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Published: Saturday, 4/19/2003

Yanez a ringmaster

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Still a spry 64, longtime local boxing coach Gil Yanez remembers April 4, 1959, like it was yesterday.

That night there was plenty of leftover adrenaline in his stride as he ran - make that floated on Cloud Nine - to his Platt Street home in East Toledo from the Sports Arena, carrying a boxing trophy.

This 20-year-old version of Gil Yanez had just won the National AAU 112-pound (flyweight) championship in a tournament that included fellow Toledoan Wilbert “Skeeter'' McClure and one Cassius Clay of Louisville, who won the 156-pound and 178-pound national titles, respectively.

Both would become Olympic gold medalists the following year, and Clay, who changed his name to Muhammad Ali after beating Sonny Liston for the world heavyweight title in 1964, ultimately became arguably the world's most famous athlete.

Yanez knew that his father David had - at the urging of friends - made a rare appearance at one of his son's boxing tournaments.

David Yanez was not present for his son's national Golden Gloves titles won in Chicago in 1958 nor in New York in '59. He was a good father and an avid sports follower, but had never been one to hand out praise.

This time, however, the eager-to-please Gil, knowing his dad had seen his glorious moment at the Sports Arena, was certain he had some hard-earned praise coming when he got home.

“In all the [12] years I was boxing my dad came to see me fight maybe two or three times,'' Gil Yanez recalled. “I came in with this big trophy and said, `Dad, I'm No. 1, what do you think?'''

He looked up at me and said, `Boy, that Cassius Clay sure is good.'

“I said, `Dad, man, give me a break.' But he was right, Cassius Clay was good. It didn't really hurt me except maybe deep down inside a little.''

Although muted a bit by his father's reaction, that was a highlight in the boxing career of Gil Yanez, a journey that included tournaments in Chicago Stadium, Madison Square Garden and Boston Garden, and one that has now spanned more than 50 years.

It began when an 11-year-old Yanez ventured across the Cherry Street Bridge and entered the boxing gym at the old downtown Boys Club for the first time. He was eager to fit in with some neighborhood boys who had taken up the sport.

“I weighed about 75 pounds and I went down there and asked if I could box and they said `yes,''' said Yanez.

“When I first came into the gym all these other kids could fight. I mean they were tough. They bloodied my nose and they made me vomit [after punches] a few times.

“I would run back across the bridge crying. I'd be so mad, and I couldn't wait to get back to that gym again. I told myself I was going to get those guys, and I did. I just kept getting better and better, and I started punishing them.''

By 1953 Yanez began fighting organized bouts, posting a 33-0 record in the youth ranks.

As a student at Waite High School in 1956 he joined the Local 9 gym operated on East Broadway by John Garcia, the former state representative who died last month.

Yanez began fighting in local tournaments, including the Golden Gloves.

By 1957 he was “still pretty green,'' winning locally but losing early in the Golden Gloves nationals.

But a year later he became a national Golden Gloves champion, and in '59 the AAU national winner as well.

“John was the best coach I ever had,'' Yanez said. “He kept me jabbing and jabbing, and pretty soon he knew I had something going.

“He took me all over to fight. He must've known something because he told me I was going to win a national championship, and I was just hoping to win one fight. He was right.''

Yanez joined the army and won all-army bantamweight championships (118 pounds) in 1960 and '61. After the service he ventured down to a local gym one day to teach a young boy how to box. The coach there talked him into resuming his career, leading to Toledo Golden Gloves titles in '63 (at 118) and '64 (at 125).

He entered the nationals each of those years, but managed two victories both times before being eliminated and, ultimately, hanging up the gloves with a career record of 142-11.

A few years later he attended the local Golden Gloves tournament and saw no east Toledo kids competing, a void that prompted him and boxing friend Roger Bell to start a gym of their own for east siders.

Buddy Carr, the Toledo Police Athletic League coach who had trained McClure, found them a venue in 1968 at the Westminster gym in North Toledo.

Thirty-six years, several gyms and hundreds of kids later, Yanez is still coaching the sweet science.

Retired from his job at the local BP refinery in 2000 and no longer burdened with running the organizational side of a gym, Yanez is free to indulge in his favorite hobby of developing young fighters. For the past four years those lessons have been taught at the Glass City Boxing Gym on Suder Avenue.

His most prominent student is current U.S. heavyweight (179 to 201 pounds) national amateur champion Devin Vargas, who three years ago became Toledo's first ever Golden Gloves heavyweight national champion, and the city's first national winner in any weight class since 1972 Olympian Louis Self of Scott High School won one that year.

Like Self and McClure before him, it is Vargas' goal to fight in the Olympics.

The 1998 Start High graduate is currently the top-rated amateur heavyweight and the leading candidate for a spot on the U.S. team for the 2004 games in Athens, Greece.

Yanez coached Devin's father, Ray Vargas, when he moved to Toledo in the late 1970s. When Ray's sons - Dallas, Dillon and Devin - reached their mid teens and, like typical youths quit listening to their father's instructions, he turned them over to Yanez.

Devin, 21, has worked with Yanez for nine years, through a succession of local and national titles that began in 1998.

Like Garcia taught him and for most of the countless other young boxers he has tutored over the years, Yanez is a stickler for “working the jab'' in his sessions with Devin Vargas.

While his coach repeatedly urges the young champion to stick the jab and move, to use his 6-3 stature and superior quickness to his advantage, Vargas occasionally cannot resist the temptation of simply slugging it out with an opponent.

Talking about the bad habit makes Vargas grin, but it leaves his dad and Yanez frustrated.

“I don't like that,'' Yanez said. “Hit and not be hit. That's the name of the game. But he's a good fighter. He's won everything there is to win. If he works hard and keeps on training, he should make it.''

Outside of learning the jab, Vargas points to one area when asked what Yanez has brought to his career.

“His experience,'' Vargas said. “A lot of coaches had a couple fights here and there and consider themselves good coaches. But Gil's been doing this for over 30 years. He won national titles and he's been around the block, so he knows how to do it. When it comes to boxing, I listen to Gil.''

Ray Vargas, who runs the Glass City facility and calls the shots for his son's career, yields to Yanez's expertise and is amazed that this 64-year-old man still dons the training mitts to work strong young fighters, like his sons, in the ring.

“Outside of my father, there is no man I respect more than Gil Yanez,'' Ray Vargas said. “He's been around longer than anyone, and he knows the game.

“I hate to think of what's going to happen when he's not around, or when he decides he doesn't want to do it anymore.

“He's been to the top and all the kids listen to him.

“My kids especially.''



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