Real-life-Rocky Richard Torrez Jr. faces the fear

USA's super heavyweight boxer Richard Torrez Jr. goes for gold on 8 August against the very same Uzbek who almost ended his career in 2019. Tokyo 2020 dives deep into the origins and motivations of this humble California kid aiming to claim his destiny and write his own story.   

Picture by 2021 Getty Images

You could write most of the movie script now.

A kid from the farm country of central California with a sharp left who walks up to the Olympic ring with Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ filling the air. In the final, with a gold medal on the line, he faces his fears and the Uzbek giant who hit him so hard a few years back that some in the crowd worried he’d never wake up.

A studio would buy Team USA super heavyweight boxer Richard Torrez Jr.’s story even if you conjured it from thin air – a work of pure, schmaltzy fiction. But it just so happens that it’s all playing out this way, in real life, at these Tokyo Olympic Games.

The only missing element is the ending. Will it be one of those classic Hollywood kinds or will the often-painful indifference of life – and sport – intervene to ruin a great plot?

READ | Torrez Jr.: USA's Golden Hope Among the Giants

“I’m a firm believer that this is destiny,” 22-year-old Torrez Jr. said after his first of three wins here in Tokyo, including a mauling of Kamshybek Kunkabayev in the semis. “I’m supposed to be here, like it’s meant to be.”

Destiny arrives with Sunday’s final at the Kokugikan Arena.

A familiar giant in wait

Torrez Jr. will face Bakhodir Jalolov, flag bearer for Uzbekistan at both these and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. He towers over Torrez Jr. and outweighs him too. He’s a full professional with an undefeated record and when the two met in the ring in the quarterfinals of the AIBA world championships in Russia three years ago, Torrez Jr. stepped into a vicious left 30 seconds from the end of the first round that sent him into an inky black void.

He was out cold before he hit the mat. It was the first knockout of Torrez Jr.’s career and one of those moments when the excitement, and the buzz of the knockout, gives way to quiet and nail chewing, exchanged looks of serious concern.

Medical personnel had trouble bringing the teenage amateur around. He was stretchered out and woke up in hospital. The concerns for his life dwarfed those, legitimate as they were, about how his career might have just ended before it really started.

“Our sport is not for the faint of heart,” he posted later that night on his Instagram account, to a collective sigh of relief from everyone who’d seen the great potential in this young American fighter. “I got hit with a great shot and that’s that.”

He went on: “The battle was lost but the war continues.”

It does indeed. On Sunday. And with gold on the line.

And whether it’s destiny, or just the simple fact that these two are the best of the super heavyweights here in Tokyo, hardly matters at all. It’s an opportunity for Torrez Jr. to reckon with a dark chapter in his boxing history – and try to set the record straight.

Farm-country roots

Torrez Jr. hails from Tulare, California. “If you blink, you’d miss it,” he laughed, talking to Tokyo 2020 before the Games about the sprawling vegetable fields around the city that sits smack in the heart of California – far from the glitz and glamour of the coast and the cosmopolitan centres of LA and San Francisco.

He represents the third generation of a family steeped in boxing tradition. His great grandfather, Juan Torrez, emigrated from Mexico in 1920. He’s the grandson of Manuel Torrez, a southwest (USA) Golden Gloves champion, and the son of 1984 Olympic trialist Richard Torrez Sr. – who also happens to be his coach and his boxing hero.

The first time Torrez Jr. sparred he was four. He was only eight during his first competition. And the first time he won nationals he was ten. Since then he’s gone on to win a further nine national championships, a Golden Gloves national title in 2017 and a bronze at the Pan-American Games in 2019.

“I’m doing all I can to go back home and say ‘Dad, we did it'. The Olympics and that dream,” he said, emotion in his voice. “My dad and I have the same name, so if I win, he wins. It’s not just me, it’s the whole family.”

Best hope for gold in decades

Torrez Jr. is the best hope for American gold in the super heavyweight division since Tyrell Biggs won back in Los Angeles in 1984 – the same year Richard Torrez Sr. fought at trials and the super heavyweight division debuted on the Olympic programme. The last time an American even reached a gold-medal final in the heaviest weight class was in 1988 when Riddick Bowe lost to Lennox Lewis in a clash of future stars.

In the build-up to the Games, for an extra edge, Torrez Jr. took to breaking rocks and shoveling gravel, pushing over huge tractor tyres, to get in better shape when other fighters were forced out of their gyms and struggling for ideas during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“My dad always talked about working on my grandpa’s farm and how that helped keep him in shape,” said Torrez Jr. about the manual labor he did to aid in his fitness. “Some of the local farmers would dump cement blocks in a canal nearby and I’d break it all up with a sledgehammer. I’d just keep swinging that thing.”

Destiny or not, and all the preparations and family spirit aside, Torrez Jr. will be the final’s underdog. The 2019 loss to Jalolov makes it so. But the young American has learned much in the last two years. He’s a better fighter now and, anyway, it’s in the losing where the biggest lessons are learned.

Despite not being near their size, Torrez Jr. finds inspiration in fighting against what he calls “the biggest of the big” in this super heavyweight division. It's the Olympic weight class that showcases fighters above 91kg (with no upper limit) who on rough average fight from a height of approximately 194cm.

“If you wanted one guy to represent your country in a fight, you’d get that biggest guy, right?” he asked rhetorically. “I’m not the biggest or the strongest, OK, but getting in there with one of those real big guys and getting my hand raised at the end, that’s a great feeling.”

When pressed on the fear of going into the ring with these giants, he shrugs.

“Going against some of those guys [like Jalolov], it’s definitely nerve-wracking,” said Torrez Jr, who knows the potential outcomes better than most. “I look up to touch his gloves and you just go back to the corner and think about how hard you trained and all the time, dedication and sacrifice. And then it’s just like: 'lets do this’.”

Cue the music

For a large man in a brutal sport, there’s something gentle about Torrez Jr. He loves his family. He’s proud of his roots in the sport of boxing and the place he calls home.

He even indulges a question about his favourite music as listed on his Team USA official bio. It’s 18th Century composer and pianist Ludwig van Beethoven. His face lights up when he reaches for a small music box in a desk drawer, bought on his last trip to Germany. He winds it and it plays ‘Fur Elise,’ a composition for solo piano.

“There’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ – this one just speaks to me,” said Torrez Jr., eyes lighting up talking about the tune that’s become his march-to-the-ring anthem here in Tokyo. “There’s no words so I listen before practice; it really helps me get my head where it needs to be.”

When asked, finally, about the nature of the destiny he senses here on the eve of the final, Torrez Jr. took a beat before answering. “I don’t know how to say. What is love, you know? It’s kind of that same thing. I’m meant to be here and all I know is that.”

Now, all that's left is the ending... and good ones can be hard to write.

GettyImages-1247348709
Picture by 2020 Getty Images