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Detroit Free Press

Fighting For A New Life: Man's Journey From Street Thug To Role-Model Boxer Is Paved With Faith And Hope


May 25, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press. All rights reserved.

Rolling up to the Kronk gym in Dearborn in a 2002 Ford F-150 that is blasting the latest reggae-tone CD from Puerto Rico, boxer Christian DeHoyos is dressed in urban-chic clothing from Averex, Fubu and Nike. He is also wearing his ever-present gold crucifix.

As he crosses the parking lot, DeHoyos, 20, catches the eyes of passersby and, smiling, gives a knowing nod.

"Right now, in my mind, I'm already world champion," he said.

Once known as a gangbanger and criminal,DeHoyos has big plans. He is training to win his fifth professional fight, and he is one of two finalists from Michigan for a spot on Fox TV's new boxing reality show, "The Next Great Champ," scheduled to air at 8 p.m. Fridays in the fall.

Now, his story is helping to transform the lives of youngsters in southwest Detroit, some of them looking to get out of gang life and pursue their dreams.

In a community where unemployment and high school dropout rates are among the highest in the city, DeHoyos' journey from petty thug to role model is one paved with faith, hope and determination. But DeHoyos has had just four professional fights.

"He's a great prospect, but we're bringing him along slowly," said Charlie Peters, DeHoyos' co-manager and a former professional fighter.

DeHoyos, who now fights in the 147-poundwelterweight division, used to brawl in the streets as a member of one of southwest Detroit's largest gangs.

While attending Wilson Elementary School, DeHoyos, then 12, joined the gang and began developing a reputation with his fists.

DeHoyos' goal then was to be the best gangbanger in his neighborhood. He never knew his father, so he looked up to older gang members as role models.

Robbing, stealing, fighting and smoking marijuana were part of a typical day for DeHoyos. In 2001, he was arrested for receiving stolen property and locked up in the Wayne County Jail for two weeks before making bail. A judge later sentenced him to probation.

"We did everything," DeHoyos said. "I didn't have fear of anything, because it was just like a job to me, something easy to do."

It was no different from what he saw growing up as a child in Puerto Rico, where DeHoyos said several uncles were in the drug trade in the city of Ponce.

"We all grew up in an environment where drugs were everywhere," said DeHoyos' mother, Evelyn Martinez, who raised Christian and her daughter Karla Cruz, 16, as a single parent. "In fact, my brother, Christian's uncle, was killed over drugs."

Martinez moved her family to Detroit to start a new life.

The turning point for DeHoyos came when his mother asked gang expert Alex Montaner for help.

Montaner, a respected community leader in southwest Detroit, had heard that DeHoyos was "good with his hands" and might take to boxing.

"When I met him, he had that real distant look in his eye," Montaner said. "But when I told him that his behavior was killing his mother, there was a breakthrough."

DeHoyos admitted he wanted to get out of the gang. But it wasn't easy. Montaner set up a meeting with gang leaders and negotiated his safe exit. He then landed a job in a meat plant.

The other key factor in his turnaround was the birth three years ago of his daughter, Dakota Vanesa.DeHoyos is estranged from the girl's mother, who lives in Windsor. He hasn't seen Dakota since February, but said she is the inspiration for his success in the ring. He is never without her photo.

"When I train, I forget about the world outside," DeHoyos said. "Basically, I think about my daughter. I get up every day for her."

In a sport where one's manhood is tested by fists hitting flesh, it is ironic that the touchstones for DeHoyos' success have been the women in his life.

His mother, his sister and his daughter are the most important people to him. And with his rugged good looks and ready smile, DeHoyos has little trouble attracting attention from other women.

"If he had one weakness it would be the ladies," said Peters, who manages DeHoyos with partner Vincent Viviani.

Along McGraw and Michigan, DeHoyos represents promise for Latino boys in the neighborhood. For them he is already a hero.

It's clear young people look up to him. Montaner said even his former gangbangers see DeHoyos' success as a reflection of their abilities and potential.

With a professional record of 4-0 and an impressive amateur record that includes close to 50 wins, De Hoyos has the desire. He's already a highly sought-after sparring partner for world-class fighters like Arturo Gatti, Hector Camacho Jr. and Erik Morales. "He's the hardest worker in the gym," said Angel Carabayo, who occasionally trains DeHoyos.

After impressing judges and talent scouts from Fox with his ring skills and on-camera charm at a tryout for "The Next Great Champ," DeHoyos is being considered to fly to Los Angeles later this summer, according to Peters.

DeHoyos is hoping to be one of 14 fighters from around the country who will be picked to live in a house and compete for a cash prize, a professional contract with six-time world champion Oscar De La Hoya's Golden Boy Promotions and a possible title shot. The show, which will be shot over two months, begins taping June 4.

"We're looking for talented, determined, courageous young boxers who want their chance at stardom," De La Hoya said in a statement.

Officials at Fox Broadcasting Co. and Endemol USA could not be reached for comment.

Whatever his future, DeHoyos already is the champ in the eyes of his mother.

"My mother always suffered for me and my sister," he said. "Now with this boxing thing, I have a chance to help her out and help out some of the younger kids who are trying to come up."

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