Heron Mendez is nearly 70 years old. He thinks. He’s not sure. But what he does know is that he’s been boxing since he was 5 years old. And boxing is all that he knows.
Mendez was a professional boxer until, he says, a drunk driver took it away. That’s when he decided to put that knowledge to good use. Mendez, alongside Allen Seghetti, is head coach at the Mendez Boxing Club, located at 2140 Main Street, Springfield’s only boxing gym.
“I got tired of watching kids getting in trouble, and this was one way to keep them off the streets and make them feel good and have pride in themselves,” he says.
The boxing club keeps the lights on courtesy of Mendez’s Social Security check as well as some support from Seghetti. Parents of kids who train at the club have come through with donations, such as weights, and gas money to travel to out-of-town bouts.
Because of this, Mendez is able to keep membership prices down for youth in the area. Monthly cost for each member is $50, which he adds comes up to only $2.50 a day.
But with recent cuts to Mendez’s Social Security check, it’s been getting harder to pay the club’s bills, he says.
“We need $975 for the rent. Right now, we have $100. But what are you going to do? I can’t say, ‘No you can’t come.’ Where there’s a way, there’s a will,” he says. “We try to fandangle what we can. We collect bottles and cans to do what it takes.”
A Vietnam War veteran, Mendez says the club attracts youth ages 8 and up. And it’s not uncommon for many of them to come in with anger problems.
“Basically, they find me,” he says. “They talk to their friends at school. They see these changes, and they tell them that they’ve been boxing and learning to direct their anger.”
Since Mendez says he has anger problems as well, it gives the coach and student common ground and a way for him to show them how to work with it.
“I try to direct them in the right direction and make them understand that I’ve been there. I’ve been in trouble. I wasn’t the nicest of kids growing up,” he says. “If I have them here, they’re not out taking your tires off your car or breaking into your house.”
In addition to experiencing a punching bag and cardio therapy, Mendez and Seghetti explain the mechanics of boxing to the youth who attend their gym.
“I try to explain why everything is done,” he said. “We teach body mechanics because the body has to move according to how it’s made.”
He didn’t think much about education growing up, and that’s why he instills the importance of learning with fighters at his gym. In fact, he requires that fighters in his club maintain decent grades. One of the fighters improved his grades from failing to above average, he adds.
“I really target education a lot because I’ve learned from my experience that if you don’t have an education, your life is very tough,” he says. “We get tutors if we have to. We want to help make their lives a lot easier.”
Mendez has trained some fighters to go on to high levels of competition, and he says he has some boxers at his club who he hopes can make it to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
“We target the kids more than the money, that’s why we’re always broke,” he says. “It’s about making good citizens. And hopefully what they learn here they pass on.”