From the opening bell of the first round, both boxers stood in the middle of the ring, exchanging punches, neither flinching from their heavy blows. A battle of wills mixed with machismo had erupted at Carson’s Dignity Health Sports Park between Ronny Rios and undefeated fighter Diego De La Hoya.
During the sixth round on that hot July night earlier this year, the Santa Ana native slammed a left hook into De La Hoya’s body. Ronny quickly followed with a right uppercut, flooring him. De La Hoya struggled to get off the canvas, but he was done. The fight was over. Nobody expected him to win, but Rios was victorious.
Raising both hands in triumph, Ronny was now the North American Boxing Federation’s Gold Champion.
Less than two years ago, Rios lost his shot at the World Boxing Council title to Mexico’s undefeated Super Bantam World Champ Ray Vargas. The match went to the scorecards and Vargas came out the victor. Ronny was ready to quit.
“I wanted to crawl under a rock,” Rios says. “You know that commercial by Southwest Airlines? ‘Wanna get away?’ That was me. I wanted to get as far away [from boxing] as possible. I didn’t want to see a gym, gloves, weights. I was done.”
Ronny is no stranger to the “underdog” story. Growing up in the rough Delhi neighborhood, he was exposed to the drug and gang violence so prevalent in the barrios of Santa Ana. Unlike others that were sucked into the gang life, Rios never had an interest in it. He had his mindset of fighting his way out with his fists.
“My uncle was a boxaholic. He had boxing magazines scattered everywhere I looked,” Rios says. “I never got into that gang lifestyle. I’m not trying to make it seem tough, but a lot of the friends I grew up with are in jail, and some are dead. That was just the life.”
Now a father and aware of the struggle boys face in the city, he knows that there’s a better way out. Rios and others in the local fight community dedicate their time at the TKO Boxing Club to help kids that want to break out of the stereotypical thug life cycle for which Santa Ana is known.
Ronny and TKO Boxing Club host an event every year at Original Mike’s, in Downtown Santa Ana to raise money and buy new equipment for young fighters.
Rios trains five to six days a week in preparation for his Staples Center fight on Nov.9 against Colombian fighter Hugo Berrio. He hopes that a victory will lead to another shot at a world title.
“It’s not over. I’m not done. Not by a long shot. I still have a lot of fight in me.”