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The City Journals

South Salt Lake PAL boxers advance to Jr. Nationals

May 24, 2018 01:40PM ● By Brian Shaw

Boxers pose after winning at the recently completed state Jr. National tournament in Ogden on May 5. (Photo/Jerry Silva)

By Brian Shaw  |  [email protected]

Daniel Melgar and Leonardo Sanchez couldn't be more opposite if they tried, according to their coach Matt Pena.

One is mild-mannered — more of a thinking-type fighter, explained Pena — while the other is a bit more bullheaded and has had to work at becoming more articulate. “Outside of that,” added Pena, “I couldn't ask for more amazing leaders inside and outside of the gym here — a great example to mimic to our younger fighters.”  

But, the two 14-year-old boxers coming out of the South Salt Lake PAL Boxing Club have one other thing in common —one trait that no other SSL PAL boxer can claim right now: they're both going to the Jr. Olympic regionals in Albuquerque, New Mexico later this month after qualifying recently at the Utah State Jr. Olympic tournament in Ogden on May 5. 

This milestone will mark the first time that the SSL PAL Boxing Club has ever sent two of its older fighters at one time to such a prestigious event. At stake, according to Pena, is a spot at the Jr. Olympic national qualifiers in Charleston, South Carolina and so the competition will be fierce. 

“If they win that, sometimes that's how they determine who will represent the United States when there are youth tournaments against other countries,” explained Pena. This would also represent another first for his fighters out of this gym if they're fortunate enough to have success at the national level later this summer.

For Pena though, this isn't his first foray into coaching amateur boxing. He hails from Davenport, Iowa at a gym at which several generations of Pena's including his grandfather — himself an Olympic coach — have been fortunate enough to have carved out some success for themselves, but most importantly, others. Pena himself has trained several national boxing champions and UFC titlists out of that gym, having done so for 17 years following a stint in the Marine Corps.

After that, a conversation with a friend who hailed from Salt Lake City led the now 46-year-old Pena to head west and settle here. In no time flat he met the love of his life and has been here since.

As for the current fighters Pena is training here in South Salt Lake, Melgar is currently ranked No. 6 in the country and in Pena's own words, "Got into it four or five years ago because his older brother was here at the PAL."

"He's quite a funny story, because he's always a tough-minded kid who we have to make into an articulate person," said Pena of Melgar, his top-ranked fighter who was a junior national champion at 125 pounds. "In terms of even his style of boxing..." he added. 

Whereas Sanchez, who is more of a thinker, a junior national titlist and also the 2017 Ringside Worlds champion, could stand to benefit from some of Melgar's mindset at times — according to the head coach. 

With so much going on at the SSL PAL boxing gym of late, a place that always seems to be buzzing as gloves touch and bodies skip and hurtle across the ring, it would be a crying shame not to fit it all in. 

To that end, Pena added that the PAL gym will soon be introducing wrestling to its lineup. “This will be big for our area considering we have a lot of kids who come from other continents where the sport is huge — like the Middle East and Africa and Eastern Europe,” he said.