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New-School Name, Old-School Game: Introducing Manuel Avila

California Interstate 80 connects  San Francisco with Sacramento. Far from renowned for its scenic majesty, the freeway is laden with miles upon miles of rural farmland. 


If you so happen to take the trip east from the  Bay Area, about two-thirds of the way to the state capital, take the Alamo Drive exit. You’ll find yourself in Vacaville, aptly named for its founder Juan Manuel Vaca’s surname as well as its agricultural past. Venture to the corner of East Monte Vista and Vine, however, and you’ll find a place known around town more for its boxing than its bovines—the Georgie Duke Sports Center at the local Police Activities League.


It is here at the Vacaville PAL where super bantamweight debutant-to-be Manuel “Tino” Avila, the newest addition to manager Cameron Dunkin’s stable, plies his trade.



“I was in a fight in Tulare against Victor Pasillas for the  California  Golden Gloves,” recalls the 18-year-old former amateur standout, “and I guess [Cameron] saw my fight online because he said he fell in love with it.”


When Steve Kim broke the story two Fridays ago about the signing on, many unfamiliar with Avila immediately scoured  Google and  YouTube for any information about him. Dunkin, a tireless scout for fresh blood, had been in the know long before his colleagues even typed the kid’s name in a search engine. “I knew of [Manuel] following the amateurs but I had never seen him. I was out in L.A. and I was told he was fighting Pasillas. I got the tape of it off the internet and he’s a bad boy. Avila can really fight.”


The celebrated 2007 Manager of the Year has an eye for talent when it comes to the lower weight classesFormer WBO featherweight champ  Steven Luevano and THE RING’s number four pound-for-pound fighter, super flyweight  Nonito Donaire are the most recent success stories out of the long line of little guys to reach stardom under his watch. But surprisingly, Dunkin sees someone else when describing his new fighter.


“[Manuel’s] got great distance,” declares the manager extraordinaire. “He’s real calm and smart and when I saw him, he was just a 17-year-old kid. He has good speed and very good power with the  left hook, like when you watch Randy Caballero. That’s who I would compare him to.”


Ask Avila who his skill set is patterned after, conversely, and his answer is delightfully refreshing. “I learned a lot from watching the styles of  Shane Mosley and Floyd Mayweather but mainly, I fight like a bunch of old fighters.”


Which ones?


Archie Moore,  Emile Griffith, and  Jack Johnson.”


Boxing is unique among athletic endeavors. For instance, basketball and football are sports where legends of the past are revered but their games are hardly emulated and their styles of play are forever buried under their statistics. Evolution in individual skill development is held at a premium, which is why you don’t see many two-hand set shots or single-wing offenses nowadays. But with pro pugilism, a back-to-basics approach never quite goes out of style. Ask  Mike Tyson, who at a young age, would sit in the film room with mentor  Cus D’Amato and watch grainy footage of  Jack Dempsey and  Floyd Patterson. In many cases, nothing is new both under the sun and inside the ring.


“I implemented some old styles in [Manuel],” says trainer Al Lagardo, who has been Avila’s cornerman since the first day the kid laced up his gloves. “We want him fighting like  Benny Leonard with the way he used his left hand or like how Archie Moore used his left shoulder. I also like the style of Emile Griffith for his body punching inside and how he smothered fighters and Jack Johnson for how he would just catch fighters’ gloves in the air.“


That’s not to say there’s not a tinge of technique in Manuel’s repertoire from the era of color television. Lagardo appreciates skills no matter how ancient or modern. “We watch Shane Mosley for his speed, right down to  Floyd Mayweather to how he hides his chin and counter-punches. You need both styles because he doesn’t get hit too much but he’s also not afraid to mix it up.”


Clearly, this throwback-contemporary hybrid method has been effective for Avila, as he ascended through the  USA Boxing bantamweight rankings as quickly as a knife slices through a stick of hot butter. Before last year’s National Championships, he had attained a spot as high as number six, racking up a reportedly impressive amateur record of 48-6.


Surprisingly, almost a decade ago, few would have pegged Avila for a professional career in the square ring. Growing up in Fairfield, a city almost equidistant between the  Golden Gate Bridge and the  Yolo Causeway, he lived in what one could consider your standard American family. “I have two older sisters. My dad works as a head mechanic and my mom is a manager at  Wal-Mart.”


He also tried his hand at a multitude of sports. “As a kid, I liked to be in the streets and play sports,” remembers Avila. “Soccer and baseball were the sports I would play but they always had off-seasons.  My dad wanted me off the streets even more, so one day he called one of his co-workers whose son was in boxing. He asked me if I wanted to box. I said, ‘Yeah,’ so after I turned ten, I started boxing.”


After running the gamut of different extracurricular activities, fate intervened in the form of Lagardo. The Northern California trainer is known around boxing circles for his three-decade body of work, with names like former WBC featherweight champion  Willie Jorrin and former cruiserweight title contender  Anthony Davis on his résumé. Instantly, the young Avila reminded the 65-year-old of his past. “[Manuel] walked into the gym one day. I saw him and he looked like a boxer before I watched him do anything. He reminded me of a fighter I had named Tino Huggins and he looked just like him, so from then on, ‘Tino’ was what we called Manuel.”


A nickname was born but, according to Lagardo, it would take a little more for a trainer-fighter relationship to grow out of it. “I watched him work out for awhile and he had this amazing  punching power for a little guy. He also had natural ability. Anything I asked him to do, he could do. He never says no to me; he’s always been in good condition. He’s always in the gym.”


In fact, it was Manuel’s tears, rather than his sweat, which solidified his status in his trainer’s eyes. “What I really liked [about Manuel] was that when he had problems at school, his dad would punish him by not bringing him to the gym. Most kids would say, ‘OK,’ and treat it as a day off. Not him. He would cry because he wanted to go to the gym. It was then I realized he was born to be a fighter.”


Which brings us back to the Pasillas fight. Avila’s opponent in the California Golden Gloves Open Championship at 123 pounds was a very highly touted southpaw and, while he lost a close decision, he was still primed for a run to the  2012 Olympics. With an entire year to prepare for a transatlantic trip, however, a series of events prompted Avila’s focus away from London. “Cameron gave us the call saying he wanted me to turn pro and I was kind of shocked it was this big time [manager]. He sent us a contract for five years.”


On the eve of Donaire’s latest victory, an eighth-round stoppage of Hernan Marquez, all the cards were in place to make the plunge for Avila, who didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger.


“I turned pro because amateur boxing is what I did for about eight years,” says the kid. “But I wanted to turn pro as soon as I could because I love to fight, so I might as well do it as a pro because the scoring system in the amateurs isn’t the best for my style. Also, with the money I make, I’m going to be able to help my family.”


Lagardo agrees. “There’s been no transition [between amateurs and the pros] because we’ve been training [Manuel] to be a professional fighter since the beginning. The only obstacle he had was when he faced a fighter that did the pit-pat and run. If he fell behind by two points, it became hard to catch someone. You could win the last two rounds and still lose the fight. So changing into a professional fighter is more to his style anyway.”


Still, there is no need to rush Avila at this stage and Team Avila is strictly focused on continuing to develop the young adult as a fighter.  “[Manuel] just turned 18, so I have to be careful with him,” shares Lagardo. “I figure we’ll be in good hands and Mr. Dunkin will help us out.”


Finding a suitable opponent and venue for his debut has been a work in progress, in light of the controversy surrounding fledgling promotional outfit TKO Boxing.


“I’m pretty sure I was supposed to fight next month. I think it was  August 7th in [Las] Vegas but Cameron knows more about it,” says Avila. “By the end of the year, I’d like to get three or four fights and have people know more about me.”


Dunkin offers a more detailed response. “I wanted him to get his feet wet and get him started but TKO [Promotions] cancelled three shows in a row, so I have to go make a deal with somebody else and find a place for him to fight.”


Avila remains undeterred and can be found training almost daily at the Georgie Duke Center, patiently waiting for the spotlight to shine on him. “When I’m done, I want people to think that I was the best boxer there was in my generation. People always ask me if I want to be as good as  Oscar De La Hoya and I always tell them I want to be better. What motivates me is that I want to be a known and respected fighter, for people to know who I am.”


Not millions in the bank. Not the opportunity to have his own shoe deal. Not the chance to air an hour-long special on HBO, solely to announce the locale of his next bout.




Sounds like an old-school fighter to me. 



Ryan can be reached at

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