Back home in Florence

Randy and Julie Robles have been working for months to find a place in Florence for their boxing and fitness gym. Randy’s father, the late Bobby Robles Sr., ran a successful boxing club in the town 45 years ago.

FLORENCE -- Eight months ago — after many years spent training pro boxers, mixed martial arts fighters and amateurs — Randy Robles decided he wanted to come home.

A young teen, Scotty Ruiz used to travel from Florence to Mesa to train with Robles, until he no longer had transportation. Robles hung up a bag for Ruiz and gave him a couple of pairs of boxing gloves to help him stay in shape.

“We came back two weeks later and there were 10-15 kids out in the yard hitting the bags and boxing. It was about 110 degrees at 2 in the afternoon,” Robles said. “Right then, we decided, this town needs a boxing gym.”

His wife, Julie, said her husband has been itching to get back to Florence for longer than that.

“He’s been around the world,” she said. “He’s done a lot for other communities and other gyms, but ever since I met him seven years ago, all he ever told me was, ‘I want to come home to Florence.’”

Robles’ father, Bobby, ran a boxing club 45 years ago out of the former Florence grade school. The community saw the value in it, and almost 20 other local men coached with Bobby Robles. Randy, a 1980 graduate of Florence High School, wants to return to his roots to continue the good things his late father began.

The Robleses started working with youth four months ago on the school district’s practice field behind the bus barn on Florence Heights Drive. More recently, they’ve been training children, youth and adults at the Florence Community Center. Randy didn’t used to enjoy working with the youngest children, ages 5-7, but “that’s my favorite group now.”

Parents say participants are behaving better at home and doing better in school. The Robleses say they’re grateful for the opportunity. But to do what they really came to do in Florence, they say they need their own gym. Finding one has been anything but simple.

Looking for a home

“There are no buildings in town at this moment that suit our needs that are up to code,” Randy said. “… The buildings that are up to code are too expensive for what we’re trying to do.”

“Or too small,” Julie added.

“… We’re between a rock and a hard spot,” Randy continued. “We have interest; we have kids; we have adults; we have people who want to see it. But we just don’t have the financing.”

In the beginning they had an investor, but with the passage of weeks and then months, the investor has moved on. Randy said they’d hoped to find a location that could include lodging for pro fighters who wanted to come and train, “and be an inspiration to the kids.” He wanted to host Golden Gloves events.

“They contacted me first, but I didn’t have a gym. Under USA Boxing guidelines, you have to have a registered licensed gym. I’m a registered licensed coach, but I’m a coach without a gym. We’re losing opportunities for us and the town.

“We don’t have $600,000 to build a gym and another $100,000 to put equipment in it,” Randy said. “It’s our home town; we’re not going to put something in here that’s raggedy. We want something where people walk in and say ‘Whoa, I’m proud to be from Florence. I’m proud to be part of this gym.’”

They say they need approximately 10,000 square feet. They can work with something smaller, but they expect to outgrow it. “We’re trying to get our forever home where we’re not going to have to move,” Julie said.

“… His passion and his heart is in Florence,” she continued, “he wants to come back home. He wants people to know we’re diligently working every single day to try and get a gym here. We’re thankful for the town opening up the community center to us and letting us become a town vendor, but at the same time that’s not —

“ — why we came here,” Randy said.

Julie continued, “We came here to open a boxing fitness facility, to get kids off the street, to have a healthy outlet for these kids, as well as give the entire community something to come together for. It’s more than just a boxing gym. Yes, we have pro fighters. Yes, we have an amateur boxing team. But it’s a community.” She said her husband has had offers to work with big boxing management companies that represent world champs.

“He fits in with them, but that’s not where his heart is. He wants to start a kid from scratch and make them the world champion. That’s all he’s ever told me.”

Amateur champion

Randy had a 426-11 amateur record. People ask him all the time why he didn’t turn pro. Unfortunately, he broke his hand three times. But he says today he never set out to be a pro.

“All I ever wanted to do was go to the Olympics. People ask me all the time, ‘Why didn’t you turn pro?’ It wasn’t my goal to be a pro fighter. It was my goal to be on that stand when the National Anthem played, that’s all I ever wanted to do.” Today, he said he could travel the world training pro fighters, but he’d rather help youngsters develop good habits and discover their potential.

He has an amateur team of eight boxers, ages 10 to 16. They were an undisciplined bunch at first, but now they’re with the program, and gaining confidence and self-esteem. “All we get is accolades from parents,” Randy said. He and his wife are planning a fundraiser in 10 days or so, including a car wash, food trucks, giveaways, and selling T-shirts to raise money for the team.

“That’s why we’re fighting so hard to stay in this town and get over each and every hurdle to put a fitness facility here,” Julie said. “A lot of people are like, ‘Why Florence? … Why do you guys keep pushing?’ And that’s really it. You have to do what you’re passionate about. And if you’re not passionate about something, it’s never going to work.”

“In Phoenix, you either have a boxing gym or a fitness gym,” Randy said. “Very seldom you have both, but that’s where I’ve been successful. I can do both.”

Florence Boxing Club in the 1970s

Robles’ family moved here when Randy was 10. His father, Bobby, a 101st Airborne Army veteran of the Korean War, served with his brothers and cousins. He had no boxing experience.

“He could fight, but he didn’t know anything about boxing,” Randy said. But he studied it and taught his sons and many other youths.

Randy’s older brother, Bobby Jr., and a friend took a beating in their first visit to a boxing gym in their native South Carolina. “My dad was angry. … ‘Aren’t you going to teach him to box?’” Their father put Bobby Jr. in another recreational program and bought some books about boxing.

“I learned to read, reading boxing books at 3 and 4 years old. How to stand – I can still see the illustrations – how to properly punch,” Randy said. “Two months later, my brother and the other kid who got beat up went back to the boxing gym, and put a whupping on those two kids.” Bobby Sr. saw something even better happening.

“He saw them growing personally. My brother, who used to be a shy kid, became not a shy kid. The other kid, who was a weakling and got bullied, wasn’t getting bullied anymore. Not because they looked like bodybuilders, but because they had self-confidence.”

In Florence, Bobby Sr. and other local people got the water and electricity turned back on in the former grade school, near where the Dorothy Nolan Senior Center is today, and had 150 kids in the boxing club. There were eventually some 20 local coaches.

Bobby Sr. became an acquaintance of Muhammad Ali, who donated a ring and other equipment to the Florence boxing club. Randy went to Ali’s training camp in Deer Park, Pennsylvania, as a child, and has memories of “The Greatest” pretending to spar with him.

Bobby Jr., now deceased, kept boxing and was a runner-up to go to the Olympics in 1976 in Montreal. He became friends with Chuck Walker, who won their bout to go to the Olympics.

People still tell Randy today what a difference their father made in their lives. “Your dad inspired me to be a doctor. … If it weren’t for your dad, I’d be in prison.”

Randy said when he has a Florence gym, he wants to have a coaches hall of fame on the wall recognizing the contributions of his father, Dr. Bill Clemans, Freddie Granillo, Roy Luck, Joe Padilla and others. “All these men who inspired me.”

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