Fighting for the future: The real million dollar baby

Monica Lovato's desire to become a boxing world champion is not fuelled by fame and glory, but by the need to provide for a home town riddled with heroin abuse and crippling poverty. By Andrew Buncombe
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At a boxing gym on the outskirts of Santa Fe, Monica Lovato worked away at the heavy bag, punching and jabbing, dancing on her feet. All the while she hit the bag, her face was fixed with a fierce concentration.

It is a determination that has so far served her very well. Just two years after turning professional and just five years after she first took up boxing, Monica has a 4-1 record and is ranked sixth in the world by the World Boxing Council. Next week she will make her debut in the boxing mecca of Las Vegas, where she faces the highly rated Oklahoma fighter Tiffany Wilso. A win would see the slight but wiry southpaw move up the super flyweight rankings to number three.

Like every boxer, Monica wants to be number one. But for her, achieving this goal is less about personal success, less about the sponsorship deals it might bring her, but what it might do for her beleaguered New Mexico community. For although she trains in Santa Fe, an upmarket resort in the high desert, she has spent most of her life in Espanola. And although Espanola is only 30 miles away, it represents another world.

Where Santa Fe offers expensive jewellery stores and boutique hotels, Espanola has grinding poverty and drug abuse. Whereas Santa Fe lures tourists from across the world who come for its clean air, traditional adobe buildings and 7,000ft location in the shadow of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo mountains, dusty Espanola, the largest town in Rio Arriba County, draws health workers and experts trying to tackle one of the highest drug fatality rates in the nation. Twenty per cent of its largely Hispanic population lives below the poverty line.

Monica Lovato knows all too well the dangers posed by the heroin addiction and gang violence that grips her home town and the valley beyond. Uncles, cousins and friends have all fallen victim to the power of the drug and ended up in jail or worse. Most powerful of all, however, was the experience of her long-time boyfriend Leroy Quintana, whom she had known since she was 13 and who almost fatally overdosed several times during their relationship. Leroy died in 1999 in a car crash as he drove from a rehabilitation clinic in Arizona to visit her.

Lovato believes she can make a difference in Espanola in two ways. Firstly she wants to help raise funds to build a community centre that would give young people a place to go. Secondly she believes that, by her own example, she can show the town's teenagers that there are horizons beyond the drugs and poverty of their town, and that they too can succeed if they dedicate themselves. In short, she wants them to be able to dream.

"She's like the rose that grew up from the concrete," said Grant Elvis Phillips, a New York-based boxing promoter who has taken her on. The quick-talking Mr Phillips has managed five world champions, including Iran Barkley and Leslie Stewart, but Lovato is the first female fighter he has added to his books. Asked why he agreed to manage her, he said: "There are a lot of good fighters out there. [I think it was her] personality. The first question I asked her was her reason for wanting to be a champion. Lots of boxers say they want it for the glory and for the Rolex watches and that's all all right. She said: 'I want to be able to build a big community centre in Espanola and help the kids stay off drugs'."

Mr Phillips, who also owns a boxing equipment business, believes she has the ability to become a champion. Indeed, he wants her to win titles at three weight levels. "To be honest ... I don't have the time to waste with her if I didn't think she has what it takes or if I did not like her as a person."

Spending a day in Espanola with Lovato and her father, Leonard, visiting the small gym where she has been setting up a boxing club, the splendid El Paragua restaurant where she once worked as a waitress and the small cemetery in the nearby township of La Villita, it's clear she is a local hero. Everywhere she went it appeared there were people who wanted to stop and hug her and to wish her well for her next fight.

She also paid a visit to Leroy Quintana's mother, Felicia Parker, herself a recovering heroin addict, whose obvious affection and pride in Lovato's achievements come with an equally obvious pain when she remembers her lost son. "It's very hard," admitted Mrs Parker, who said two of her brothers were also drug addicts. "What keeps me going is that she still remembers [Leroy]. He is in her heart and she fights with heart."

The road from Santa Fe to Espanola is broad and fast and the journey takes no more than 30 minutes, despite the tumbleweeds that roll across the highway. It cuts through a red desert landscape of buttes and mesas, famously captured by the modernist artist Georgia O'Keeffe, who, for many years lived in Abiqui, about 20 miles north-west of Espanola. On the way, the road passes a large hoarding board advertising Lovato's previous, successful fight.

Locals say that Espanola itself has grown considerably in the past 10 years and that there are new stores and restaurants where until recently there was just empty desert. And while the town is clearly nothing like its well-heeled neighbour, to an outsider, Espanola does not seem to match its reputation.

Yet the statistics tell otherwise. An epidemiology report completed last year by the state authorities showed Rio Arriba County had a drug overdose rate of 43.9 per 100,000 people, almost three times the state average of 14.9 and many times the national average, which the most recent figures put at 5.2. In 2004, 17 people died from drug overdoses in the county. The problem is such that, as a matter of routine, state troopers carry with them Narcan, an opiate antidote, to treat people who have overdosed from heroin.

Experts say the problem is widespread partly because it is intergenerational. Grandparents pass on the habit to parents who pass it on to children. "Everybody here has a family member who is either using or else has died from the drug," said Phillip Fiuty, a senior official with the state's Department of Health. "There is a tradition of substance abuse."

Mr Fiuty said Espanola was part of a long-standing drug route that saw the transfer of heroin from Nogales in Mexico, to Tucson, to Phoenix, to Albuquerque, thence to Espanola and then north to Denver. Because the families in the area had been in the region when it was part of Mexico, there was a ready-made network of contacts and family relationships with traffickers south of the border. And because many people tended to stay in the area where they had small plots of land, the drug problem had stayed put and was passed down through the generations.

"I was speaking with someone who works at a methadone clinic who told me a story of a boy who said he had been given his first shot of heroin by his father on his 12th birthday," said Mr Fiuty. "It was like an initiation."

Some locals suspect the problem is made worse by people's unwillingness to confront it directly. Jose Attencio, whose parents established El Paragua restaurant 40 years ago, said some people felt Espanola had received too much bad publicity. "It's out there. You don't want to talk about it but it's there," he said of the drug problem.

He said the entire town was behind Lovato's plan to build a community centre. "It's way over due. The community realises that we need it. It's a good idea and I think it will happen. It's only a matter of time."

Lovato, who also attends a community college and works up to 40 hours a week at a dialysis centre in Santa Fe, said she started boxing after her boyfriend's death, essentially by chance. She was living in Albuquerque and, on her way home from work every day, she would pass a women's boxing club. Eventually she went inside with the idea of simply working out. Within a couple of week she was hooked and told her father she wanted to take up boxing.

"It was an escape. It was a way to get over Leroy's death," she said. "It was a distraction from what had happened." Gradually she realised her workout schedule could be put to good use. Her trainer suggested she started fighting as an amateur and she quickly secured a 10-2 record. It was then that she decided to turn professional and use her talents to help the community. "When I walk into the school and all the kids run up to me and want to get my autograph ..." she said, the sentence trailing off. "If I can do something for my community and for my town and let kids know that they can achieve any goal they want." She said that, when she was a child - a tomboy, she says - she used to watch lots of films and wanted to be an actress. But she had no focus and she had no idea about drama classes. Today's generation of youngsters did not need to suffer in the same way from a lack of information, she said.

She wanted to show them they can achieve success with dedication and hard work. One of her favourite films, incidentally, was Rocky, starring Sylvester Stallone. "I loved Rocky. 'Adriene'," she said, mimicking the way Stallone's character shouted to his girlfriend in the film.

It would be naïve, of course, to think that building a community centre is, by itself, going to solve Espanola's problems of addiction and poverty. But locals say such a facility would provide a major boost to the town.

Elias Griego, an athletics coach at the local middle school, said children were desperate for things to do. "There is a huge demand for it," he said. "Kids are looking for something to be involved in. They are looking to be challenged. They like to be competitive." Of Lovato's involvement with the youngsters, who see her on the local television station, he said: "It's huge. She is really hard-working. She has given so much of herself."

But all of this could come to nothing if Lovato gets beaten next weekend in Las Vegas. So just how good is she?

Al Lovato (no relation), her trainer, is the man who will be wielding the magic sponge next week. He has been working with her for the past two years, sometimes waiting for her to arrive at the gym at 10pm after she had finished work or college.

He said Lovato was a strong hitter, a very powerful puncher, and that she had learnt a lot about boxing since she turned professional. But Mr Lovato, who was an orphan from the age of two and who also grew up among the poverty of the Espanola valley, said he also recognised something else in her. "I understand where she is coming from," he said. "She is a very determined person. She is so determined to make it."