When a group of trainers barks her name, Ana Pascal peeks her head around the corner, peering into the open-air, hangar-like gym.
She sees them and flashes a smile, her gold-grilled teeth showing, the star of David tattoo on her cheek scrunching up beneath her left eye. She’s established an identity for herself here. She knows everyone, and they know her –– but then again, so does the rest of Panama.
Pascal is a world-champion boxer and Panama’s first female titleholder. She started here at Gimnasio Rockero Alcazar, a government-funded arena in Curundú, a low-income neighborhood in Panama City. The gym was built in 1994 with the goal of keeping kids out of gangs, and has since evolved into a home for up-and-coming champions, some of whom are trained by top dogs like Pascal.
Trainees box for free and are taught by some of Panama’s best fighters. The ragged gym, with its two torn-up boxing rings, weight-lifting area filled with aging equipment and rows of punching bags, is a refuge from the streets surrounding it, which are laden with gang activity and crime. Many of the boxers and trainers, however, said violence has decreased in the past few years.
“Thank God, here, [the gangs] don’t bother us,” said Ricard Córdoba, a trainer who holds one world title, five national titles and six regional titles. “With this gym facility, they don’t mess with us.”
Gimnasio Rockero Alcazar sits on the seam of a city in transition. Once plagued by violence and gangs, Panama City has been fighting its way to first-class status. With a bustling cosmopolitan center, the city is working to create a tourist and expat haven by rejuvenating its historic district, reducing gang violence and gentrifying once-abandoned buildings.
These efforts, for all their success, have left some neighborhoods, including Curundú, behind. There, multi-family complexes, discolored and crumbling from age and weather damage, still house gangs. Even the Uber drivers hesitate to let passengers out onto these streets.
Córdoba, who trains between 10 and 12 people per day, from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m., understands this as well as anyone who spends time at the gym. After his shift ends, he heads to his other office, where he practices civil law. When he ended his career as a professional boxer eight years ago, Córdoba went back to school to become a lawyer.
The boxer-turned-attorney started fighting when he was 9 years old. By that age, he said, he was already on the streets, trying to make money by cleaning cars or selling items at streetlights. When he first started boxing, this was the gym he turned to because of its reputation for breeding winners.
“It wasn’t easy, but that’s what makes you stronger when you come into the sport,” Córdoba said. “The adversity is what gives you the motivation to fight to get out of the situation you’re in. I made it a goal to be a world champion.”
Córdoba said most of the kids who get into boxing start out like he did, with few resources. For many in Curundú, the only path forward is through gangs or life on the streets. Boxing, and building a home at Gimnasio Rockero Alcazar, offers an alternative.
On an overcast Tuesday morning in March, with no air conditioning, the gym boiled in the Panamanian humidity. Boxers jogged and bobbed and weaved in full sweatsuits, perspiration dripping from their brows. Even the trainers sitting and shouting orders seemed to have beads of water building on their foreheads. Here, sweat doesn’t require exertion.
Oranges, the post-workout snack of choice, filled the arena with the smell of citrus, covering up the odor of bodies and over-used equipment. Shouts and grunts echoed against the concrete walls, making the building’s occupancy seem far higher than it was.
Upwards of 50 people crowded into the gym that morning, undoubtedly some there to take advantage of its promise for a better life.
“Boxing is a tough sport. Regularly, the people who train or like boxing, have a need. They have little to no resources,” Córdoba said. “I was interested because when I was younger, I used to fight in the streets. But as I got older, I realized that I loved the sport.”
The trainers at Gimnasio Rockero Alcazar are used to this kind of boxer, as many of them came from the same background.
In 1974, Rigoberto Garibaldi became the first Panamanian boxer to win a featherweight championship in Cuba. The 63-year-old now trains the next generation of fighters at the same gym as Pascal and Córdoba. He trained Ricardo Mayorga, a famous Nicaraguan boxer and former two-weight world champion.
Around Curundú, he said, they call him the “birther of champions.”
“I grew up in a tough neighborhood, a ghetto neighborhood,” Garibaldi said, in between shouting commands to his trainees. “I had to train every day so I wouldn’t involve myself in the streets. When I was 14 years old, I started getting into boxing, and I was a good boxer.”
When he breaks from holding up mits for boxers to punch, he leans on one of the gym’s rings. A stopwatch dangles around his neck, thudding against his T-shirt as he calls out orders. His protégés slam into bags while others run along the concrete floor, all while he watches and times their drills.
To Garibaldi, a tough-love coach, it’s more than a physical sport. He trains kids to keep them out of trouble, and if they do make it in the bigs, he tries to help them maintain their humble roots, and to put God first, just as he did.
“Thank God I’ve been able to have the capacity to do this job. I work really hard, and I have to have a lot of patience. For many of the people here, I’m like a father figure, a grandfather or a brother,” Garibaldi said. “I’m not a rich man, but sometimes I wish I had money to help them out.”
Luis Angel Mojica is a 22-year-old trainee. He began seven years ago, after watching his older brother become a successful boxer.
“Here, it’s like a family,” Mojica said. “Your trainer is more than your trainer. He’s like a father, a teacher, a prophet for you. All the people who train here, we treat each other like brothers and sisters.
“I train because I want to be a world champion,” he added. “… We train to be big and represent Panama well in the boxing world.”
For boxers at Gimnasio Rockero Alcazar, leaving the streets to become a world champion isn’t far-fetched. Long before becoming Panama’s first female boxer, Pascal loved to fight. Though she didn’t go out looking for trouble, she wouldn’t hold back if something came to her. The boys in her hard-scrabble neighborhood always chose her to scrap because she refused to hold punches.
This trend continued into her professional career. Because boxing was not yet a women’s sport in Latin America during the 1980s and early ‘90s, she would often have to fight men.
“They hit, I hit back,” she said.
“People used to say, ‘you don’t want to fight. There are no women boxers here,’” she continued. “But in my heart, in my mind, and my faith in God, I know I’m gonna fight.”
As the first female boxer in the nation, Pascal didn’t have the luxury of support –– monetary or otherwise. She was rarely paid, and when she was, it wasn’t much. At the beginning of her career, her equipment was typically hand-me-down, often too big or too small for her to adequately perform. In her first fights, the gloves she was given were too big, her hands dancing inside them while she punched.
Because she was already at a disadvantage as a woman, she chose to conceal her age.
“I told them I was 34 years old because I knew they weren’t going to have faith in me if they knew I was 42,” Pascal said.
While training at Gimnasio Rockero Alcazar, she said she often woke up famished, and worked through the day despite hunger pains.
“The other part of the sacrifice is that I have to get up in the morning with an empty stomach sometimes,” Pascal said. “But sometimes, the hunger never bothered me, because I knew I couldn’t give myself the luxury of what I want to eat and when I want to eat. So I’d forget about food. My food was this. My food, what fills my stomach, is to come and train. What fills my stomach is that I’m going to fight.”
She did fight, and she won. She only lost one match during her career.
Now, she works Monday through Friday as a paid trainer at the bare-bones gym, and comes in every Saturday to spend more time with her boxers. Independently, she is able to train clients for a little extra money.
“I made the road easy for other women who want to be boxers,” she said. “There were so many obstacles for me, that now there are no obstacles.”
According to Antonio Campbell, president of Panama’s trainers’ association, the gym has produced 33 world champions –– 30 men and three women.
Campbell is a charismatic trainer with a brand and a reputation around the gym. With gold chains around his neck, a Panama jersey with “Campbell” printed across the back, gold rings on one hand and a fingerless boxing glove on the other, he’s known as one of the most respected men in the joint. He wears beat-up white Chuck Taylor sneakers with Andy Warhol Campbell’s Soup cans printed across the sides.
Campbell began boxing in the 1970s, but gave it up to find more stable work and provide for his family. In the early 1990s, he returned to the sport as a trainer.
Right now, he’s working with two young men he thinks could be champions, solidifying the idea of the gym, which he said is to transform kids from low-income areas into world stars.
“Our job is to keep these guys out of the streets, out of drugs,” Campbell said. “They live in pretty bad neighborhoods, and we don’t want to lose them and their potential to the streets. We train them and help them to harvest their energy into boxing.”