M. Terry / SFVS 

Championship Gear — Rahim Gonzales and Iyana Verduzco show off the title belts and “Outstanding Boxer” awards they earned at the USA Boxing national championships in Salt Lake City. Gonzales also qualified for the USA Olympic Trials in men’s boxing next year.

Two of Sylmar’s finest can now righteously claim to be the best in the USA. And one of them can even go beyond that.

Rahim Gonzales and Iyana Roxonie Verduzco did more than just lay a glove on the best amateur boxers in the country. They both won titles at the recent 2018 USA Boxing Elite and Youth National Championships & Junior and Prep Open USA tournament held in Salt Lake City, Utah, an event that attracted and featured more than 700 male and female competitors.

Gonzales, 22, earned the Men’s Elite 178-pound championship. Seeded third, Gonzales defeated Burley Brooks of Dallas, seeded sixth; Sean Hemphill of New Orleans, the second seed, and Atif Oberlton of Philadelphia, who was seeded fourth and who had upset the top seed, Kahlil Coe of Jersey City, NJ, in their semifinal bout.

Verduzco, 17, affectionately and respectively known as “Right Hook Roxy,” maintained her status as the best 119-pounder in the organization’s Youth Girls division. She was the top seed and, after receiving a first round bye, defeated two unseeded fighters — Vivian Gutierrez from Chicago and Sarah Garrison of Laramie, WY — in the semifinal and final matches.

The belts and gold medals weren’t their only prizes. Gonzales was named the Outstanding Elite Male Boxer, and Verduzco the Outstanding Youth Female Boxer of the tournament. Both have also been ranked No. 1 in their weight divisions in the Elite and Youth categories.

In addition, Gonzales qualified for the USA Olympic Trials in December 2019 to determine the men’s boxing team for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan. Verduzco has to wait for her 18th birthday next September to have her chance to qualify for the women’s boxing team. But it is a chance she will probably get, starting in November 2019.

Both champions left strong impressions on others besides their opponents.

“They both are very well-rounded fighters,” said Matt Johnson, High Performance Director for USA Boxing, who saw both of them fight during the Dec. 1-8 tournament. “Roxy is very technical and just comes straight for you. She just doesn’t give you any room to breathe. Rahim is a mover; he used to be 141 pounds and I was interested in seeing him this time at 178. I hadn’t seen him that big. But he has kept his speed and quickness, even with the extra weight.”

Also worth noting was the personal setbacks both Gonzales and Verduzco had to eliminate from their minds and psyches in order to win their championships.

Falling Short in 2016

Like Verduzco, Gonzales began boxing as a child. And, like Verduzco, he was considered somewhat of a prodigy. He was good enough to qualify for the 2016 USA Olympic Boxing Trials at 141 pounds. Unfortunately he felt devastated by his double-elimination defeats.

Even winning a bronze medal, being brought to the Olympics training camp as a sparring partner, and later chosen as an alternate for the 2016 team did little to lift Gonzales’ depressed spirits.

“I started in boxing with the goal to make that (2016) team, and to fall so short like that was crazy,” Gonzales said. “After that, I had a lot of ups and downs. I lost hope for awhile. I had to get my mind right.”

But he didn’t quit fighting. And Gonzales, now physically bigger and more mature emotionally after reaching adulthood, said he further dedicated himself to the sport in 2018.

“In the 15 years I’ve been boxing, this is probably my best year. And the best is yet to come,” he said. “I felt in other years I had too many distractions in my life. But in 2018, I dedicated myself to the sport: box, sleep, and eat right. Live a healthier lifestyle.”

It paid off. At the 2018 USA Boxing Western Elite Qualifier and Regional Open in March held in Albuquerque, NM, Gonzales won both of his Elite Men’s 178-pound fights there to qualify for Salt Lake City. He spent the rest of the year furiously preparing for the national championships, spending half his time at the Pacoima Boxing Club and then in Las Vegas — where his father, Saalim Raoof, resides — in USA Boxing and pro camps.

By the time he reached Salt Lake City, Gonzales felt prepared physically and psychologically for the challenge. And he was right.

Now he’s the best in his division.

“I never lost my love or passion for the sport. I thought about going pro a few times. But, my family kept saying ‘you’re almost there, just keep working hard.’ And it got me to being the No.1 guy in the country.”

Overcoming Personal Losses

Verduzco has had a tremendous year, which includes winning a youth world championship at 119 pounds in Budapest, Hungary in August. But it was also a tough year, personally. Her grandmother, Delores Urquidez, died right before those world championships. And Verduzco’s stepbrother Anthony Mosquera passed away a couple of weeks before the tournament in Salt Lake City.

Although Verduzco had been training, she no longer wanted to go to the USA Boxing event. “I wasn’t at 100 percent,” she said. “Emotionally I had checked out.”

Pleas from her family and USA Boxing officials eventually convinced her to fight. Her mom Gloria Mosquera, who with husband Rodrigo Mosquera trains Verduzco, drove Verduzco to Salt Lake City from Sylmar and arrived in time to check in. Once in the ring, Verduzco did the rest in the ring. And now she can finish mourning the loss of family before preparing for next year’s Youth World Championships, which will be held in Bulgaria.

“[In Hungary] I dedicated the tournament to my grandma. In Salt Lake I dedicated the tournament to my brother,” Verduzco said.

Super Moms

Both Gonzales and Verduzco quickly point out that none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the support of their families.

And in both cases, their moms should take a special bow.

Gonzales’s mom Nicole Molinar is his support system in Sylmar. She works two different jobs at a fertility clinic in Los Angeles — a regular eight-hour shift as a nurse and also handles the clinic’s social media website — so Gonzales doesn’t have to work and can concentrate on boxing. Gonzales stays with his father when he trains in Las Vegas.

She said she told Gonzales not to worry about finding a job or finishing college right now — or even worry about turning pro — if he wanted another chance to make an Olympic team.

“He was so close [in 2016] that he had to stay motivated,” Molinar said. “I knew it would be difficult because in the next few years he would be of age — 21 and 22 — and have to deal going out with friends, hanging out at the club. I knew that would come.

“But since Rahim was age 6, he would do things on his own. I would come home from work and he would have tapes of different fighters stopped on a certain round to see what move or punch they made. His dream has always been to make the Olympics, even more than going pro.”

She was with him in Salt Lake to see Gonzales qualify for the 2020 Trials. And she will be there at the Trials, too.

“Probably six months after the 2016 Olympics, all eight of those guys went pro except Rahim,” Molinar said. “He did have his moments of contemplation, but the Olympics is what he wanted. The other stuff could wait.”

Mosquera first believed her daughter’s competitive nature would help get her to Salt Lake City. After all, Verduzco is a fourth generation fighter, with a family lineage that includes uncles Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, a former world champion kickboxer and martial artist, and William “Blinky” Rodriguez, a champion boxer and kickboxer. Her late aunt was Lilly Urquidez Rodriguez, a world champion featherweight fighter and kickboxer who is in the California Boxing Hall of Fame.

But she soon came to realize that Roxy had been hit hard by the two losses of family. And Rodrigo would not be able to go with her to the tournament, although he did provide daily coaching via telephone.

“She wanted to stay with her dad,” Mosquera said. “But I knew it was important for her to represent the USA in Bulgaria. I explained how important it was and what it would have meant to Anthony — like she did for her grandma. He believed in her and he was great amateur boxer. It did motivate her.

“I motivated her to get to Utah. And her teammates and friends like Rahim kept calling her ‘world champ.’ That kept her spirits up and helped to get her up on her toes.”

Mutual Admiration Society

Gonzales was one of those teammates.

“She’s a champ,” he said. “I’m just following in her footsteps. I’m trying to get on her level. She doesn’t think that the gold medal she won overseas is a big deal. But to me, it is a big deal. I look up to her.”

Verduzco was also supportive of Gonzales.

“I got to see his gold medal fight because I’d fought earlier,” she said. “It was overwhelming because I know how hard he’s worked. It’s harder for men; he’s fighting really good men, very strong. I’m proud of him. And during the semifinals, we were fighting at the same time. When they announced him, I was clapping before they announced me.”

And if they both managed to be on the 2020 Olympic team?

“When we make the team,” Gonzales says, correcting his visitor.

Verduzco smiles. “We’re both from the same [community], same Valley — we know where we come from. There hasn’t been great boxers from here for years. Maybe we can make history.”