There was something a teen-aged Tony Cifuentes didn’t like about being locked in San Bernardino County jail with men old enough to be his father. Cifuentes was arrested for suspicion of accessory to murder. Later acquitted of that offense, Cifuentes had already accumulated quite a few charges in an expanding criminal file.
Fast forward to a few more arrests, then a commitment to the Bible and finally to his forming the Highlanders Boxing Club. Now, people old enough to be his father listen to his advice.
“I was locked up with guys in their 40’s. They were big. They had all the tattoo’s, the bald heads and the tough talk. That was all for intimidation. They didn’t know a thing about fighting unless it was a bunch of them against one,” said Cifuentes. “That’s what they do. It’s never one-on-one. I looked at those guys and realized that God did not bring me on this earth to be around them. The world is a much better place than that.”
Cifuentes, 34, says he had the fortune to be encouraged into the boxing gym where he learned discipline and respect. His transformation started making an impression on others and combined with his new self-confidence, attracted enough people to back him in the creation of the Highlanders Boxing Club. The Cifuentes story has already reached the mass media and is the topic of a current book being written by Redlands business woman Lauren Riggs.
Cifuentes is putting his past to use to help other young people. The Highlanders Boxing Club celebrated its 10th birthday in November. “We try to get the kids into our gym before they join a gang because once you’re in, it’s almost impossible to get out. We want to get them away from the ‘my hood’ mentality before they kill each other in the senseless name of ‘my hood.’
He admits that the turnover rate is high at his bare essentials Highland facility, a converted warehouse that has provided safe space for hundreds of boys and girls for 10 years. Cifuentes explained that aspiring boxer’s can learn about jabs, hooks and upper cuts, yet those skills are not considered the most important.
“The Highlander Boxing Club is a place where you can come and become a professional. Not just a professional boxer but someone who acts like a professional in public,” said Cifuentes. “We teach how to dress well, speak well, and make the right choices. Yes, this place is also about second chances. We are one of the few male role models in this neighborhood. This place is not really about boxing at all.”
Although, he trains and manages professional fighters, Cifuentes knows boxing is not in the future of most. Through their classroom and counseling sessions, club members are encouraged to go to college. “We are building a community here. A ministry. If we are to grow, we’ll need ring doctors and business lawyers. We direct those people to college.”
Cifuentes was disappointed when he spoke about a community service agreement with the probation department that was terminated because of misconceptions. “We accepted people into our program who committed smaller crimes, possession of pot or fighting, but some of them looked like the wrong perceived image. We had a 90 percent success rate, but basically we lost our sponsorships.”
Included in his campaign to attract youths to the after school club are motivational speeches given at local schools and at the Job Corp. Cifuentes is known to walk the neighborhoods of 6th and Sterling to introduce himself and invite those hanging around to come to the Highland Boxing Club.
The cost to join the comprehensive program is $30 per month. New members are on a three-month probationary period. After that time, a local sponsor is approached to pay the membership. “If one cannot be found. I will pay it,” says Cifuentes. He named a list of current sponsors that include an assemblyman, county supervisor, mayor, police chief, individuals, and many small businesses. The City of Highland awarded the nonprofit club a $5,000 grant. Cifuentes supports his wife and children as a professional trainer and boxing manager.
He says there are a number of professionals in the Highlander stable on the cusp of breaking in. Another from the club is trying out for the 2016 Olympics. He motivates his students with authority in an attempt to decrease the recent trend of laziness. “I mean what I say and say what I mean. We hold everyone accountable for their actions. There are no excuses for getting in trouble because the law is the law. I’m tough on these kids.”
Cifuentes recommends to stand up for yourself in public, but only before actual physical combat could occur. He admits that he’s been taunted and it’s not easy to ignore, however in the end it is not worth the fight. “I have to much to lose. We try to teach that. You have to pick and choose your battles in life.”
Cifuentes says the Highlanders gym smells like a fitness center, yet looks nothing like 24-Hour Fitness. It has a capacity to train 80 students. There are currently 15 and another eight in the club’s stable of active fighter’s. Under his direction, there are assistant’s Jeff Montana, Sunny Cifuentes and team leaders Gustavo Palacios and Russ Morton. Victor Dicosla is the coach.
According to Cifuentes boxing forces a person to think fast on their feet. Those tools can give a person a competitive not matter what you do. “There’s much more to boxing than just throwing punches. You have to be smart and react in quick second. Boxing has saved my life. We hope to save the live’s of others,” said Cifuentes.