By John J. Raspanti
“Fighting is in my blood,” Gabriel Flores Jr. told me last week, speaking at his father’s gym in Stockton, Ca.
In more ways than one.
Inside the ring, Flores has dominated in eight fights, winning five by knockout. He returns to the ring July 7 against James De Herrera at the Save Mart Arena in Fresno, California.
Outside of it, the 18-year-old has had to deal with a personal tragedy. Five years ago, his mother was accidentally shot and killed while attending a birthday party in Stockton. The loss of his biggest fan rocked the young mans world.
“I was twelve when my mom died,” said Flores. “Everybody was around talking, but I couldn’t really listen to them. I was trying to soak it all in. There would be days where I felt like my mom was here still. I was still in the house that my mom raised me. I’d go in the other room and forget that she’s gone. It’s a weird feeling. I felt like she was there still, but she wasn’t.”
Flores considered taking some time off from his already budding boxing career, but a memory inspired him.
“I always knew I’d go back to boxing because she loved to see me fight," Flores said. "Like when I won the outstanding boxer award, she was there. She drove all the way to Mesquite, California all by herself. I fought two months after she passed. It was hard. I did pretty well.”
Flores was five years old when he got his first glimpse of boxing.
“My father used to train my older brother,” Flores said. “My brother was seven. I was so entertained. I had to sit still. I wanted to hit the bag. One day I asked my father if I could start boxing. I was six. He said when I was seven. Since then, I haven’t looked back.”
It was evident from the beginning, that Flores was a natural. Trained by his father, Gabriel Flores Sr, he won 91 0f 98 amateur fights, including 12 national tournaments.
Flores Sr, a former brawler from the streets of Stockton, first noticed the depths of his sons boxing talent when the youngster was 11.
“I took him to his first Nationals (tournament) and he won,” said Flores Sr. “He fought twelve other kids. I mean, I was nervous. I saw this one kid kicking the s*** out of other kids. He’s fast, he’s knocking out other kids. Gabriel won his fight, so we knew we had him next. We worked on what we had to do. Gabriel easily beat him.
“After we came home, he jumped in the ring to spar," said his father. “His confidence had grown. He was a different kid. I knew he was going to do it. And then he won the Nationals the following year. And kept winning.”
Asked what first comes to mind about his impressive amateur career, Flores says, “When I was twelve I won the “Best Boxer” at the Junior Golden Gloves. It was a big tournament. Big nationals. Lots of people were there.”
Flores gained valuable experience when he sparred with champions Oscar Valdez, and Jesse Magdalano. Plus, he learned something about himself.
“I got it in me,” said Flores. ”I never doubted that. I always never doubted that I had this strange amount of confidence in me. Even when I was in with a big puncher like Oscar, I was composed. I wasn’t jittery. I was fifteen when I was doing that.”
When Flores was 16, he was stunned when Top Rank Boxing, a noted promotional, called. The company had been involved in pugilism for years, promoting such boxing luminaries as Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Alexis Arguello, Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard.
“The offer was there and it was good offer,” said Flores, the youngest boxer ever signed by Top Rank to a contract. “We watched the Olympics and it wasn’t going very well. It’s not on TV very much. The decisions of the judges weren’t fair. You just don’t see commercials with the Olympians. Not much publicity or sponsorships. We didn’t see very many good things coming out of the Olympics. We always knew the pros were our goal.”
“What if he went over there (the Olympic Games) and he hurt his arm?” Flores Sr. asked. “We would have regretted not signing.”
Thrilled to be with Top Rank, Flores was thankful.
“It felt great,” said Flores. “It didn’t really hit me when I first signed. Then it was official. We went home. I sat down and thought about it. I felt blessed to be in the position I’m in, because of my age I was. I understood how young I was. I was just grateful.”
Flores debuted as a pro last year in Reno, NV. where he starched Devon Jones in two rounds. His last bout was in Las Vegas at Flores’ dream venue, the MGM Grand.
“I’ve seen Floyd fight there," Flores said. “I’ve seen videos of the greats fighting at the MGM Grand. If you’re the man, you fought at MGM Grand.”
His fight on Saturday will be his fourth this year.
He knows his greatest fan will be right there with him.
“I always walk into the ring with a smile because my Mom is with me,” said Flores. “I got her on my shirt. She gives me a positive energy”
Promoted by Top Rank, in association with Star Boxing and Murphys Boxing, the July 7 card will be headlined by WBC junior welterweight champion Jose Ramirez returning home to defend his title for the first time against Danny O’Connor. The card will also feature heavy-handed Egidijus Kavaliauskas, heavyweight contender Andy Ruiz Jr, and Andy Vences defending the WBC Continental Americas super featherweight title against Frank De Alba. Ramirez vs. O’Connor and Kavaliauskas vs. Abreu will be televised live on ESPN and ESPN Deportes beginning at 9:30 p.m. ET. The entire undercard, including Vences-DeAlba, Ruiz-Johnson and Flores-De Herrera will be streamed on ESPN+ starting at 6:30 p.m. ET.