As anyone familiar with pugilism’s rich history knows, look for a boxing gym in any major metropolis and you’ll likely find it in a working-class neighborhood. Since boxing requires minimal equipment, it’s a sport that has always been accessible to those in lower-income brackets. Unfortunately, since it is associated with poorer communities, those in high society with their noses in the air tend to look down upon boxing and its participants. Only people with few other options and limited intelligence would seek to earn their living fighting in a ring. Surely if they had the brains to do something else, they would, right?
But one fighter helping to prove otherwise is Ismael Villarreal. The young pro from the Bronx is set to compete for the second time this Saturday night on the undercard of the Sergey Kovalev vs. Igor Mikhalkin event, and it was on the undercard of Kovalev’s last fight, also at the Madison Square Garden Theater, that Villarreal won his debut.
But as if a pro boxing career wasn’t demanding enough, the 20-year-old is also pursuing full-time studies at Bronx Community College, where he is majoring in physical education. In addition to training and sparring and getting ready for fights, Villarreal has to also negotiate lectures, seminars, exams and studying. Juggling school and boxing is undoubtedly an arduous task, one that requires effective time management and discipline, attributes which Villarreal clearly possesses.
How does Ismael get everything done? “Sometimes, I don’t know. I just do it and it happens. Like some days I can manage my time but other days I can’t, but somehow I end up completing everything. There will be times where, let’s say I have an assignment due and I can’t complete it because I’m tired or I have to do my roadwork in the morning, but somehow I get the energy to complete the assignment and somehow I have the energy to still wake up and run in the morning. Sometimes I just get that energy.”
Maybe he is able to muster the necessary energy because it’s a routine that he’s been doing his whole life. When you’ve been an athlete and a student for as long as he has, you can rely on yourself to get the job done. It’s not easy but he stays focused and gives his all in both areas of his life because they deeply matter to him. He understands that in order to succeed in either one, you have to give it your all.
“Sometimes I feel like if I was to stop going to school, I could dedicate more to boxing, I think I could be able to improve more. And the same goes for school. If I was to stop boxing, I think I could improve better in my grades. I think about that all the time. But I have to make it through both. Both things are important and that’s just how it is.”
Getting an education is also critical when competing in a sport as volatile as boxing. It’s dangerous, unforgiving, and it takes a grueling physical toll on the body, which is why it never hurts to be prepared for the worst. That is something not lost on Villarreal: “Anything can happen. I could get an injury but something ever happened that meant I couldn’t box anymore, I can always fall back on my education.”
And Ismael isn’t on this journey alone. An integral part of his team is his father and trainer, Otilio, who himself was a pro boxer, having immigrated to the U.S. from Ecuador to further his career. It was his dad who brought him to the gym at a young age and having him in his corner is especially valuable for Villarreal because he trusts him, knowing that his father accrued infinite knowledge of the fight game from his own career.
“Pretty much everything I know and all my accomplishments I’ve done are because of my dad,” says Villarreal. “If it weren’t for him, I don’t think I would be a boxer. I would have given up or done something else. He motivated and pushed me, telling me we’ve been working for so long that maybe at the end I’ll get something out of it.”
Villarreal had a successful amateur career, accumulating a 66-7 record, including two NY Golden Glove titles. In addition, he is backed by Main Events, one of the top promoters in the sport, which has a storied history of guiding world champions. With a strong team behind him, Villarreal is ready to make a name for himself, with his eyes set on world championships in multiple divisions. And he’s planning on working toward those goals while pursuing his education. Such a balancing act is tough, but Villarreal isn’t discouraged. He’s ready to keep working to get to where he wants to be. And with that attitude, there is no reason to believe he won’t. — Jamie Rebner