Abner Mares was one of 11 siblings who grew up in an area he called the “City of Hate.”
“It was gang members against the police officers,” says Mares, who moved with his parents at age 7 from his native Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, to Hawaiian Gardens, California, in Los Angeles County. “I grew up hating cops because of the environment that I grew up in. It was pretty much us against them. There was so much hatred and violence there.”
But Mares now wants to be an agent of change through boxing.
About 200 children greeted the three-division champion Sunday when he visited an amateur boxing tournament being hosted by the Jerry Ortiz Memorial Boxing and Youth Fitness Gym in El Monte, California, “about 20 minutes from where I grew up.”
Mares provided financial support and equipment for the kids within the program, which is run by the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department and targets underprivileged and at-risk youth ranging in age from 8 to 17.
“One dad brought his kid up to me and said, ‘We call him Little Abner Mares in the gym.’ He looked like a tough kid. I would say he was about 9 or 10. I was happy to see him," Mares said. "I started boxing at the age of 7, but since I was a boxer and I was also in the streets, I was always getting into fights, trying to prove myself out on the streets. So I've got the same story."
The gym is named after former El Monte resident and L.A. County Sheriff’s Deputy Jerry Ortiz, who was killed in the line of duty on June 24, 2005, in Mares' old neighborhood.
“This officer died in my city. I’m helping out at a gym where the guy who literally lived in front of me killed this man," Mares said. "But I got to interact with the officers and see their personal side of putting in the work to help these kids. It was touching to see these guys spending time with these kids—to see that they want the best for them and for them to succeed in life.”
Mares hopes boxing can affect similar changes in the lives of the children he met Sunday as it did in his own.
“Like me, they probably have parents who work two or three jobs. I would never see my dad until nighttime. During that time, I had no parent, no guardian. So the streets, the older men, gang members were really my parents, my family,” Mares said.
“I don't want these kids to get into trouble by growing up and getting other ideas. I don't want them to do all of the things that are easy to do when you’re young and growing up in a bad environment. That’s what I’m trying to prevent."