CLEARFIELD — At Lights Out Boxing and Fitness, Zariah Montoya is slugging it out with a boy.
Zariah, 7, the daughter of Utah professional boxer Anthony Montoya, is more than holding her own. She’s taking some licks, as both youngsters are encouraged by family and coaches.
After the round, Zariah’s face shows her exhaustion. It’s sweaty and red with a faint trace of blood and a hint that tears are being resisted.
But she’s tough, her dad says. Besides boxing, she also practices mixed martial arts.
”We’ve got a good atmosphere at Lights Out. J.D. knows what he’s doing,” Anthony Montoya says.
Saturday morning at Lights Out, located at at 377 S. State in Clearfield, there are close to 20 children and adults working out, punching heavy bags, lifting weights and waiting for turns to spar in the ring that faces the window of a row of stores.
“J.D.” is Julian Stevens, who co-owns the gym with his wife, Stacy. It’s been in business for less than two months, and like many startups, a lot of money is being invested as the gym works to increase memberships and build a stable of boxers who will compete regularly at tournaments.
“I’ve been boxing since I was 8 years old; it kept me out of trouble,” said Stevens, 38, sitting in his office.
Unfortunately, a lot of times, Stevens said he chose trouble over boxing. Despite a successful amateur career that included national competitions — he lost a decision to future great Floyd Mayweather Jr. in 1994 — and more than 100 wins, drugs and robbery landed him in prison.
“I had a lot of opportunities, and I screwed it up,” he said.
Stevens spent about 16 years in prison before getting out for good in 2012. In prison, he spent time as a motivational speaker to youth.
“We’d all sit on a panel and talk about what we did wrong,” he said.
Both Stevens and his wife have jobs outside the gym. He insulates homes, and Stacy is with Workforce Services.
The gym has long-term goals. Stevens hopes it gives youngsters the same dreams he had.
“I want to build national champions. I want a team that will go to every tournament,” he said. Lights Out will eventually have its own uniforms and warm-up outfits, he said.
Parents of the children at Lights Out said they see Stevens turning his stint in prison into a positive.
“I’ve known J.D. since I was a little kid,” Montoya said. Coming from a boxing family, he witnessed Stevens’ rise to amateur prominence and then his fall. “He’s sharing what he had with kids and also urging them not to make the bad choices he made.”
“He’s overcome a lot. This is how J.D. can take the knowledge and experience he possessed — and lost for a while — and share it with kids and adults,” Montoya said.
Two of Lights Out amateur boxers have enjoyed success with the gym. They’re older with more experience and serve as “uncles” to the gym family.
Jon Bryant, 22, known as “Jon Jon” in the gym, is a tall, lanky 152-pound fighter. He’s 10-0 after scoring a win recently at the Sorenson Multi-Cultural Center in Salt Lake City.
“Basically, I box to stay out of trouble,” Bryant said. “I was always in fights when I was younger,” he said.
Once he discovered boxing, he had a way to fight without getting in trouble. He credits Stevens for teaching him that there’s an OK place to fight, a healthy place to fight.
“Stevens has been to prison, has faced the consequences of fighting outside the ring. He lets me know where I should let out the aggression,” Bryant said.
Bryant describes himself as a counter puncher who likes to bang. He works full time at the Freeport Center, runs two to three miles a day and spends his evenings training at the gym.
“Hopefully, I’ll be a national Golden Gloves winner,” he said.
Another Lights Out winner at the Sorenson Multi-Cultural Center was Chris France. At 140 pounds, France, 30, is restarting his boxing dreams after a decade-long break.
“I’m doing my best to make to make us look good,” he said with a smile. He also enjoys training with his daughter, Mia, 8, at the gym.
Raelynn Emlet, of Clearfield, takes her two sons, Anthony, 9, and Isaac, 6, to Lights Out. Watching her boys train and spar makes her proud.
“I like the discipline. I like the cardio workouts,” she said. She praises J.D. as a good motivator who inspires kids to do their best.
Like Montoya, Emlet sees Stevens’ past in prison as a teaching tool for the kids in his gym.
“He’s saying, ‘This is where you should fight,’ not in the streets but in the boxing ring. He’s trying to inspire the kids, to let them know they can have a great time boxing,” she said.
The gym activity and the kids’ fighting progress is only part of what the gym is about, Stevens said. How the kids are doing in school, or what’s going on in the home, is important.
“We’re like a parent for you here. If you want to be a successful boxer, you got to put in the (overall) work,” he said.
As a boxing trainer, Stevens said it’s critical that youngsters are taught the fundamentals well. At any point of a career, it’s a trainer’s role to spot mistakes a fighter makes and correct them before the incorrect style is ingrained and becomes a bad habit.
An ‘old-school look’
Jose Haro, of West Jordan, who has logged a 13-1-1 professional boxing record and recently won a national title, has been to Lights Out.
“The gym has a old-school look to it; that's what I love about it. J.D. works with everyone individually, and I love that; not a lot of trainers take the time to teach like he does,” he said.
Fernando Gonzales, of Clinton, is a cousin of Haro’s. His son Giovanni, 9, spars at the gym.
When asked why his son trains at Lights Out, Gonzales said, “the action outside the X-Box. The action outside the house. ... Jon Jon, he’s great with the kids, and J.D. is the gym dad.”
Gonzales said that, for J.D., prison was rock bottom. But it drives him to be a better man now and help the kids.
“If he can take any youth off the streets and put him in the gym, he's already doing more then most,” he said.
Stacy Montero, 14, of Clinton, doesn’t anticipate ever becoming a boxer, but she’s been going to Lights Out since it opened and loves working out with gym mates, including Giovanni, Jon Jon and Chris.
“It gives me exercise. I like the movements,” she said.
Getting in the ring and sparring was a tough decision to make.
“I was kind of nervous, but I got the hang of it,” Montero said.
John Daniels, 25, of Ogden, used to play college football. At Lights Out, he enjoys the one-on-one competition of boxing.
“You have to dig deep. There’s no offensive line to help you,” he said.
Kids need mentors, coaches who will guide them the right way in the gym and in life, Haro said.
“My advice to kids who want to become boxers are always have respect for the others and always keep learning,” he said.
Stevens said he knows it will be tough, at least early, to make a profit. He estimated he’s spent $10,000 so far. The gym is open weekdays from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. and Saturday from 9 a.m. to noon. Gym dues are $80 a month, with a current three-month special for $200. Lights Out has also teamed up with All Heart Boxing in Ogden. Both gyms visit the other, Stevens said.
In teaching kids, it always comes back to the fundamentals.
“The one-two, the footwork,” Stevens said. He places tape on the floor, so the youngsters know where to step, where to punch and where to focus their power.
“If they have those small little things mastered,” Stevens said, “they can go on to achieve great things.”
Contact reporter Doug Gibson at firstname.lastname@example.org.