The most prestigious amateur boxing tournament in the United States is back after a two-year hiatus.
Boxers from across the city and suburbs have excitedly returned to the ring for the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament — and they’re gearing up for the finals this weekend. It’s a welcome return after organizers had to suspend the tournament in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and cancel it altogether last year.
“It’s the one that everybody wants to win,” says Jamyle Cannon, from the Bloc, a boxing club. “To be able to compete in it is a really important milestone for young boxers.”
Fans can buy tickets online or in person for $20 for this weekend’s matches at Cicero Stadium, 1909 S. Laramie Ave. in Cicero.
The first Golden Gloves Tournament was held in 1923 at the old Chicago Stadium, and it was organized by Tribune Sports Editor Arch Ward. Amateur boxing wasn’t legal in Illinois at the time, and it took three more years for the state to legalize amateur boxing.
Amateur athletes from all over the city and suburbs compete in the multi-weekend tournament. Preliminaries started in early March.
The prize for winners: a championship belt — and glory. Boxing greats like Muhammad Ali and Joe Louis have been Chicago Golden Gloves champions.
“We have fighters who want to be world champions, so for them to go to Gloves is one step in their journey,” Cannon said. “We have fighters who just want to be the baddest man or woman in the city, and the Golden Gloves is a proving ground for that.”
Yaneza Aguinada, 27, a teacher at Helen C. Peirce School of International Studies, was supposed to compete in the 2020 tournament. The pandemic ruined those plans — but she was eager to return to the ring for this year’s matches.
On social media, a memory “popped up that I was training for Golden Gloves in 2020 two years ago,” Azuinaga said. “It just felt so exciting to be like, ‘Well, tomorrow it’s actually happening.’”
Azuinaga’s family, gym mates from Unanimous Boxing in Logan Square and supporters came out to cheer her on. She won her match.
“We’re all just really excited that we’re able to come out and see her fight this time, knowing that she’s been training for so long,” said Yolanda May, Azuinaga’s friend. “It gives us a feeling like we’re returning to normal.”
Fres Oquendo, president of the Fres Oquendo Boxing Academy in The Loop, has competed three times for the world heavyweight title and was at the match, as well. He won Golden Gloves championships five times in the ’90s and competed at the global level.
“This is where you see all the greatest fighters, from Muhammad Ali to Joe Louis to Floyd Mayweather, Tyson, to myself, just to name a few get their start,” Oquendo said. “This is where you shine. This is where you find raw talent.”
Oquendo was raised in the Lathrop Homes, the city’s first public housing development for low-income families. Boxing gave him discipline and drive starting when he was 13, he said.
“It’s an honor to be here, all these years later, and see the future,” Oquendo said.
Oquendo now runs a foundation to support Chicago youths and get them into boxing. Three of his program’s kids are in this year’s Golden Gloves championship.
“They’re playing without getting paid — it’s from the heart,” Oquendo said. “It shows a lot of character.”
Sam Colona has run the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament for 30 years. There have been changes with time: This was the first year boxers could register online, for example.
Colona said he feels alive again with the tournament returning after the two-year wait. Even though he’s done this most of his life, he doesn’t think he’s going to retire, he said.
“I’ll probably either die in my gym or working in a corner screaming at someone to throw more punches,” he said.