“That was my whole goal,” Richard Sr. says, his voice soft over the phone. “I missed my high school graduation to go to the Olympic trials. I felt like I let everyone in my town down.”
Torrez went home to the small central California farm city of Tulare, got married and became a teacher. When he his wife had a son, they named him Richard Jr., and he hoped the child would box as well.
All these years later, Richard Torrez Jr. is the top-ranked super heavyweight amateur in North and South America and one of the United States’ top hopes to win a boxing medal at the Tokyo Olympics. At 22, with giant arms rippling from his tank top, he is aiming to help his father and USA Boxing do largely the same thing: move past 1984.
As the Olympic boxing tournament gets underway in Tokyo on Saturday, the United States desperately needs male stars. Long gone is the glory of 1984, when the Americans won nine golds, a silver and a bronze and future world champions Evander Holyfield, Mark Breland, Frank Tate and Meldrick Taylor first became widely known. For decades, the U.S. boxing team had been something you couldn’t miss at the Olympics. Then it fell apart. The last American man to win a gold medal was light heavyweight Andre Ward in 2004. In the three Olympics since, only three U.S. men have won medals.
But after Shakur Stevenson’s silver and Nico Hernandez’s bronze in Rio de Janeiro, there is hope around USA Boxing’s men’s team entering these Tokyo Games. A big piece of that optimism is Richard Jr. — partly because of his speed, which U.S. Coach Billy Walsh describes as “fast as a flyweight,” and partly because of who he is.
“They are going to take to him because he’s such a nice kid coming from a great, humble background and driven for success — the American way,” Walsh says.
Richard Jr. was president of the chess club at Tulare’s Mountain Oaks High, where he took Advanced Placement classes and was on the robotics team. Richard Sr, who is dean of students at Mission Oaks, says Richard Jr. was one of the school’s valedictorians when he graduated.
On a typical day in high school, he would rise early, run three miles, go to classes in the morning, run the chess club at lunch, take more classes in the afternoon, then after school go to either football or basketball practice — when he played those sports — before running to the boxing gym where he worked on boxing for more than an hour, finally going home to study and go to bed.
One afternoon, a couple of years ago, he taught himself to juggle. This spring, he built a computer, mainly because he was bored. His latest project is building rockets with two friends who are software engineers. When he eventually goes to college, he’s considering majoring in philosophy.
“One of my favorite pastimes is kind of just go for a drive and just think about things,” he says.
He realizes this makes him different from many of his boxing teammates, who he says will watch him working on his projects, ask a few questions, then walk away shaking their heads.
Walsh, who took over the American team in 2014 after 11 years as the head of his native Ireland’s team, encourages such diversity in his boxers. He says it makes them more balanced people.
“The broader and more intelligent you are, the better boxer you will be,” he says.
Plus, he adds, Richard Jr. is perhaps the most competitive person on the team.
“He can’t be second in anything, tiddlywinks or any other game we play here,” Walsh says.
Back in Tulare, the faces of the city’s two great Olympians, Bob Mathias and Sim Iness, stare down from a mural on the chamber of commerce building’s outside wall. Mathias won the decathlon in 1948 and again in 1952, the same year Iness won the discus. The words “Olympic Gold” are painted across the top.
Richard Jr. has been looking at that mural for as long as he can remember. When he was little, his father told him the story of the two champions who grew up in Tulare, went to high school together and then came back after winning gold and how Mathias became a four-term U.S. congressman and Iness was a high school football coach. Ever since, Richard Jr. has wanted to join them on that wall as a Tulare legend.
“My goal and my dream has always been an Olympic gold medal,” Richard Jr. says. “You know, my goal hasn’t been to turn pro. My goal hasn’t been to be WBC champion. My goal has been to be an Olympic champion. I am steadfast in that.”
Richard Sr. never forced his son to try to be an Olympian. Having grown up in a boxing gym, he believed the sport brought a discipline and conditioning that nothing else could. He told his wife, Kimberly, that he wanted Richard Jr. to box until he was 16 and, after that, he was free to walk away.
With all of his interests, Richard Jr. does not have to fight, but he never considered quitting.
“I think it makes me stronger that I do this because I love the sport,” he says.
He says there is no feeling quite like the one that comes after a particularly long boxing workout, when “you just end up falling down because you’re so tired.” He likes the game inside the match, the way a fighter has to think two and three moves ahead, just like in chess.
“How I live my life in the ring is how I kind of live my life outside the ring, too,” he says. “Like I want to be strategic. I want to be disciplined. I want to be engaged. I want to be focused on the task at hand, and I want to win in life.”
Growing up, Richard Jr. would hear his father tell stories about the old days of fighting when the top heavyweight was a celebrity, larger than life, the most glamorous of all the fighting winners.
At 6-foot-2, Richard Jr. is small enough to fight at a lighter weight, but he wants to box in the super heavyweight class because of the prestige and also because his quickness offers an advantage.
Walsh has been watching many of the top super heavyweights who will be at the Olympics and believes Richard Jr. will match up well. Recently, Britain came to Colorado Springs for a few days of workouts with the American team, and Walsh paid close attention to the way Richard Jr. sparred with Britain’s 6-6 Frazer Clarke, a medal favorite.
“Richard is able to handle him,” Walsh says.
No American super heavyweight has won gold in the Olympics since Tyrell Biggs did as part of that famed 1984 team. In a way, it’s a symbol of the United States’ failure to continue dominating Olympic boxing.
“People always look to the Americans for the heavyweight, and we haven’t been producing them, unfortunately,” Walsh says. “This is the time for this guy.”
Over the phone from Tulare, Richard Sr. agrees. It’s time to let go of 1984, to forget the great boxing team he almost made all those years ago. It’s time to think of a new era for American men’s Olympic boxing.
“And I think my boy can bring it back,” he says.