The story is a familiar one. The father of a young boy has a love for boxing or some experience in the ring himself and decides to take his son to the local gym, where the seeds of success are planted.
Mario Barrios’ story is a little different. It was his mother who, when he was only six years old, led him by the hand to begin his career as a pugilist. Of course, the ultimate result was the same: Barrios is now one of the top super lightweights in the world and a rising star in his native San Antonio.
On Saturday, September 28, Barrios faces Batyr Akhmedov for the WBA’s vacant “regular” 140-pound title on the Errol Spence Jr.-Shawn Porter blockbuster card, live at Staples Center in Los Angeles on FOX Sports PPV (9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT).
“I watched boxing with my father,” said Isabel Soto, Mario’s mother. “I remember watching Roberto Duran and Sugar Ray Leonard, all the great fighters. And I watched Christy Martin and thought, ‘I want to do that.’ I wanted to be a boxer. The problem was that I lived in Wisconsin and there were no opportunities for me to box there.
“Then, when I moved to San Antonio and had Mario and saw how big boxing was here, I looked for a gym and my husband (Barrios’ stepfather, Martin Soto) and I signed him up.”
Mom had no idea at the time what she had unleashed.
Barrios didn’t fall in love with the sport immediately – “I was only six,” he explained – but it soon become the primary passion of the boy and his younger sister, Selina, who also boxes professionally.
Mom didn’t have to push them to train; they did it on their own.
“Hard work and dedication,” Isabel said. “Since they were small, my son and daughter would train above expectations for kids. They would miss their birthdays or holidays to train for tournaments. And they never complained. They wanted to win tournaments and they put in the work.”
And the work has paid off.
Mom never worried much that her boy would get hurt because of his style. He learned the basic skills required to defend himself. He was unusually quick on his feet and he knew how to move in and out to inflict damage but avoid excessive punishment himself.
As a result, he won consistently throughout his amateur career and was ready to turn pro when he was a tender 18-years-old. And the winning continued.
Barrios (24-0, 16 KOs) is ranked No. 2 by the WBA and fighting No. 3 Akhmedov for the sanctioning body’s secondary title. If he wins, a shot at a major world title is right around the corner.
“I don’t know if it’s set in yet,” Barrios, 24, said about the opportunity at hand. “I’ve been a pro for six years now. Everything has led up to this point. I still feel like I’m just getting started. When I win this fight, I’ll get right back to the gym and continue working hard.
“Everything is coming together, everything is paying off, but I still have so much work to do.”
Yes, Barrios is humble. He has dreams, though. He wants to win world titles. And, just as important, he wants his people – those of Mexican heritage – to be proud of him. Hence his nickname: El Azteca.
And he’s in the right city to generate the kind of adulation he seeks. Almost two-thirds of San Antonio’s residents have Hispanic heritage.
“San Antonio has a huge Mexican population,” said Mario Serrano, Barrios’ publicist. “San Antonio has had only a few world champions. Only James Leija and a few others were really big. I think Mario is more talented than them. I think he can be really big in this city.”
That’s what Barrios has in mind.
“Even when I was a kid I was intrigued by my heritage, my culture,” he said. “I remember when I was in elementary school, I was reading books on the Aztec Empire, the civilization, the indigenous people in America. That’s my background and I’m proud of it.
“I want to represent my people, represent my city. It’s going to be a great honor to bring a world title home.”
Of course, Barrios’ biggest supporter is in his own family: Mom. Isabel really just wanted her kids to learn how to defend themselves. She had no idea she would one day watch them fight alongside thousands of others, many of whom cheer wildly for them.
“I never imagined it,” Isabel said. “It took so much dedication. A lot of younger kids drop out after the first month or the first year. I never thought it would go this far. When he turned 15 or 16 … that’s when I realized he was taking it seriously. By that time most kids are on the street and don’t want to go to the gym. Mario always made the effort.
“We struggled a lot, it’s been a hard road, but he’s taken it to another level. It’s really something, isn’t it?”