Santa Rosa boxing coach fights to resurrect gym
By MARTIN ESPINOZA
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Charlie Pachuca, 14, in black trunks, and Wuyli Patiño, 15, in gray trunks, sparred Friday evening in a parking lot in southeast Santa Rosa, the smoky scent of their
burned-out boxing gym mixing with the permanent smell of asphalt and motor oil.
Danny Rizzo, their instructor and the owner of Danny Rizzo Pro Boxing Club, reminded them to keep their punches low because their faces and heads were vulnerable.
“Right now, because we don’t have any masks, we’re just going to work the body,” said Rizzo as he watched the kids jab, punch and weave.
That boxing headgear, and everything else in Rizzo’s gym on Flower Avenue, was destroyed by fire a month ago. Since then, the club’s mostly young Latino members have been training in the parking lot.
Tucked away behind a complex of modest single-story, peach-colored duplexes, the gym was constructed without building permits. But it was a haven for low-income kids looking for discipline and a way to avoid the pitfalls of gang-plagued neighborhoods.
The gym was also Rizzo’s life, where he taught everything he knew about the sport of boxing. Now, he’s trying to rebuild it, making appeals for donations on fliers and through word of mouth.
The city says the same structure in the same spot would not be permitted, and Rizzo said he’s willing to play by the rules this time but he needs help.
You would not have noticed Danny’s Pro Boxing Club driving down Flower Avenue. It was built in the backyard of the apartment where Rizzo lived. He was manager of those apartments.
The facility, equipped with a boxing ring, punching bags and weights, was built with the consent of the property owner, Carol Sissa, whom Rizzo has known for years and affectionately calls “Mom.”
The 39-year-old former pro boxer, who grew up in San Rafael, said he started the club partly as a way of reaching out to local kids and encouraging them to stay in school and out of gangs.
“He tells kids to go to school, don’t be dropouts; above all, don’t do drugs and have pride. He wants them to be successful, not end up in trouble,” said Sissa.
In all, Rizzo said he lost about $80,000 worth of equipment, much of it purchased new, including six heavy leather bags worth $500 each, a $6,000 ring, three $300 speed bags and a $200 combination bag.
On Sept. 5, Rizzo was driving to the San Francisco Airport with his wife to pick up one of his coaches when his cellphone rang. It was about 9:15 p.m. and they were driving through Novato when his wife answered the phone and was told that their apartment was on fire.
Rizzo and his wife had left their two daughters in the care of his wife’s sister and mother. They turned around and sped back to Santa Rosa.
“I was in shock. My wife was in shock,” he said. “I just wanted to get home to my kids. I just wanted to get my kids out of there.”
He said his in-laws told him they first saw fire coming from behind a television and they grabbed the kids and quickly got out of the building.
Santa Rosa Fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque said the fire was caused by an overloaded electrical outlet in the gym area. The flames intensified and eventually blew out the back windows of Rizzo’s apartment and a neighboring unit, allowing the fire to spread into residences, Basque said.
Rizzo was born in Nicaragua but came to the United States when he was a year old. He said his parents died when he was young and he eventually ended up on the streets.
He started boxing when he was 7, went pro when he was 18. He had 16 pro fights but stopped boxing in the mid-1980s because of a detached retina.
But he never strayed very far from the ring. Rizzo said he currently works for Oscar de la Hoya’s Golden Boy Promotions, helping with ring setups.
The fire has had impacts beyond the loss of his gym and home. He said that a couple of his young fighters had to cancel their fights because they didn’t have a proper place to train.
He said he has about 80 members in his club, with each of them paying $40 a month. There’s also an initial fee of $80 that pays for the first month, a club T-shirt, mouthpiece and hand wraps.
Charlie Pachuca, a Rincon Valley Charter School student, said he’s been a member for about six months. He said he got into boxing after watching Manny Pacquiao fight Juan Manuel Marquez. He was impressed with Pacquiao’s speed and agility.
Pacheco said he checked out two other Santa Rosa Boxing clubs, including the better-known Double Punches, but settled on Rizzo’s because it offered “more real stuff.” Charlie said he was supposed to submit his documentation for his amateur boxing license on Sept. 6, the day after the fire.
He said that after the fire destroyed the gym he was worried about not having a place to train and about gaining weight.
Daniel Moreno, 10, also joined the club about six months ago. The Roseland Elementary School student competes in Taekwondo as well and said the two disciplines keep his mind focused and help him avoid trouble.
It also keeps his grades up.
“My Mom says that if I want to stay in these sports I have to do well in school,” he said.
Rizzo faces long odds to fulfill his dream of rebuilding his gym and keeping his club alive. He said he wants to put it in the same location, but city officials say that probably can’t happen.
Santa Rosa senior code enforcement officer Mike Reynolds said Rizzo did not have building permits for the sports structure behind his apartment and that it appeared to violate rear-yard setbacks.
Reynolds said it would be unlikely that permits would be issued for a similar structure.
Rizzo acknowledged that he didn’t have the necessary approvals for his gym but said he’s willing to do whatever is necessary.
“My dream is just for the kids,” he said.
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or firstname.lastname@example.org.