Jesse Pineiro didn’t always have the words.
He used to coach troubled youth at a Vancouver boxing gym, but his interactions began and ended with how to throw a punch. He couldn’t help kids with their problems. He didn’t know what to say to someone suffering from an addiction or living on the street.
Looking back now, a boy named Hunter stands out in Pineiro’s memory.
“He was kind of a classic little thug, a really sweet kid in some ways as well. Kind of a bully. Liked boxing when he was winning, quit when he wasn’t,” says Pineiro.
Hunter’s family life was difficult, and Pineiro didn’t know what to tell him.
“It didn’t work and he left. And I regretted that. I always liked him.”
Pineiro has been the face of Nelson boxing, such as it is, for well over a decade. A newspaper cover with the headline ‘Lord of the Ring’ is pinned up at the Nelson Boxing Club showing a fresh-faced Pineiro working a speed bag in 2001. He fought his last fight in 2009 and returned to Nelson from abroad after his daughter Leilanai was born in January 2013 in Italy.
Now 36, Pineiro and his father, Peter Bockner, have been running the Nelson Boxing Club, at 646 Baker St., since 2014. In the summer Pineiro works for the BC Wildfire Service, and this month he’ll complete a two-year diploma in social work at Selkirk College.
Lately, though, Pineiro has been wondering if there’s a future for boxing in Nelson.
Despite hosting a national heavyweight match in 1972 between then-champion George Chuvalo and Tommy Burns, Nelson has very little history with the sport. Pineiro’s club gets no external funding – its bills come out of Pineiro and Bockner’s wallets – and all the equipment belongs to them.
Boxing kept Pineiro out of trouble while he was growing up in Argenta and he wants to do for others what the sport has done for him. He’s just not sure anymore if Nelson wants what he is trying to offer – a safe space where Pineiro can use social work and sport to do what he couldn’t in Vancouver.
“Part of me would love to make a living at this … but the other thing is part of me likes that it’s not a living. That I don’t have to nickel and dime people. Because there’s no profit margin. There’s just nothing.”
Boxing has always been a foundation in Pineiro’s life.
He was 10 when his father brought home a pair of gloves – Bockner jokes about the speed bag that used to hang in their doorway – and Pineiro, who describes himself as a childhood delinquent, credits the sport with giving him a much-needed distraction.
“It got me out of that bit of inferiority complex that I had and gave me confidence that I didn’t have before,” he says. “So I used that to get through some really negative things that happened in Kaslo with friends dying and stuff like that. I used that focus to get through that.”
Pineiro held onto boxing through high school and left Argenta for Brisbane, Australia after he graduated. It was there, as he struggled to find work, that he sought out the local gym. His first coach was a Polish man named Richard Ford, who Pineiro believes was actually 1960 Olympic lightweight gold medallist Kazimierz Pazdzior. Ford made his expectations clear: no drinking, no smoking, no brawling.
Ford also took care of Pineiro. There’s no money in amateur boxing, but Pineiro remembers the extra effort Ford made to keep his young fighter on the right path.
“These coaches, they save people,” says Pineiro. “It’s amazing. He would just do anything for me. We’re on our way to fights, he’d buy my food, take me out for breakfast, making sure I was okay, calling me at 10 o’clock at night, making sure I was okay. It’s weird, it’s a weird level of engagement in something.”
Pineiro spent most of his 20s travelling the world. Among the countries he visited – Puerto Rico, Thailand, Nicaragua (where his wife Xochilt was born), Argentina, Brazil, Turkey, France, Iraq – he always sought out a boxing gym. He did it to find community, to connect with people he didn’t share language with, to experience the world in ways he couldn’t as a mere tourist. “Boxing gyms are always in the shittiest parts of town,” he quips.
It was the kids who usually stuck out to Pineiro.
In Puerto Rico, boxing provides the safe space Pineiro dreams of. The small Caribbean island has produced some of the great fighters in the sports history, such as Carlos Ortiz, Wilfredo Gomez and, more recently, Miguel Cotto. It also suffers from a high crime rate, an economy in crisis and a growing exodus of citizens to the United States.
The gym, according to Pineiro, is where kids are encouraged to go in lieu of staying on the street.
“Boxing and social work are really connected in almost everywhere in the world except maybe here,” says Pineiro. “In Puerto Rico, where my family is from, you go to the gym and it’s full of kids. It’s free. It’s a public service to keep kids off the street and doing something constructive.
“All the kids there have dreams of being world champions one day and whether that’s true or not, it keeps them doing something positive. That outlet there, it’s really glaring, the need for it. [There’s] lots of poverty, lots of violence, and so the need for it is super glaring. But here as well, that’s what got me through a lot of things as well as a kid.”
In Nelson, Pineiro figures there are about 12 people in the club on any given night, and around 30 athletes total ranging in age from nine to 65. The club has also had recent success. Jaden Bennett and Elias Martinez, the only 11 year old in his weight division, won their divisions at the provincial Golden Gloves Tournament last April.
Like many sports organizations in Nelson, Pineiro wonders what he can do to get more people through the door. But unlike, for example, minor hockey, boxing gets very little community support. Part of this is perhaps obvious: boxing can be dangerous. Concussions are no longer just a bell that’s been rung, and boxing’s popularity and cultural capital from the 20th century is all but gone despite head trauma also plaguing other sports such as hockey, football and soccer.
Pineiro is used to defending his sport. He doesn’t mind. “It comes with the territory,” he says. “I try to hold myself up as an example. I’m articulate-ish. I’m a smart person. I’m not exceedingly ugly and nothing bad has happened to me from it, and it’s all been positive. Not to say there’s been no effect whatsoever but the positives outweigh the negatives and that’s the way life is. Everything is like that.”
What separates the club from other Nelson organizations is Pineiro’s commitment to social work. He’s only ever wanted to be a coach, the money-driven world of professional boxing never held any allure for him, and now he feels as though he’s got the experience to help whoever comes through the door.
But Pineiro needs help. After he finishes his diploma, Pineiro plans to return to firefighting this summer as a way of making up for months of study funded by employment insurance. He isn’t sure what will happen to the club.
Ideally he wants a non-profit gym of his own where kids can come either for free or on the cheap. The club, which currently shares space with another organization, is planning a boxing card in May to try to generate interest. But rent is going up, and Pineiro says he’ll soon need a cheaper space for the club. He just isn’t sure he has 12 rounds of fight in him to save boxing in Nelson.
Pineiro didn’t always have the words to help the people who came to the gym. Now he does, and he doesn’t want them to go to waste.
“There’s kids who are different here, there’s kids that do need me and those kids, they don’t pay,” he says. “They’re here all the time, I don’t have to tell them that stuff. But I do.”
– Black and white photos provided by Eye of the Mind Photography.