Nineteen-year-old Josue Gaytan, a secondary education major at the University of Nevada, Reno, capped a perfect 7-0 record this season by capturing the National Collegiate Boxing Association 185-pound championship with a unanimous decision win over Army’s Ryan Johnson on April 7. Don’t let the decisive victory fool you; Gaytan’s journey up the boxing ranks was anything but easy.
Pre-match: Road to the gold
|Photo by Garrett Valenzuela/The Nevada Sagebrush|
Pacing back and forth in the corridors of the Air Force Academy’s Clune Arena, jitters filled Josue Gaytan’s stomach moments before his fight. The chatter of thousands of bloodthirsty fans awaiting the 185-pound championship clash echoed through the basketball arena.
Despite the frenzy, Gaytan’s ears were tuned to his headphones. All he could hear was — “Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let it slip?” — the opening lyrics of Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.”
Nevada boxer Josue Gaytan won a national championship in the 185-pound weight class in the National Collegiate Boxing Association Championships earlier this month in Colorado Springs, Colo. Photo by Garrett Valenzuela/The Nevada Sagebrush
The lyrics reflected the thoughts running through Gaytan’s head. One shot. One opportunity. Everything he wanted. Capture it or let it slip.
“The competitor in me wanted to be the best,” he said. “But I also wanted to win for my family and my coaches.”
For Gaytan, all that separated him from his goal were three rounds, nine minutes (two-minute rounds including one-minute breaks) and his opponent — a goal he had spent more than a year working for.
Early last year, a 225-pound Gaytan was out of shape. After a three-year hiatus from the ring, Gaytan crafted his comeback with a national championship in his sights.
His brother, Carlos Gaytan, a professional boxer, helped Josue organize a strict diet. Josue began eating multiple small meals throughout the day, while cutting out fatty foods and sodas. The change was difficult for Josue, who described food as his “drug.”
“Dieting is 80 percent of the work. I told him what worked for me and he did the same,” Carlos Gaytan said.
Josue ended up trimming 47 pounds from the start of his training to his championship weigh-in. Diet alone didn’t prepare Josue for a return to boxing. He eventually made his way to Fourth Street Boxing Gym, where he rubbed shoulders with Nevada boxing coaches Pat Schellin, Dan Holmes and Mike Martino. The trio saw Gaytan’s potential from the get-go.
“He came in with really good fundamentals. We just built on that,” said Martino, the team’s head coach.
Juggling a job at Jack in the Box and schoolwork, Gaytan worked as hard as ever. He recalls getting off work at 1 a.m. and running at the Sparks Marina Park.
“Every mile I ran, everything I ate, every round that I finished, every punch I took, it was to be a national champion,” Gaytan said. “I had to eat it, I had to breathe it, I had to sleep it, I had to dedicate everything to be national champion.”
The “Lose Yourself” hook — “so here I go it’s my shot, feet fail me not, this may be the only opportunity that I got” — summed up Gaytan’s thoughts minutes before stepping into the ring. Gaytan wasn’t about to let a year’s worth of dedication, hard work, and motivation slip through the cracks.
Round One: Proving ground
As a slew of coaches and mentors gave him last-minute advice before fight time, Gaytan had his eyes glued to his opponent, Ryan Johnson of Army. Johnson, a senior and reigning 175-pound champion, stood tall in the opposite corner. As the taller, bulkier, experienced Johnson’s 12-ounce gloves hung near his knees, Gaytan remained fearless.
“I was looking at him, thinking, ‘I had been in this situation so many other times.’ I had to reassure myself nothing is going to stop me from the national championship,” Gaytan said.
Before the bell tolled, Gaytan and Johnson met face-to-face in the middle of the squared circle to touch gloves, in a staredown that resembled Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago. Despite the staggering difference, Gaytan was not about to back down from a fight, just like he never has.
Raised in the violent, crime-ridden Denslowe Drive area of Reno, Gaytan grew up fighting. In Gaytan’s neighborhood, it was either sink or swim.
“It was all about trying to be dominant,” Gaytan said. “If you didn’t you were going to get your ass beat, so you had to show you could hold your own.”
After Gaytan’s brother, Carlos began training for boxing, Josue followed. At the age of 11, Josue began honing his craft in the sport. There was no brotherly love between the two siblings, as Josue was on the losing end of fights with Carlos, on and off the ring.
“We would keep each other on check,” Carlos Gaytan said. “We pushed each other.”
Josue Gaytan eventually made his in-ring debut at the age of 14. With an 8-1 amateur record, Gaytan showed promise throughout his career. He practiced the sport throughout his childhood, before leaving it in 2008.
It wasn’t until last year that a string of events led Gaytan back to the ring.
Round Two: ‘Jab your way in’
With the championship gold up for grabs, Gaytan and Johnson were in the midst of a seesaw battle.
Johnson’s long reach and thunderous blows were keeping the smaller, speedier Gaytan off balance.
Suddenly, amid the howls of his coaches and chants from spectators, Gaytan’s ears canceled the ruckus out and keyed in on the words, “jab your way in.”
The advice came from one of Gaytan’s trainers, Billy Morales, the father of Gaytan’s teammate, Andrew. Hours before, Andrew Morales hoisted the 125-pound belt for the second consecutive year, en route to being named Outstanding Boxer in the tournament’s lightweight division.
Billy Morales’ words proved to be the turning point in the bout. Johnson had no answer for Gaytan’s flurry of jabs. Gaytan took the offensive for the remainder of the bout.
Just as Billy Morales inspiration led Gaytan to victory, the champion’s journey was also inspired by two individuals.
Rewind to January 2011 — Gaytan stood in a boxing gym, filled with anxiety. Only Gaytan wasn’t boxing. He was watching his brother, Carlos, make his professional boxing debut. Once Carlos Gaytan knocked his opponent through the middle rope with a right-handed blow, Josue was hooked. Soon after, Josue returned to the ring for the first time in three years.
“Just seeing how excited I was and how excited everyone else was made me want to come back,” Gaytan said.
Just three months later, when Morales reached the pinnacle of the 125-pound division, Gaytan’s comeback was only fueled.
Gaytan grew up alongside Morales, even boxing one another. Following Morales’ championship win, behind Gaytan’s excitement for his friend, he thought, “I can win a championship too.”
Fast forward to the end of the fight, Gaytan’s thoughts were on the verge of coming true. Gaytan was one obstacle away from attaining his dream.
Gaytan took a three-year hiatus from boxing before returning to the sport after encouragement form his older brother, who is a professional fighter.
Round Three: 120 seconds away
“My legs felt like they were on fire, my arms were hard to lift, it hurt to breathe,” Gaytan described before the final round.
A grueling battle against Johnson, on top of three fights in three days, left Gaytan exhausted. Tack on four hours of sleep and a roller coaster of emotions and Gaytan was mentally and physically drained.
When the bell sounded, Gaytan stood in his corner dazed and confused, struggling to catch his breath and see as his head spun.
As difficult as the scenario was for Gaytan, it was nothing compared to what he had experienced a year prior.
Last April, Gaytan’s return to the ring took a turn for the worst. While at a house party with two of his cousins, a scuffle broke out between the three and a sea of gang members. The cousins were outnumbered 20-to-3. For 20 gut-wrenching minutes, the gang beat Gaytan and his cousins within an inch of their lives. Left for dead, Gaytan’s back oozed with blood — the result of a knife wound. The beatdown was so excruciating that Gaytan didn’t realize he was stabbed until afterwards.
On his way to the hospital, with every gasp of air mattering, Gaytan feared the worst.
“I thought I was going to die,” he said. “I started to think about my life and future. Friends and family popped into my head. Also, I said to myself ‘I’m never get to be a national champion.’”
Miraculously, Gaytan survived the beatdown with marks to remind him of the punishing 20 minutes. After leaving the hospital, Gaytan’s face was so swollen, it ballooned to almost double its size. Moreover, four small gashes remain on his back from the knife.
“Everything seemed so minor after that,” Gaytan said. “Nothing can compare to that.”
Not even two minutes of boxing.
Reminding himself he was moments shy from the championship he chased so hard and knowing he’d gone through worst, Gaytan laid it all on the line in the final round, besting Johnson in a unanimous decision.
Celebration: One of the 12 Best
“Here is your winner and new 185-pound champion, Josue Gaytan,” exclaimed the ring announcer, pausing Gayton’s world dead in its tracks. Finally, his journey had come full circle. From his humble beginnings, to his work ethic, to his setbacks, it all contributed to Gaytan’s championship crowning.
Gaytan’s spaghetti legs could barely hold as his medal was placed around his neck. Once he received the belt, he used his last burst of energy to hoist the gold over his weak shoulders in the direction of his teammates and coaches.
Following the triumphant victory, a teary, choked-up Gayton thanked his coaches — Holmes, Schellin, and Martino — who expressed their love for the 185-pound title holder.
“Congratulations, you’re now one of the 12 best college boxers in the nation,” Schellin told Gaytan following the victory.
Understanding the difficulty of winning the championship, the words stuck with Gaytan.
Back in his hotel room later that night, Gaytan couldn’t let the title out of his clutches, even cuddling with his championship as he slept. For him, it was more than just a championship, it represented everything he worked for. His climb up the boxing ladder reinforced a belief his father implemented into his head.
“If you’re motivated, if you’re willing to roll with the punches, there’s no stopping you,” he said. “You can do anything.”
Source: Eric Uribe, NevadaSagebrush