As a high school freshman football player, Ruben Bravo loved it when an opposing player was defenseless against his hard hits. Football was a way for him to productively express his fighter personality.
During the offseason, Bravo didn't sit around. He was in the weight room at 5:30 a.m. doing squats, deadlifts and bench presses. He and another freshman were the only underclassmen in the room. They trained until school started at 7:30 a.m. At the end of the day, Bravo went back to train even more.
By the time Bravo was 17, he had lived in a total of 11 different homes and had attended six different schools. These homes were in rough neighborhoods, usually on the south side of Tucson. His mother was sick a lot and his father got laid off from jobs frequently. They had some tough times.
But through all of that, Bravo finished high school and went on to Pima Community College. During college he worked from 3 p.m. to midnight and attended classes during the day. He also trained at a boxing gym. After Pima, he transferred to the UA, where he is now only 12 credits short of getting a bachelor's in psychology with a minor in fire sciences. Bravo is a 29-year-old firefighter for the Picture Rocks Fire District.
The story could stop here with a happy ending, but Bravo is now providing others that same chance.
Bravo is the founder of House of Warriors, a nonprofit—501(c)(3) pending—that seeks to offer lower-income and at-risk youth and their families an opportunity to participate in athletic training. Currently, kids learn boxing skills.
"I started boxing when I was in high school and fell in love with the sport. I had a really good coach who was like a father figure to me," says Bravo. His teacher was Joe Agredano, who coached boxing for U.S. Olympic teams. Bravo trained under Agredano for 11 years, learning not only about boxing but also discipline and hard work.
"I've always wanted to work with youth and give back," says Bravo. While working as an at- risk prevention specialist, he learned that "not everyone's vision is my vision." He realized the only way to get his vision accomplished was to do it himself.
House of Warriors started in January 2013 and is housed in a 400-square-foot space in the Wildcat CrossFit gym, 300 S. Park Ave. The class runs from 4 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Friday for ages 6 to 18. Fees from adult kickboxing lessons help fund the program.
There are three heavy bags hanging in the space, along with a crazy bag, slip bag and speed bag. Bravo says the kids start with jump-rope, then have their hands wrapped, practice shadowboxing and, lastly, alternate between the bags. In the middle of the space, Bravo works with a youth on punches. When Bravo is working at his job as a firefighter, trainers Nick Holck and Erica Soto take over.
"In boxing, you learn a lot about yourself. If you are not on top of your diet or make a halfway effort with your workout, it shows up when you get in there. You can't blame anyone else," says Bravo.
Kids are taught to keep their hands up when sparring but they also have to keep up their grades and good behavior. Bravo recalls one boy was asked to leave the class because he was disrespectful to a coach.
"I told his dad that he could come back when he learned to be respectful. He needs to know that if he talks back, is disrespectful or cheats, he won't be here. I told his dad that he also needed to write definitions to the words discipline, honor, responsibility and accountability. The kids need to understand their decisions have consequences." The boy was later accepted back into the class and behaved well.
Parents have noticed positive changes in their kids through attendance at House of Warriors. "I've had parents tell me their kid is doing better in school, or that he is more respectful," says Bravo. "Girls' parents have said their daughter has lost weight or that she seems more confident. To me, that is huge."
Bravo has big plans for House of Warriors. "Right now we are limited in the number of youth we can take. We are crunched in here. We've very excited to get our 501(c)(3) so we can apply for grants and people can donate and get tax write-offs. With more funding, we can move to a bigger area. We have a full-size competition ring stored in the back.
"My vision is that this will not just be a boxing gym. I want there to be powerlifting Olympic teams, or do CrossFit training. I want to reach as many youth as possible. Maybe other people would come in and teach other programs, like art or music. I want Tucson to recognize that this is a safe place to come, that we're (training) the future leaders of the Tucson community."
Bravo says the kids see him as a role model, and he is fine with that. He is one who made it out of his childhood home and circumstances. He says a lot of his high school friends didn't.
"When I was young, if someone told me (things would get better), I'd think it was easy for them to say. If they didn't look like me or didn't go through things that I'd been through—like having no money for food or wearing old shoes—they didn't know what it's like. But if someone looks like you and comes from the same things (you have) and is willing to share stories, it gives them hope. They think, 'He knows what it's like.' I tell them if they work hard and want it bad enough, there's nothing they can't achieve."