Richard Torrez Jr.: USA’s golden hope among the giants

Olympic hopeful boxer Richard Torrez Jr. works out in his father's gym during a training session on 6 June 2020 (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Olympic hopeful boxer Richard Torrez Jr. works out in his father's gym during a training session on 6 June 2020 (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Richard Torrez Jr. comes from an American boxing family three generations in the making. He spoke with Tokyo2020 about his deep roots in the farmlands of central California, his love of punching up at some of the sport's largest men and his childhood dream of representing himself – and his family – at the Olympic Games.

Richard Torrez Jr. likes to slay giants.

Now, and let’s be clear, this Team USA boxer is by no means small at 188cm and roped through with muscle. But in the super heavyweight division, there are some absolute monsters hiding in the shadows. And they’re eager to take your head clean off.

“These are the biggest of the biggest,” Torrez Jr. told Tokyo 2020 about the Olympic weight class that showcases fighters above 91kg (with no upper limit) who on rough average fight from a height of approximately 194cm. “I’m not the biggest. I’m not the strongest. But going in the ring with one of those huge guys and getting my hand raised at the end of it – that’s a great feeling.”

There’s a twinkle in the 21-year-old’s eye when he talks about taking on the biggest and the baddest from all the corners of the world. It’s in those moments – when he touches gloves with an opponent who towers over him – that all the hard work kicks in.

Punching up & a family affair

“It’s definitely nerve-wracking when you have to look up at a guy to touch gloves because he’s close to seven feet tall [212cm] and huge,” chuckled Torrez Jr., a ten-time youth national champion and the number-one ranked American – and third worldwide – in his weight class. “But then you get back in the corner, and you think about how hard you trained for the fight. You think about all the time and dedication. Everything you sacrificed. Then it just becomes a matter of ‘let’s do this.’”

The secret lies in the training. It’s those hours and hours of grind, for years on end, that keep Torrez Jr. from being torn apart. This is the great motivator of all pugilists. Show up unprepared on, say, the badminton court, you lose your match. Maybe you lose your dignity. But in the boxing ring, you can lose a whole lot more.

Young Torrez Jr. learned that lesson the hard way when he was stretchered out of the ring at the 2019 AIBA world championships in Russia following a devastating punch from the huge Uzbek Bakhodir Jalolov (his country's flag bearer at the Rio 2016 Games and now an undefeated pro). The shot landed clean and saw Torrez Jr. suffer his first career knockout.

He's far more accustomed to being on the delivery-side of those types of blows. And to say the 21-year-old southpaw is trained well would be an understatement. Expectations at his home are as high as they are when he’s with Team USA coach Billy Walsh in camp.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images

Torrez Jr. represents the third generation of a boxing family from California’s San Joaquin Valley. His great grandfather, Juan Torrez, emigrated from Fresnillo Zacatecas, 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.

He’s not so much surrounded by boxing tradition as he is steeped in it.

“It’s never fun going home with the coach, right?” Torrez Jr., who's easy with a smile and chooses his words carefully, laughed about boxing bleeding into life and life bleeding into boxing in his particular arrangement. “When I was young and wanted to do regular kid stuff, dad always reminded me of the tournaments coming up. He’d push me to run. To train extra hard – even when I didn’t want to. And I couldn’t be more grateful.”

The training never stops

Young Richard’s father is fully aware of the sacrifices made by his son to become the USA’s newest hope for Olympic super heavyweight glory after a gold-medal drought for the country lasting into the second half of its third decade. “He [Torrez Jr.] comes along and takes it to the next level, every generation has taken it a level further,” said Torrez Sr. – the man who remembers his son, as early as eight years old, running around town and shouting about how he’d be an Olympic champion one day.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images

“I saw him sacrifice a lot,” Torrez Sr. added of his son – a child that Grandpa Manuel, who died in 2000, saw great potential in when he was still a baby. “Sometimes, you have to pay the price, and one of those things was his [Torrez Jr.’s] childhood.”

Torrez Jr. has a deep pride in his family’s boxing roots – and the even deeper roots in the farm country around Tulare, California. “If you blink, you’d miss it,” he laughs about the sprawling vegetable fields around the city that sits right in the heart of California between Fresno and Bakersfield – far away from the glitz and glamour of the coast.

You think about all the time and dedication.

Then it just becomes a matter of ‘let’s do this.’

It’s the same pride he felt for his dad when, early in life, he saw him cut a sparring partner to ribbons in the ring. “…He just dropped this guy – dropped him hard with a body shot – and he was my role model right there from day-one,” Richard remembered of those formative days when the lure of the ring began to wrap itself around him.

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. He's amassed a sparkling amateur record of 151-10 and 0 and been a member of Team USA for four years.

Torrez Jr. now represents the best hope for an American gold medal in the super heavyweight division, currently held by France’s Tony Yoka who stood atop the podium at Rio 2016. Those games in Brazil are still a bitter memory for Team USA as none of their super heavyweight fighters even reached the competition.

USA’s drought and the rocky road to Tokyo

The last American to win in the weight class at the Olympic Games was Tyrell Biggs back in Los Angeles in 1984 – the same year Richard Torrez Sr. fought at trials and the year the super heavyweight division debuted in the Olympic programme.

The road to Tokyo has been a tough one for Torrez Jr.. He was weeks away from the Americas continental qualifiers in Argentina last March when news started to spread about COVID-19. He was in peak condition, ready to earn his spot at the Summer Games, when everything started to the close up.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images

Suddenly, the qualifiers were cancelled and soon a postponement meant the Olympics were a year farther away than anyone had planned for. “We didn’t think that was possible,” Torrez Jr. said, capturing what so many athletes felt at the time. “These dates and events all seemed untouchable.”

Torrez Jr. – as all top contenders do – turned the disappointment into a spur. “I sat down and realised this moment, and how I react to it, would define me for the rest of my life,” said the fighter who admits to listening to Ludwig van Beethoven to settle himself before training and bouts. “I could waste this time and gain a bunch of weight or use the extra time as an advantage and train harder. So I bit my mouthpiece down and moved forward.”

Team USA’s boxers moved into an old department store when the official training centre in Colorado Springs shuttered due to the COVID-19 restrictions. And when he was back in Tulare, Torrez Jr. found creative ways of training – methods that hearkened back to his grandpa’s rough-and-ready roots on those challenging inland plains of California.

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images

“May 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 – breaking rocks, lugging buckets of dirt and working a shovel – when everything was closed down during the pandemic year. “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.”

Another Argentina cancellation

More than a year on from the disappointment of the spring of 2020, Torrez Jr. – approaching peak form once again after a nagging elbow injury – is facing yet another huge disappointment. On 16 April 2021, the Americas qualifying tournament in Buenos Aires was officially cancelled for the second year running, amid continuing travel complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Qualification will now depend on BTF (Olympic Boxing Task Force) rankings and Torrez Jr. will need to reach down a little deeper to centre himself on the goal of glory in Tokyo. These COVID-enforced challenges aren’t ones you can punch into a corner or overwhelm. These are questions that require patience and calm from a fighter – knowing when to lay off and when to move ahead.

“This is the moment that will define me for the rest of my life,” he said, outlining the complications of the past year that only seem to grow. “The mindset can’t change. It will define if I’m an Olympian, or an Olympic gold medallist, or if I’m not an Olympian.”

There are still giants laying in wait. But by the looks of it, Torrez Jr.’s roots are sunk deep enough to keep him steady against the buffeting winds. It’s likely he’ll be punching above his weight again in Japan, but that’s nothing new.

He won’t let it scare him for long. He’ll touch gloves, go back to his corner and think about his family, his dad. He’ll think about his training and the long roads behind him.

“It’s not just for me – the Olympics and that dream,” he concluded, emotion seeping into his voice, seated in front an array of title belts and photographs of past glories. “My dad and I have the same name, so if I win, he wins. It’s not just me – it’s the whole family.”

(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
2020 Getty Images