The best youth boxers in the nation were on full display at 2017 USA Boxing Elite and Youth National Championships in Salt Lake City earlier this month.
With boxers from all over the country completing for spots on the youth international team, two boxers that go to high school five miles away were in the semifinals of the same bracket.
Johnny Montalvo of Omaha Bryan and Ralston High School’s Juan Vazquez each made the youth 152-pound semifinals. Montalvo went on to the finals where he was defeated by Tristan Kalkreuth of Duncanville, Texas – who also defeated Vazquez in the semis.
Despite the loses, both Montalvo and Vazquez will get a chance to train a the Olympic Training Center next year after reaching the semifinals.
While the two boxers were in the same place in Salt Lake City, they’ve taken different routes to get to this point.
For Montalvo, boxing is in his blood. His father was a professional boxer and had Montalvo start training “pretty much when I was able to stand.”
But Montalvo, currently the ninth-ranked boxer in the country at 154 pounds, didn’t start actually boxing until he turned 10.
Training up to his first fight, Montalvo hated the work that went into the sport but he quickly fell in love with boxing the moment he began his first bout. And that feeling hasn’t left.
“I feel like boxing is just me, it’s became such a big part of my character and who I am,” he said. “It’s helped me form who I am and it really became a part of me. I’ve really embraced it.”
Montalvo, who trains at the Downtown Boxing Club, also plays basketball at Bryan, which makes for long days during the winter. He trains for boxing Monday through Thursday and those days consist of working out at 6 a.m., going to school, going to basketball practice, then going to the gym to train.
“I usually don’t fight much in the winter because of basketball but I keep up the training,” he said.
While most on Montalvo’s classmates are trying to decide what to do after high school graduation, Montalvo has it all planned out.
“My goal is to make the international team next year and represent the country for worlds,” he said. “Then I want to maintain that and go to the Olympic trails and go to Tokyo in 2020 for the Olympics.
“After that, I want to turn pro.”
Becoming a professional boxer is a tough task but another former Bryan High School student has shown Montalvo it’s possible. Terence “Bud” Crawford has become one of the best boxers in the world and was once walking the same halls at Bryan as Montalvo is today. Crawford and his coaches have helped Montalvo in training and Crawford’s nephew, Tre’Vion, is on the Bryan basketball team.
“Crawford’s been a role model,” he said. “He’s from Omaha and it just shows you that small town guys can make it to the big time.”
Montalvo had a great showing at the national tournament. He posted a 3-1 record, including a win over the No. 1 seed, before falling in the finals. While Montalvo was hoping to get the title a secure a spot in the US international team, a runner-up showing wasn’t a disappointment.
“My goal is always to win but for this tournament I wanted to place,” Montalvo said. “This is the biggest tournament I’ve been to so to place second is pretty good. Looking back on it and the kids I beat, it’s like ‘Wow, I can do this.’”
Boxing came out of nowhere to help Vazquez change his life around.
About 3 1/2 years ago, Vazquez had 180 pounds on his 5-foot-5 frame. His life mostly consisted of video games and junk food.
Luckily, his brother Shalom recently joined a boxing gym and dragged Juan there with him.
“I was more about eating and gaming but my mom and brother told me it wasn’t healthy lifestyle,” Vazquez said. “They took me to the gym but I never wanted to be there. As time progressed I started to have fun and I still enjoy it now.
“My brother taking me to the gym changed my life.”
Once Vazquez started to get a feel for boxing, he realized he was a natural. He won his first fight with the second-round stoppage and was competing nationally by his fifth fight, going head-to-head against boxers that had 60 or 70 fights under their belts.
Now, Vazquez is the fourth-ranked boxer in the nation at 152 pounds.
“It comes easy to me and I feel like I was born to do this,” he said.
Vazquez was proud of his 2-1 record and semifinal appearance at the national championships but felt like the semifinal decision against Kalkreuth didn’t go his way.
“I thought I won the fight,” he said. “I was beating him and the ref took two points from me because he said I was coming in low with my head down. I had him all bloodied up and felt like I won.”
Vazquez is used to having success on the national stage. This summer Vazquez won a Junior Olympic boxing title at 152 pounds in Charlestown, W.Va. It was the first JO boxing winner from Omaha since 2006 when Crawford won.
That title gave Vazquez a big boost in confidence and proved he was one of the best in the nation.
“It felt really good to bring the gold back to Omaha because not a lot of people have done it from here,” Vazquez said.
The mental boost boxing gave Vazquez is unquestionable. He wears being a boxer like a badge of honor. People know the toughness and work ethic that comes with being a boxer.
“When I say I’m a boxer people are usually like ‘Whoa, that’s really cool, do you ever get knocked out, have you had a concussion,’ Vazquez said. “None of those things have happened to me, though.
“I feel like boxing is coming back more in Omaha, especially because of Crawford.”
Crawford has been an idol for Vazquez since Vazquez started his boxing life at the Jackson Boxing Club 3 1/2 years ago. Crawford’s success is a motivating favor for Vazquez.
“He’s like an idol with me. He’s so talented in the sport of boxing,” Vazquez said. “I look up to him and when I don’t want to train I think about Crawford. If I keep training I can be a world champion like him.”
Like Montalvo, Vazquez has his eyes on the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. But regardless of if he makes the US team or not, he sees himself becoming a professional boxer.
Montalvo and Vazquez haven’t faced each other because they’ve always been in difference weight classes or age groups. But as they get older, a fight is likely on the horizon between the two boxers that have tremendous respect for each other.
“I know Juan very well,” Montalvo said. “We’ve always been at different weight classes. He’s a great boxer.
“We haven’t fought or spared because we don’t want to give secrets away. I’ve been preparing for this fight for a very long time.”
When or if that fight happens, it’ll be special to show off the boxing talent the area has.
“We’re both putting on for Omaha,” Vazquez said.