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Home » Boxer Patricio Manuel, a transgender pioneer, is still looking for his next fight

Boxer Patricio Manuel, a transgender pioneer, is still looking for his next fight

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THE VOICE of the announcer yo-yoed across the boxing arena at the Fantasy Springs Resort Casino in Indio, California. “Your winner, by unanimous decision … and now undefeated in his professional career: Patricio ‘Cacahuate’ Manuel!”

The applause and cheers came first, concentrated in Section VV, packed with Manuel’s family, biological and chosen alike.

Then, like smoke seeping through a vent, the arena began to fill with a chorus of boos. An angry male voice rasped, “Liar, liar, pants on fire!” Manuel’s partner, Amita Swadhin, raised a middle finger at the jeers. Manuel stood in the ring unfazed, under the lighting truss that blinded him. “I think if people knew what it took to get to this moment,” he said into the mic held in front of him. “It’s been almost two years since I’ve been in the ring.”

Since his amateur debut in 2016, Manuel has entered the ring for only three official fights — a slim record for any boxer to take into the pros. He spent months at a time traveling to amateur exhibitions, weighing in, only to watch his opponents refuse to get into the ring with him.

Now, his face rapidly swelling, Manuel addressed his hecklers directly: “I hear some fans aren’t happy; it’s OK, I’ll be back. I’ll make you happy then.”

It was Dec. 8, 2018. Manuel had just become the first transgender man to box professionally in the United States — and the first to win.

But two and a half years since that professional debut against Hugo Aguilar, since making that promise, Manuel has yet to return to the ring and does not know whether he ever will again.

WHILE THE ANNOUNCER might have rolled the R in “Patricio” and bent the eñe in “Mañuel” — and even with “Cacahuate,” the Mexican Spanish word for peanut, as his nom de guerre — Manuel is not Latinx. Patricio Manuel (pronounced man-you-all) was born July 22, 1985, to an Irish American mother and an African American father.

“I actually switch between both,” Manuel says of the pronunciation, sitting across the table from me at a Mexican restaurant in Boyle Heights, the Los Angeles neighborhood where he lived in the summer of 2019. He mostly avoids the chips; he’s maintaining competition weight in case he gets a fight soon. “It’s also a last name I don’t take seriously because it’s a slave name.”

Manuel has experienced race and gender as few others have. “I can’t disconnect my Blackness from my gender identity,” he says. “Who I am, how I have moved through this world when I was identified as a quote-unquote ‘light-skinned, mixed-race Black girl,’ is a very different experience than a light-skinned, mixed-race Black man.”

While studies show that women of color also suffer disproportionate violence from law enforcement, Manuel says he noticed a difference in how police treated him after his transition. In 2014, as he drove through Koreatown one night, a police officer noticed the expired tags and busted headlight on his car and pulled him over. The officer asked Manuel, who had undergone gender affirmation surgery earlier that year, to step out of the vehicle. As someone raised by white women, his mother and grandmother — and, in many ways, raised to be a white woman — his first reaction was to question the illegal order. Don’t, another part of himself said even more forcefully.

“And they’re telling me to sit on my hands and like, ‘Are there any weapons, do you have drugs on you? Are you sure you aren’t on drugs? Are you sure you haven’t been arrested? Like, constantly being asked, are you sure you haven’t been arrested?’

“This is the new reality,” Manuel says. “It’s not like I hadn’t experienced … racism.”

Even before he transitioned, police would pull him over but would soon take note of his female markers once the officer got closer. Now, fully presenting as male, he felt terrified. “This is how you die: not doing s— but just being seen as a threat. Having police pull guns on you, having police put you on the curb, sitting on your hands, because of a fix-it ticket.”

From an early age, Manuel found novel ways of rebelling against the gender binary. In elementary school in Gardena, California, he remembers his fifth-grade class getting separated by gender for lessons on puberty. The girls received a brown paper bag with an informational pamphlet and a menstrual pad. Manuel surreptitiously collected the pads from other girls’ bags and distributed the loot to the boys. Then, together, they filled the absorbent cotton pads with water and threw them at one another. At least among the girls, “They knew that one of these is not like the others,” Manuel says.

Gender dysphoria, the anxiety and discomfort from not identifying with one’s gender assigned at birth, began to rear its head as he entered an all-girls middle school. But as puberty and those around him herded him reluctantly toward womanhood, he sought to assert a different relationship with his body. Manuel signed up for Jeet Kune Do, a martial arts style developed by Bruce Lee. “I wanted to feel capable in my body,” he says.

One day, a girl in Jeet Kune Do class asked Manuel whether he wanted to split a private boxing session with her. They crossed west from one Los Angeles suburban enclave to another and arrived at a white-collar boxing gym in Manhattan Beach. The overzealous coach running the session led them through some drills before instructing Manuel and the girl to spar. First, though, he demonstrated on Manuel, whipping his hand out and cracking the teen on the head — hard. “Too hard,” he still remembers.

And yet, “That was when I fell in love.”

In the smarting fog of adrenaline and surprise, he recognized that he was closer to some inchoate truth about himself. Some boxers discover the sport in their first knockout punch — in realizing their capacity to dominate within a square patch of canvas. For Manuel, he found boxing through his resilience. He could take a punch.

But before Manuel could learn how to give a punch back, he left middle school for a coed high school. The transition back to a mixed environment disrupted the already tenuous balance between how he was perceived and his sense of himself. Lacking the language to name his anxiety — let alone the tools to manage it — he dissociated from himself. Even Manuel’s memory of this time cuts out like a weak radio signal. His grades soon plummeted; he quit playing softball; he stopped practicing martial arts. He performed the bare minimum required of living — he gained weight and nurtured a quiet, targetless anger. A “constant rage,” he says. “I just wanted to explode and be something else.”

In a way, it was the weight that saved him. By the time he turned 16, his grandmother, Patricia Butler, saw the change in her normally athletic grandchild. As a Christmas present, the two boarded the old Metro Blue line to downtown Los Angeles, got off at Washington Boulevard and stepped into the rough-hewn concrete building of the LA Boxing and Fitness Club. When they entered the gym, a nearby coach glanced at Manuel and said, “I hope she is here to box. She looks tough.”

His grandmother gifted him a membership.

The club paired Manuel with a coach, and within a few months — 17 years old and babyfaced — he climbed into the ring with a 32-year-old veteran of 26 fights. His coach didn’t show up, and he lasted 30 seconds.

That’s when Manuel met Charles Williams, a coach out of Long Beach and the former IBF light heavyweight champion from 1987 to 1993. Under Williams, Manuel began directing his anxious energies into a productive fight strategy. Manuel started winning.

But Williams taught Manuel more than just how to throw a stiff left hook; he educated Manuel on the history of Black men and boxing. Raised primarily by two white women, Manuel struggled with a sense of cultural dislocation. His father, Christopher Manuel, served in the military and spent long stretches of time away from home.

His mother tried to compensate for this by exposing him to Black writers like Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou and encouraging a sense of racial pride. She took Manuel and his sister to St. Brigid Catholic Church in South Central, a Black church with a history of civil rights activism and roiling, joyous services. “So I have, like, one Black upbringing story to talk to people about,” he says. “The church, people fainting, the hats, the nails.”

But Manuel wanted something more. “I yearned for my father and he wasn’t there, and I wanted that Black masculinity more than anything. It wasn’t just about him being my dad. I needed a Black male role model in my life to emulate, and I didn’t have that.”

Williams and Manuel worked together for about a year around 2003, with Manuel racking up a few wins and developing a reputation among the growing women’s boxing scene. Then, one night, as Manuel stayed late to make up for his days working at New Balance, Manuel says that Williams made disparaging comments about not training hard enough. Manuel quit that same night.

Manuel immediately sought out a new coach. Manuel and his mom found City of Commerce Boxing, a city-operated gym dominated by a ring in the center of a small room. Manuel approached Roberto Luna, a coach he knew from the amateur scene, and asked whether he would train him. While Luna normally took longer to get to know a potential trainee, something just clicked. Manuel came back a few days later — their partnership would last nearly ten years.

With Luna, Manuel developed an aggressive style as a pressure fighter: advancing on his opponents relentlessly while pumping his jab, then whipping his other arm around for a pitiless overhand right. When Manuel would inevitably pin his opponents on the ropes, he would close the distance, dig his toes into the canvas and hurl himself forward behind punishing body shots.

In 2009, current-WBO NABO super featherweight champion Tiara Brown went to the USA Boxing national tournament for the first time. “Everything was going perfect, and then I had to fight Pat,” she remembers. “I used to be so afraid of Pat, it made no sense! Because at that time, Pat was No. 1. Just demolishing people — I’m talking about hurtin’ them.”

In their four-round fight, the referee gave Brown two standing eight counts. “It’s on YouTube, unfortunately,” she says. But she went the distance with Manuel, something no other boxer had managed during the tournament.

Under Luna’s tutelage, Manuel won five amateur national championships from 2006 to 2012.

After his decisive victory in 2009, Manuel and Luna began discussing the possibility of turning pro. On the eve of his debut — with a special outfit ready for the occasion — his opponent pulled out.

But before Manuel had time to find a new opponent, the International Olympic Committee announced that women would be eligible three years later to compete in the 2012 London Olympics. Manuel opted to delay his professional debut in order to pursue a chance at making history as one of the first woman boxers in modern Olympic history.

“My dream is to represent the United States in boxing and to represent the USA as an openly gay, female butch, who’s multiracial and to show people that this is America, too, as much as people may not want to see it,” he told NPR in the media coverage leading up to the Olympics.

In February 2012, Manuel traveled to Spokane, Washington, to compete for a spot on Team USA. Every ounce of energy he had expended over the past three years had gone toward preparing himself for the Olympics. He arrived at the trial with total confidence — a feeling that only grew when he learned that his first opponent would be Tiara Brown. In the time since their first fight in 2009, Manuel had won yet another bout against her and he had no reason to think it would go differently this time. Brown, upon learning of the pairing, felt a sense of déjà vú and dread: “I was like damn, why me?”

But the same drive that pushed Manuel to Spokane also left him overworked and vulnerable. A drive, Manuel would later tell me, that was at times like a man running from himself. In his last sparring session before the Olympic trials, his partner pulled his right arm back by accident, undoing years of physical therapy on a nagging shoulder injury. They both heard the noise it made next. She let go immediately, but by then, Manuel’s AC joint, located where the clavicle meets the shoulder blade, had been partially dislocated.

He had put in too much work not to go forward with the trials. Even with the injury, he felt assured going into the tournament. “I thought I was going to beat everyone in that tournament, even with my arm injured,” he says. “It didn’t work out that way.”

Manuel opened the four-round bout aggressively, leaning heavily on his left jab to keep Brown on the ropes. And it worked, too — at least at first. Judges awarded Manuel the first two rounds by a single point. But Brown had spent a year preparing for Manuel’s vicious overhand right. When it lacked the same sting that Brown had experienced twice before, she sensed something was different. Standing on the sideline, Luna saw that “Pat was just not being Pat.” In the final two rounds, the small-statured Brown took a page from Manuel’s book and began laying into him with body shots, exploiting the weakness of his right arm and wresting the fight from his grasp.

The judges decided the fight 18-13 in Brown’s favor.

Manuel wrote in a text message to a journalist the day after the bout: “I’m sorry my story ends like this.”

IN THE RING with Brown, dumbly throwing his right with no impact, the nongendered realities of his body set in. Manuel’s loss went beyond the denial of his 2012 ambitions. It forced him to confront the impermanence of his identity as an athlete.

“I felt like I just watched my dream die,” he says, a feeling made worse by the fact that it had nothing to do with his skill. “Unless you’ve been in a place as an athlete to reach literally the highest level and done as much as I did to get to that point: working three jobs, fundraising money, just hustling to go to physical therapy to be able to even attempt to qualify for this, getting through the qualifier, and then to have it be a medical disqualification due to an injury.”

Following the trials, Manuel fell into a depression that reached its nadir by the summer of 2013. At his most depressed, he was contacted by B. Cole, executive director and co-founder of the Brown Boi Project. The organization works with masculine-of-center women and trans, queer and straight men to offer support and social justice training.

“Brown Boi Project was a big help for me in really visualizing a life for myself outside of being an athlete and realizing that boxing isn’t the only part of who I am as a person — that there’s so much more to me,” Manuel said.

From there, Manuel began to explore different ways of seeing himself, probing the linguistic edges of which words felt right to describe himself. In a YouTube video he recorded that summer in support of trans MMA fighter Fallon Fox, he publicly identified himself as “a genderqueer, gender-nonconforming butch.” (The video was published on July 18, 2013, but Manuel says he recorded it earlier.) In June, he continued to evolve at the Nike LGBTQ Sports Summit, trying on the concept of “trans masculine.”

Then, on Sept. 6, 2013, working within the guidelines established by the IOC, Manuel began injecting 1 milliliter of 200 mg testosterone — a biweekly ritual he will continue for the rest of his life. At the time, IOC regulations stated that female-to-male transgender athletes had to undergo gender affirmation surgery, show legal recognition of their gender and do at least two years of hormone replacement therapy before being eligible to compete. The same rules applied to both male and female transgender athletes. By the time Manuel had satisfied those requirements, the IOC had announced, in 2015, significantly less stringent rules that allowed female-to-male athletes to compete in the male division “without restriction.”

One day that fall, shortly after he began hormone replacement therapy, Manuel approached Luna at the new church-affiliated gym they trained at, The Rock. Run by the Mission Ebenezer Family Church, a Pentecostal church in Carson, California, The Rock was a sprawling, well-equipped facility that housed, in addition to the gym, an indoor mini skate park and a batting cage in a warehouse beside the church.

Manuel asked Luna if they could talk. Luna assumed the worst — that Manuel had reinjured himself again, perhaps permanently. But as they sat down, Manuel explained that he didn’t feel comfortable with his body and that he intended on transitioning to a body that suited him. Luna knew that Manuel had identified as lesbian up until then, but it still caught him off guard.

“I’m going to be honest with you,” Luna says, “when Pat first told me this, it kinda threw me off. I’ve never, you know, met anyone, right, that wanted to make that type of transition.”

But then Manuel made the ask he was building up to: Would Luna continue to train him?

“At the time, it was like, ‘OK, if this is what you want to do, I’m with you.'” Luna says they continued to train for six more months.

“We had a really, really great relationship. Honestly, man. Me and Pat were real close. We connected.”

Manuel also went to Reverend Joshua Canales, the executive pastor at Mission Ebenezer and the director of The Rock boxing gym. “I asked her why she was doing it, I asked her had she prayed about it,” Canales recalls now.

Before Manuel left the office, Canales said, “I’ll always love you, and I’ll support you no matter what you do. I just feel it’s my responsibility to be able to ask you those questions.”

That support, however, came with conditions.

In the spring of 2014, a videographer visited Manuel and Luna at The Rock to film footage for a documentary. Seeing the group, the pastor asked them to join him in his office.

They exchanged pleasantries and sat down where Manuel had sat, alone, just weeks before. “You’re more than welcome to train,” he emphasized to Manuel. This time, though, he added a caveat for the videographer: “I really don’t want the gym’s likeness to be used in the feature of the article that you’re writing.” This extended to all kinds of media — print, video, even Manuel’s own social media. Manuel could continue to train at The Rock, but invisibly.

The videographer asked Canales why. “She could train here just like anybody else,” the pastor told ESPN about what he recalls saying. “But I personally do not support Pat transitioning from female to male.”

Manuel, the videographer and Luna stood up and left the pastor’s office. Manuel turned to Luna and told him that he couldn’t see himself staying at the gym. They didn’t say much after that.

Somehow, Manuel understood that Luna would no longer train him. “It was just almost like you didn’t even have to say any words,” Luna says. Luna explains that he was training other fighters there at the time, making it difficult to leave with Manuel.

As Manuel pulled out of the church parking lot for the last time, past the quote on the stucco wall that read “With GOD all things are Possible,” he felt like he had lost his family — “a family that spent 10 years having my back.”

FOR HIS LAST MEAL before undergoing gender affirmation surgery to remove his breasts, Manuel and his mom went to Hooters. The only part of the procedure that seemed to bother the 28-year-old was the one-month prohibition on training afterward.

After Manuel recovered, he drove his beat-up Toyota Celica 70 miles from Long Beach to Duarte and walked through the drab beige door labeled “Duarte Youth Boxing Program.” He was looking for Victor Valenzuela.

Valenzuela, a California Boxing Hall of Fame inductee, has coached boxing for over 40 years, mentoring former Olympians and world champions. When Manuel was younger, he had been a frequent sparring partner for a protégé of Valenzuela’s.

“He just walked in the door one day,” Valenzuela says from ringside in the cozy gym he’s run for 14 years.

Manuel told Valenzuela about the falling out between him and his former coach. “You’re going to be trained just like another boxer,” Valenzuela promised. “You’d just be one of the guys here.”

Valenzuela lived up to his promise. To this day, he says, most of the boxers at the gym don’t know Manuel’s background (although that anonymity has dwindled since the publicity surrounding his debut fight).

Alternating between talking and pounding on a heavy bag in the Duarte gym, Manuel describes the closeness with his coach: “If I sneeze, he wipes my nose for me.”

By the beginning of 2016, USA Boxing had officially OK’d Manuel to fight in the amateurs. While regulations for transgender fighters had been in place for years, USAB had never implemented them before.

Over the past few years since Manuel reentered the amateurs, USAB has received several inquiries regarding trans athlete participation and has at least two current athletes, according to director of membership services Lynette Smith. Neither competed beyond local club events. Smith estimates that she has received five inquiries about the requirements for male-to-female athletes, but none have pursued it “because they don’t want to go through all of those different medical treatments.”

But USAB’s power to permit Manuel to fight didn’t extend to making other boxers fight him. Boxers have long discriminated against minorities not through explicit de jure lines, but by refusing to get in the ring with them.

Heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan, the most famous American of his time who did the most to legitimize the sweet science as a sport, declared in 1892, “I will not fight a Negro. I never have and never shall.” Sullivan maintained his dominance not through skill alone, but by ducking competitive matches with opponents of color such as Canadian George Godfrey and Australian Peter Jackson. The editor of the Australian magazine, The Referee, described white fighters of the era as hiding behind “that cowardly protection, the color line.”

After Jack Johnson easily wrested the heavyweight championship from Tommy Burns in 1908 and then defended the title against the “great white hope” Jim Jeffries in 1910, Sullivan proposed a more explicit system of segregation. “Let Negroes meet Negroes and whites meet whites,” he said.

Echoing Sullivan’s sentiments today, famous podcast host and UFC color commentator Joe Rogan has suggested a similar policy. “Fight trans people,” he said. “The simple solution is: compete against other trans people.”

Or, in effect, a trans line.

In March 2016, Delilah Ponce-Rico certified Manuel’s identity in the eyes of USA Boxing with his new book. For amateur boxers, their book is an official document that contains the records of all of their fights. On paper, not much had changed for Manuel in his switch to the male division: just an F to an M.

At an amateur show held by Jackrabbit Boxing, a decorated gym in Long Beach, Ponce-Rico looked at Manuel, whose appearance hadn’t changed so much as come into focus, and said, “You’re official now.” They laughed and hugged.

But the tender moment belied a mounting anxiety for Manuel and his team. Already, they had made the trek to other amateur shows, only to walk away empty-handed. Manuel’s reputation seemed to precede him. In amateur bouts, fighters sometimes come to shows with prearranged matches, but more often, it’s the wild west: Show up and find someone to fight. The presence of cameras from the L.A. Times, which was working on a documentary on Manuel, likely didn’t help.

But things were going well so far that day. Another super featherweight, Brandon Mendoza, told Valenzuela that he could fight Manuel if his prescheduled opponent failed to show. Manuel looked at the lean 20-year-old in cannabis leaf socks and pointy angled sideburns with hope and apprehension.

Then he got the word: The fight was happening. Manuel shot his sister a text, “Fights a go,” and went out to grab his gear from Valenzuela’s white pickup truck. “You know, I had a good feeling,” he told the L.A. Times, beaming.

But as Manuel fetched his equipment, Valenzuela watched with a dawning sense of outrage as Mendoza and his coach, Gabriel Camacho, began to pack up his gloves, wraps and book. Valenzuela confronted the two as they left. “Next time,” they told him.

When Manuel returned to the gym, laden with a large camo backpack filled with gear, Valenzuela updated him on the fight. Manuel immediately understood: Mendoza must have learned he’s transgender.

“We found out,” Mendoza says. “Somebody told us, ‘Oh, you know you’re going against a transgender.’ And that’s when the whole story flipped.”

Mendoza says he didn’t mind but that his coach refused to let the two fight. “We’re Mexican people and we don’t dishonor women,” Mendoza recalls his coach telling him. Camacho disputes Mendoza’s memory, saying Mendoza’s father opposed his son’s fight with Manuel.

But while Mendoza had the right to drop out of the bout with Manuel, no one had a right to disclose Manuel’s background. “I had to let them know that they were fighting a transgender,” says Ivan Sylve, the owner of Jackrabbit Boxing.

He says that he disagreed with the policy, but that he had been instructed by other USAB officials to inform Manuel’s opponents. According to officials on both the local and national level, though, this went directly against USAB policy and, in fact, violated federal medical privacy laws.

The next month, Manuel stepped into the ring for an exhibition between the Duarte and Chino boxing clubs. It was technically his return to the ring, but as he notes, it wasn’t sanctioned by USAB.

That changed in May, at the Teamsters Cinco de Mayo show at the South El Monte Community Center.

Manuel and Valenzuela took every precaution this time. They went without the documentary crew; Manuel weighed in privately, not in the main room with everyone else; and the on-site doctor examined him separately. In the lead-up to the fight, he remained scarce while Valenzuela looked for an opponent. Soon, Valenzuela connected with 18-year-old boxer Adan Ochoa and his father and manager, Alberto.

Adan and Alberto made it known that they wanted a bout with the most experienced fighter there. When they learned that Manuel had competed nationally, they approached Ponce-Rico and asked about Manuel’s record. “They said, is it true that Pat was a national champion? I said, yes, that’s true. Is it true that Pat has a lot of experience? Yes. That’s all true,” Ponce-Rico recalls.

Aware of the laws protecting medical information, Ponce-Rico was determined not to tell Manuel’s opponents about his background.

“Adan and his dad were both goading Pat, ‘Oh, we want it. We want it. We’re not afraid of you, we’re not afraid.’ They kept saying that over and over,” Ponce-Rico says.

As one of the few people at the show who knew Manuel’s full background — and as the highest-ranking USAB official present — Ponce-Rico felt responsible for monitoring the proceedings herself. She decided to referee the fight.

Manuel, Ochoa and Ponce-Rico all climbed into the ring. Their body language signaled the tension mounting on the canvas: Ochoa, in blue, strutting in place and thumping his chest like a Roman centurion; Manuel, feeling the familiarity of an old routine come back to him, shaking off his nerves and ring rust; and Ponce-Rico, in a long white shirt, standing in stoic counterpose between them.

The bell rang. Ponce-Rico had seen Manuel fight in the female division, but she was still caught off guard by his immediate intensity. As Manuel and Ochoa met in the center of the ring, toe-to-toe, they both seemed dead set on delivering a knockout punch. And yet, even as Ochoa mostly held his ground, Manuel established the center of the ring as his territory. Ponce-Rico noted that Ochoa seemed to grow frustrated and upset at the fusillade of punches connecting with his head and body. Then, Manuel’s fist sailed cleanly and directly into Ochoa’s face.

Ponce-Rico jumped in to intervene. Despite Ochoa’s protestations, she gave him an eight count. “He got really upset,” Ponce-Rico says. She tried soothing him, telling him, “Relax, everything’s good, I’m not stopping the bout, calm down.”

When the fight resumed, it was too late for Ochoa. At the end of the four-round fight, the three judges positioned around the ring issued a unanimous decision: Manuel had won.

In the initial aftermath, things between Ochoa and Manuel were cordial. They exchanged one-armed hugs in the ring and took pictures together afterward. But as Ponce-Rico prepared to leave, Alberto Ochoa approached her. “You lied, you lied,” he said. She sensed that the conversation could get out of hand, so she told him to call her later.

Over the next few days, Alberto made phone calls to Ponce-Rico and the head of the Southern California Local Boxing Club (LBC), Joe Zanders, accusing Ponce-Rico of lying to him in order to embarrass his son. He threatened to sue Ponce-Rico and the USAB board over the incident — a threat he repeated to Valenzuela, whom he also called.

“USA Boxing approved Pat to fight as a male, and that’s all we wanted,” Valenzuela says, his eyes flashing with uncharacteristic anger. “That’s it. We don’t have to tell anybody crap.”

Alberto Ochoa, for his part, claims that he was never told about Manuel’s prior boxing record — a point that Ponce-Rico strenuously denies. “Very unethical people,” Alberto says. “I told them, you shouldn’t be doing this because, somewhere else, not knowing — they would’ve gotten in trouble with other people that are not as civilized as I am.” He also claims that Adan won the fight, but that Manuel got the decision out of preferential treatment.

Manuel’s victory over Ochoa had more profound repercussions than he might have anticipated. If it was difficult to get fights before his amateur debut, it became nearly impossible afterward. Manuel continued to go to shows and weigh in, but no one would get into the ring with him.

“We have a lot of older Mexican coaches who don’t do the social media thing,” Ponce-Rico explains. “Adan and his dad made sure that all of those coaches knew what had happened.”

Manuel had to wait some four months and leave the Southern California LBC entirely to get his next bout — 190 miles north in Tulare, California, where he lost a decision to Aaron Cruz.

Manuel’s next drought would last around seven months. On May 5, 2017, on the same day and at the same show as his debut a year before, Manuel fought his third and final amateur bout, losing in a split decision to Ivan Ortiz.

The 31-year-old persisted in going to shows afterward, weighing in and submitting to medical exams, but no one would fight him.

ON AUG. 6, 2017, a profile of Patricio Manuel ran in the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times and caught the eye of Eric Gomez, the president of Oscar de la Hoya’s promotional company, Golden Boy Boxing. He read the name “Patricio Manuel” once, and then once more. He had never heard of Manuel, which struck him as odd. Gomez was a 20-year industry veteran, one of the most powerful people in the sport and an inveterate Angeleno. He expected to know the name of any local boxer who appeared on the front page of his local paper.

Having grown up in East Los Angeles in the ’70s and ’80s, a time of civic underinvestment and neglect, he recognized something universal to boxing in Manuel’s story: “the struggle.”

Things moved fast from there. Gomez soon met with Manuel and offered his assistance. With things stalled in the amateurs, Manuel asked for help at turning pro.

Gomez helped with licensing fees and paid the $800 medical exam fees, but his biggest contribution to Manuel was giving him a spot on a Golden Boy fight card in 2018: on one level, a practical assist; on another, a hugely symbolic gesture to the entire boxing community.

Gomez insists that he didn’t consider any potential pushback among boxing fans. “No, it didn’t cross my mind,” he says. “I made a promise to Pat that I would help him, and I was keeping a promise. That’s it.”

Gomez tuned in to Manuel’s against Aguilar on Facebook Live, a hundred miles away in Los Angeles. “He put on a show, he went to war,” Gomez says. “I had him winning.”

That was nearly three years ago; Manuel hasn’t fought in a professional bout since. The momentum from his historic victory has long since stalled, held up by back-to-back injuries, shifting bureaucratic priorities and a pandemic. At 35 years old, his shelf life as an athlete draws closer and closer to expiration. Every passing day, every delay, seems to undermine the promise he made that night in December: that he would return to the ring.

“But that’s life,” Manuel tells me (remotely) from the garage in his new home, which serves as his gym, home office and sanctuary. “That’s boxing, even. Nothing goes according to plan.”

The past few years landed multiple staggering blows on Manuel after he exited 2018 in the afterglow of his debut victory. An eye infection forced him out of a scheduled fight in June 2019, followed soon after by a long-simmering hip injury, which took him out of the ring for the rest of the year.

Going into 2020, Manuel committed to “make things simple” — a New Year’s resolution almost comically disrupted by the year’s ensuing chaos. And yet so much of his life seems to have uniquely prepared him for this moment, this endless year and all its paradoxical tumult and stasis.

“Waiting for my first fight, waiting for my first amateur fight, for my first pro fight, all of these cancellations, all of these injuries, people being like, when are you going to give it up? It never crossed my mind that I could give it up,” he says.

Much like the time following his failed Olympic bid when he decided to transition, this latest pause — the longest of his career — has dropped the boxer deeper into himself. The old fight cliché goes, “In the ring, the truth will find you.” In the ring and out of it, what Manuel has been seeking his whole life is self-knowledge.

Manuel begins each morning under the Mediterranean-style portico of his front porch, where he sits on his yoga mat and journals in a black-and-white speckled composition notebook. He often sips coffee or tea from a red “Werewolf: The Apocalypse” mug, a nerdy token of a beloved role-playing game from his adolescence. He takes time to meditate and center his breathing, acknowledging the mix of frustration and gratitude.

“Just thinking about myself as a child, I already knew who I was, but society told me I didn’t know. No, I was right all along,” he says. “I realized I have done something so many people struggle to do, and it has nothing to do with boxing or breaking barriers. I came back to myself … I found my way back and I found myself. And not only do I like myself, but I really love myself. And so many people that can have all of the quote-unquote success in the world, and they still don’t have that. I feel like I’ve made it.”

He has also discovered clues to what his future might look like after boxing. “I’m a fighter, and I happened to be an athlete,” he says. And as has become increasingly clear in recent months, there is plenty of fight to be had outside of the ring. Manuel has watched this year as state houses across the country have introduced a record number of anti-transgender bills limiting access to medical care and barring transgender athletes from participation in sports. “They are attacking the most vulnerable population out there by going after children and dismissing the autonomy and agency of children to be able to say, ‘This is who I am.'”

Manuel sees sports as the latest front in a culture war that fought — and lost — previous battles over same-sex marriage and trans bathroom bills. Imposing exclusionary restrictions on athletics strikes at the “heart and soul” of sports. “Sport allows us a vehicle to let down all the other identities we have and just be involved in one singular activity,” Manuel says. “In that involvement, we can see … we are all human.”

Shortly after the holidays, as Los Angeles began to emerge from its winter surge, Manuel took a walk through the sun-baked chaparral hills around his house and called Valenzuela. Boxers live their lives according to a clock — discrete three-minute intervals with 60-second pauses. Losing an entire year felt like an eternity, and both Manuel and Valenzuela were eager to make up for lost time. “I’m not getting any younger,” Manuel acknowledges. They jumped back into the mitt work by February, running drills outside every day. Soon, inoculated against COVID-19, they returned inside the Duarte gym. “It feels like coming home for me.”

Manuel has had periodic contact with Golden Boy and Gomez, sending the occasional text message and wishing Gomez happy holidays. “But we haven’t had a more concrete conversation yet,” he says. Golden Boy did not respond to questions about a future fight date or whether Manuel would have a spot on their ticket.

Even as COVID-19 shut down arenas and boxing rings, and even now, as networks and promoters start to erect a schedule of boxing events for the months to come, leaving marginal fighters like Manuel with uncertain futures, he’s determined to keep his promise to fight again.

“This is my longest relationship, 19 years. It’s had some ups and downs, but ultimately, I still feel the same way about boxing as I did when I walked in the gym 19 years ago,” he says. “I waited six years before. … I’ll wait whatever it takes.”


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