castaneda doesn’t have
anyone to fight, as his originally scheduled opponent got hurt in a
Golden Gloves bout. Asked if he’s worried that the organizers won’t be
able to find a stand-in, Castaneda grumbles, "I’m more worried that
Driving to the Park West Theatre on a late rainy Friday afternoon with
his wife and three kids, he seems subdued and says his hands are
sweating, a complaint a clammy handshake confirms.
But now, sitting in a chair getting his hands taped in the steamy,
sweat-smelly small upstairs room where he and the 19 other amateur
boxers are preparing to test their courage and risk their dignity in
front their friends and family and hundreds of strangers, Carlos
Castaneda looks like the calmest man in the room.
Of course, that’s not saying much. It’s a pretty tense room.
`Let’s have fun out there’
Outside, meanwhile, more than 700 fight fans are getting looser and
looser; typically, the first fight doesn’t start until long after the
official 8 o’clock start time, giving the crowd extra time to drink.
Carlos’ wife, Jovita, isn’t drinking. Alas, she’s not fighting either.
As chronicled in Part 1 of this series last Sunday, Jovita was slated
to fight tonight, too, but she broke her thumb on her husband’s head in
a sparring match. She has decided to sit this fight club out. Maybe
she’ll fight in the next one, in June. But tonight, as she laughs
easily with her kids and her mother-in-law, Jovita seems too
fastidious, too agreeable and too gentle to ever hit anyone.
The same could be said of Carlos, who kibitzes with his new opponent,
an ex-basketball player named George Turner, who works out with
Castaneda at Jabb Gym. The two don’t know each other well, but they’ve
sparred before. Turner is taller, and "he has a good jab," Castaneda
says. But he’s being gracious; he knows he has a big edge on Turner
because this is his fourth fight and it’s Turner’s first.
Is Turner nervous? "A little," he says, with a smile that admits, "a lot."
"Let’s have fun out there," Castaneda tells him.
A knockout enterprise
Jabb Gym co-owners Dominic Pesoli and Mike Garcia have a pretty nifty
thing going with the fight clubs they put on every quarter.
The boxers sell most of the $30 to $50 tickets themselves, to their
friends and relatives. Sponsors kick in money or provide, as in the
case of Sauza Tequila this night, the card girls. The Park West doesn’t
do badly either, selling lots of pricey drinks throughout the two-plus
hours of action.
And the boxers aren’t complaining, because they get to keep 20 percent
of the amount they sell. Castaneda sold $1,000 worth for this fight–to
his brother, his parents, his boss and other friends and relatives. The
$200 he pocketed was enough to pay for an almost-ringside table for
Jovita and the kids.
The economic tidiness of the fight club scheme and the lighthearted
buzzing of the crowd around the empty ring leave an observer open to a
surprise punch: the reminder, in the upstairs ready room, that boxing
is boxing and these mostly white-collar men are facing blue-collar
fear. For many of them, this is their first fight. They’ve sparred
before but they know that a 90-second competitive round in front of a
crowd seems infinitely longer than a three-minute round in the gym.
"It’s an eternity," one fight club veteran says.
As the fighters’ trainers tape their hands and direct them through
warm-up exercises, as they smear Vaseline over their faces and headgear
and murmur last-minute reminders, one antithetical piece of advice
dominates all others: "Relax."
The boxers’ butterflies are dispersed now and then by a boxer’s
triumphant return. (And every return is triumphant, whether or not the
man is carrying a winner’s belt.)
Kenneth Spagnolo, a salesman and a brash young fighter who calls
himself "Gorgeous," knocks his opponent down at the end of the first
round and the referee stops the fight in the second. The crowd cheers
Spagnolo until he lifts his shirt to show his ripped abdominal muscles
and begins kissing his own arms.
The boos are just beginning to die down when Spagnolo roars into the
ready room laughing and wanting to know if anyone saw his fight: "How
did I look?"
Most fighters effect a more humble attitude. Like 50-ish Chicago
firefighter Tom O’Donnell, who staggers red-faced into the room with
his two knee braces and his winner’s belt and speaks only of how his
opponent had hit him hard a couple of times too.
And the young trader Scott Crepeau, who also wins the belt but isn’t
sure he really won the fight. All he knows for sure is what he’s going
to do next: "I’m gonna take a shower and get [messed] up."
Castaneda’s fight is the last one on the card. He spends most of the
night giving advice and encouragement to fighters going out and
debriefing fighters coming in.
Asked what he’s doing after his fight, Castaneda says he plans to take
a Jacuzzi and have a glass of wine. No wild celebration for the father
"I guess I’m just not that type of person," he says quietly.
Castaneda-Turner will not be remembered as one of the great fights of the century.
Castaneda follows his careful strategy of fighting defensively early in
the bout and hoping the first-time fighter will tire from the tension
in his arms. When he inevitably does, Castaneda gradually punches him
more often, though not much harder. He wins all three rounds–and thus
the fight–on points.
Throughout the action, Jovita stares with a steady, admiring smile.
"We’ve been together a long time," Carlos says of his high school
sweetheart. "I think she’s a little overconfident in me."
The kids are confident too. As 11-year-old Celeste said before the fight, "I know he’s gonna beat some butt and stuff."
Mom’s not too happy
The only one in Castaneda’s life who doesn’t like his boxing is,
perhaps predictably, his mother. Though Carlos and Jovita have long
left the South Side for Tinley Park, Guadalupe still lives in the old
neighborhood of South Chicago. She says she comes to these matches to
spend the time with her grandchildren–not to see her son fight.
After the fight, he asks her if she covered her eyes during his bout. "She said, `No, this time I just turned my head.’"
She wishes he would quit boxing, and before this match she had reason
to hope. His dread was only one factor. The Dan Ryan construction
promised to make the Castanedas’ long commute to Jabb Gym in West Town
even more arduous. And since they plan to run in the Chicago Marathon
next fall, both Carlos and Jovita were talking about hanging up the
gloves for a while.
But in that hot tub on Friday night, they split a bottle of wine and
talk about her next match, in June. And in the deep slumber of the
nights after his bout, Carlos says he had a recurring dream that he
wasn’t boxing anymore.
"It seemed like something was missing," he says. "Maybe this has become a part of me."