By Gene Aguilera / Boxing Hall of Fame Author, East LA Music Historian, University of Southern California Graduate
Lee Espinoza, 71, is one of those special people in boxing. When you first meet him, it feels like you’ve known him forever. Mr. Espinoza has spent the last 42 years in boxing as a manager and trainer in the Coachella Valley, which is in the middle of the desert in Southern California, close to Indio and Palm Springs. Today, he is proud of the 9,000 square foot Lee Espinoza Coachella Valley Boxing Club (named after him with all due respect) that serves the professional and amateur boxing world in the Coachella Valley. Born in Michoacan, Mexico, Lee has travelled the world faithfully working the corners of his boxers that come out of his famed gym.
Lee’s boxing club (complete with two boxing rings) has a true vision of producing world champions as well as keeping the bad boys of the neighborhood off the streets and in the ring; local politicians (of Riverside County) truly appreciate the work Lee does for the youth. The walls of his office and gym make you feel like you are in a boxing hall of fame museum, as they are filled with posters and photographs of boxing’s all-time greats.
A tough, local kid named Francisco “Pancho” Segura became Lee’s first professional boxer in 1985. Manager/trainer Lee took him to two world title bouts, but winning that elusive championship belt was not to be. Segura (26-8-2, 11 knockouts) finally ended his career in 1996 with three minor belts.
The four Diaz brothers, from 52nd Street in Coachella and also originally from Michoacan, Mexico, have been Lee’s greatest success in boxing. Espinoza remembers, “Right away I saw they had some talent.” The oldest, Joel Diaz (18-3, 4 knockouts) first walked into the gym in 1987 at age 13, and eventually won the IBF International lightweight championship belt vs. Narciso Valenzuela in 1995. A year later, Joel would lose a heartbreaking world title fight to IBF lightweight champion Philip Holiday in South Africa, retiring shortly thereafter due to an eye injury. Rededicating himself, Joel is now known as one of boxing’s top trainers, previously working the corners of his brothers, Timothy Bradley, and Abner Mares amongst others.
Next up, came super middleweight Jesus “Shaggy” Diaz whom Lee recalled, “Like (Julio Cesar) Chavez, he had some left hooks, he fought beautifully; but he got married young and decided he was a lover, not a fighter.” Jesus’ career was the briefest of all the brothers, going 8-3-5 with 3 knockouts, while fighting from 1993 to 2000.
Then Antonio Diaz entered the picture going all the way to capture the IBA world junior welterweight title, defending his belt 11 times. The most successful of all the brothers, Antonio (47-6-1, 30 knockouts) will always be remembered as being the first world champion from Coachella Valley and for defeating tough “Irish” Micky Ward in 2000 at the Foxwoods Resort in Connecticut. Lee recalled, “As both fighters were leaving the casino, some fan yelled out, ‘Hey, Micky, you won the fight!’, to which Micky replied, ‘Which fight were you watching?'”
Finally, Julio “The Kidd” Diaz (40-10-1, 29 knockouts), the youngest of the bunch, won his first 23 fights as a professional, left to fight for Bob Arum’s Top Rank, Inc., and eventually became a two-time IBF world lightweight champion.
Cameron Dunkin, of Top Rank Inc., who has worked closely with Espinoza throughout the years, told writer Murray Olderman of the Los Angeles Times, “Lee has done an unbelievable job. It’s an amazing story. His fighters are all extremely tough, in shape and well-schooled.” Former HBO boxing commentator Larry Merchant chipped in, “You can’t say enough about guys like that who have a calling. He’s (Espinoza) one of those sweet, unsung heroes in the boxing world you rarely hear about.”
Lee has been training boxers 22 years at the present location, relying on city grants, major sponsorships, and donations to maintain, improve, and enlarge his boxing club. Next year, 2020, will see Lee inducted into the West Coast Boxing Hall of Fame along with many other boxing greats. Could a book, documentary, or movie be on the horizon for Lee Espinoza? Only time will tell . . . but today at the Coachella Valley Boxing Club, it’s another hot day in the sun, another bell gets rung, another pad gets hit, and Lee Espinoza looks for his next world champion.
Lee Espinoza Coachella Valley Boxing Club, 51301 Douma Street, Coachella, California 92236. Phone: (760) 398-5514. Hours of operation: Monday-Friday, 2pm to 8pm.