Alex Canez allowed his weight to climb to about 245 pounds his senior year of high school. He was, after all, going to Mesa Community College to play football.
But once he got there, the scholarship he'd been promised didn't quite cover all of his expenses. So he came back to Utah, got a full-time job and decided to take up boxing just to get into better shape.
"After high school, I was just looking to take up another sport. I never thought I would be good at it," said the 178-pound fighter. "I was very overweight; I'm only 5-9 so I thought I was too short and my arms were too short."
More than 65 pounds lighter, Canez is one of four local boxers who will compete in this week's National Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament at the Salt Palace beginning Monday and running through Saturday. The tournament will feature the top 300 amateur fighters in three rings over six nights of fights. Competitors will square off in first-round fights on Monday and Tuesday with the championship rounds scheduled for Saturday. Tuesday's event also will feature a Cinco de Mayo festival at 4 p.m. at the Salt Palace.
Canez and the other Utahns will have the chance to compete in an event that hasn't been to Utah for more than 40 years.
"The last time it was here was 1968," said Hud Fullmer, the media relations director for the event. His brother, Larry Fullmer, put together a bid committee that went to Michigan to convince organizers that Utah should host the event again.
"We'd been trying to get them to bring it to Utah for more than a year," said Larry Fullmer, the tournament director. "After we answered some of those questions, like 'Can you get a drink in Utah? How many wives do you have?' it wasn't a hard sell at all. A lot of people just have a weird perception of Utah, but everyone who has arrived (this weekend) has commented on how beautiful it is."
Larry and Hud were born into a boxing family as their uncle, Gene Fullmer, is a former middleweight world champion and started a boxing gym in Utah. His name and success helped the sport grow three decades ago, and the younger generation is hoping that by bringing the Golden Gloves tournament back to Utah the sports' popularity will again increase.
"The No. 1 reason to bring (the event) here was to give amateur boxing in Utah a spark," said Hud Fullmer. "Any of the money raised goes to the local boxing clubs."
Many of the sport's success stories, including three of the local fighters, include troubled pasts and disadvantaged backgrounds. Canez moved to Utah when he was 16 with an older cousin. After some discipline problems, he graduated from Granite Peaks. But it wasn't until the 22-year-old found boxing that he found the discipline and principles that would really help him get his life on track.
"I love the fighting aspect, but I love the hard work, the ethics and how the hard work pays off," he said. "I do love the adrenaline rush of it."
Like most athletes, he wants to see how far his natural ability and hard work will take him.
"I think it's every fighter's dream to win a world title, and mine is the same," he said. "I want to make my people proud."
Isaac Aguilar, 19, said he was getting "straight F's" when he decided to join a boxing gym.
"The training, the adrenaline and the desire to be somebody someday," he said of what lured him to train hard when his friends were out getting into trouble. "Of my junior high friends, only one other graduated from high school besides me. I was hanging out with the wrong crowd, definitely."
His mother wasn't thrilled when he took up boxing, and she refused to let him fight for two years.
"I had my first fight three years ago," he said. "I trained for two years before I was able to fight."
It was watching her son's commitment to the sport that helped her change her mind. Now, he said, she's so supportive, she's helping him while he attends college and trains to fight in amateur tournaments. He decided against going pro just so he could fight here in Salt Lake this week.
"I just want to be the best I can be," he said. "Wherever boxing takes me, that's where I'll end up."
Top amateur fighters in the country descend on Salt Lake
WHAT: National Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament
WHERE: Salt Palace
WHEN: Doors open at 5 p.m. Fights begin at 6 p.m.
WHO: 300 of the country's top amateur boxers will compete for national titles in weight division from 106 pounds to 200 pounds.