By Stephen Elliott, Hola America
Former middleweight and super-middleweight world champion Michael Nunn remembers the late Alvino Peña’s direct, stern ways both inside the boxing gym and outside in the neighborhoods of Davenport, where he commanded respect.
This year marks the 55th anniversary of Peña’s Boxing Club. Alvino Peña started his club back in 1968.
Through the decades, hundreds, if not thousands of young boxers, both amateur and professional, boxed under the tutelage of Peña, including champions like Nunn and the late Antwun Echols.
As the years went by, Peña’s work gained a reputation, and with a reputation, gained more traction throughout the neighborhoods of Davenport and beyond.
By the mid-70s, Nunn was a skinny 12-year-old boy, curious to see what was happening in Alvino Peña’s gym. He watched the boxers, the training, and put on a pair of boxing gloves.
Peña saw something.
“Nunn, you’re going to be a world champion!” the coach said to the young boy. Nunn believed in his coach, and believed in himself, soon winning bouts against boys with much more experience. His career blossomed, the seeds of success planted by coach Peña.
“And Alvino, he was tough. He was just that guy. He prepared me for what I did later in boxing,” Nunn says today. “He had confidence in my ability. And now, I tell the young kids to put the work in. You’ve got to be prepared. You don’t work, you get no reward.”
It’s a story often repeated by those who experienced time with Alvino Peña, who was inducted into the National Golden Gloves Hall of Fame and the Quad Cities Sports Hall of Fame.
Alvino Peña died in 2014, but the good work he did throughout the area and beyond lives on through his family, who continue to bring kids to their own gyms to train.
His son, Pat Peña, had over 350 amateur fights and two professional bouts. He understood what his father went through better than most as he traveled through the 1970s and early 80s, along with his brother Mike Peña, to tournaments throughout the country.
Pat watches over the youth, both amateur and pro, at Peñas Davenport Boxing Club, located at TMBC at The Lincoln Resource Center, the former Lincoln School on East Seventh Street. Boxers, such as professional Pachino Hill, spar on this summer afternoon. Other young boys and girls are hitting punching bags, shadow boxing, routines Pat has lived through most of his life.
With a discerning eye, Pat Peña can spot if a youngster is punching off the wrong foot or leaving a jab out too long, lunging into an opponent.
He has been running his club for 12 years.
“He (Alvino) always said, ‘I do it for the kids.’ That stayed in my head,” Pat says.
Pat confirms his dad was strict, but it was a labor of love.
“If he was on your ass, he liked you,” Pat says with a smile. “You just had to get used to it. No one spoke back to him.”
Pat takes pride as he pages through an old scrapbook filled with newspaper clippings through the decades of the Peña Boxing Club’s fighters.
“Everybody was like a family,” Pat says.
Nile Peña, Pat’s nephew, and grandson of Alvino, has been running his own club, Nile Peña Boxing, in Moline, Ill. Like Pat, he’s worked with young novices to pros, traveling to tournaments and offering his skill set to kids aspiring to better themselves.
“This is a part of our family tradition,” Nile Peña says of boxing. “Everybody had nothing but respect for the man (Alvino). When people say Alvino was head of the family, that’s no bull…t. He had the last say. He was strict. He was no nonsense. Now I know why he was the way he was.
“I’m going to continue coaching and trying to build up these kids. Keep doing what my grandfather did. He wanted a place for the kids to go, to get them off the street, a place to feel safe.”
Alvino’s grandson Pepe Peña runs Peña’s Boxing – Des Moines, Iowa. His amateur boxers travel throughout the Midwest.
“I’m definitely a discipline coach,” Pepe says. “My grandfather was. It’s one of the things I talk to the parents about. If they don’t want me to discipline their kids, they need to go somewhere else.”
Pepe says discipline is part of the success for his club and the Peña boxing family. He currently has 30 to 35 boxers at his Des Moines gym.
“Once I start seeing that discipline, then, okay, they’re starting to figure it out,” Pepe says. “I tell them to figure it out, and they figure it out.”
Pepe says it’s a full-time job that is all volunteer, one that he enjoys, hoping to make a difference.
Out in Utah, Pepe’s brother, Matt, is not training fighters at the present time. He has been a trainer of both boxers and mixed-martial artists through the years.
“I first got into boxing through my grandfather Alvino,” Matt says. “He had all of the Peña boys training the moment they could hold up a pair of gloves. I’ll always remember how serious he was about everything. I never understood it much when we were young. My grandfather was a purist first. He didn’t want any crazy fighters in his gym. So, he would run them out.
“Then, I would go outside and tell them to keep coming back. My grandfather always had a way about making sure people wanted to be in the gym.”
Matt says his grandfather’s influence on MMA fighters is without question. MMA legend Pat Miletich came under Alvino’s tutelage as a kid.
Matt starting training fighters under Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS).
“Pat Miletich had actually been a teammate down at the boxing club when he was a kid,” Matt says. “So to say that my grandfather had an influence on MMA through Pat and myself, I think is a pretty safe assumption.
“I would certainly say that I have a different coaching style than my grandfather, but his influence is written all over my training approach. If you want to see the influence of Alvino Peña on a match, go back to the end of round four of Robbie Lawler-Rory McDonald II. Go back to round five of Lawler-Johny Hendricks. You will see the influence of Alvino Peña.
“Of all my fighters, I spent the most time with Robbie, which is why I think he is the greatest representation of Peña Boxing in the sport of MMA.”
The legacy continues in the Peña boxing family. Pat started as a 5-year-old watching his father work. He puts in the time, like his father, like his nephews, and says the reward is seeing kids succeed in life, or at least, give them an opportunity.
Matt Peña agrees.
“The Peña name should be synonymous with a few other things,” Matt says. “The Peña name should be synonymous to having great neighbors that work to empower people in their community. My grandparents have given rooms in their house and food off their tables to help others strive to do better.
“These are reasons why people should remember the Peña name, and why I’m so proud of all of my family members who continue on with my grandpa’s work.”