Past the rows of slip bags, speed bags and chunky heavy bags hanging above the padded floor of Gilroy’s Pound 4 Pound gym is a small door leading to a back room containing a secret weapon: a full, regulation-size boxing ring.
At 10am, a car pulls up out front. Out steps super featherweight boxer Andy “El Tiburon” Vences along with Stephanie, his wife, nutritionist and costume designer. Once inside, they walk past the assortment of bags that make up a boxer’s training regimen and right into the back room. Today, El Tiburon is tagging in as sparring partner for Justin Cardona, an undefeated super lightweight fighter from Salinas.
This October, Andy Vences will celebrate a decade in professional boxing. In that time, the San Jose-raised fighter’s career has been consistently impressive, however the last few years have seen El Tiburon swimming some choppy waters. For his first 23 professional bouts he went undefeated (with one draw), but recently a series of painful (some might say questionable) scorecard decisions has taken that away.
Since his last fight in 2021, Vences has spent every waking moment thinking about boxing. In between training, running, sparring, and a constant set of commutes up and down the South Bay and South County, he’s been training boxing clients himself. Now a free agent, he does it all while awaiting for his next professional fight.
Gathered around the ring here in this backroom in Gilroy are people from both fighters’ corners: coaches, cutmen and assorted entourage. There’s Charles Peralez, Vences’s coach, and Ruben “Mad Dog” Guerrero, Cardona’s; on Cardona’s end on the ring is a former member of Guns ‘N Roses’ road crew, while sitting on Vences’s is a quiet young fighter everyone seems to fear nicknamed “Trouble.” Each one is here today to see what their man can do.
While the corner teams shoot the shit, Vences warms up, whipping punches, shadowboxing and practicing his slips and shoulder rolls. By 10:58am, his hands are wrapped, eyebrows and nose glistening with vaseline. Coach Charles Peralez holds his gloves, watching closely as the knots cinch around his fighter’s wrist.
At the buzzer, both boxers square off in the center of the ring, hands raised and ready to fly. Today, they’ll go eight rounds.
“Eight rounds not only allows enough time to spar, but you [also] get battle tested,” Vences says before stepping in the ring. “Someone is going to get tired, someone’s going to lose technicality.”
Luckily, technicality is one of Vences’s great strengths—along with his deadly jab. The fighter known as “El Tiburon” laced up his first set of gloves at 14. Like many kids of the South Bay suburbs, he’d studied martial arts as a youngster. But he wasn’t satisfied with the heady, abstract approach of Kung Fu; he wanted contact, wanted to hit and know that he could be hit. One day he asked his dad to put him in boxing instead.
“He told me, ‘if I don’t see improvement in a month, I’m gonna pull you out, because you don’t play boxing,’” Vences recalls. “But he saw that I was always begging him to take me. I was really into it.”
For El Tiburon, the path to the sweet science began at San Jose PAL Boxing, a gym run by the San Jose Police Activities League. There, he learned the basics of the game: stance, footwork, slipping punches and how to jab, cross and hook.
In his junior year at Lincoln High School, Vences let it be known that he would happily fight anyone brave enough to raise a pair of gloves against him. To show he was serious, he kept two sets in his locker: one for himself and one for any prospective opponent. The few who took up the challenge met him at the nearby Rose Garden, where they fought without rounds or referee, trading blows until one or the other gave up.
To this day, Vences has never been knocked down in a fight (let alone knocked out), never once felt the canvas kiss his cheek. This streak goes back not only to his amateur days, but his time as a boastful teen. At his ad hoc arena at the Rose Garden, El Tiburon won each of his unsanctioned bouts.
“If you look at his record, he’s never tasted real defeat,” says Charles Perales, his trainer. “He could be up there with the elites.”
Getting him there has been their goal together. After two years, Perales says he and his fighter are now “way more in tune with each other.”
“The thing about him is he’s always training.”
Vences waged his first prize fight at just 16, not in a ring, but in an empty employee hallway behind the food court of Oakridge Mall, where he worked at Subway. Once again, he had put out an announcement that he would fight anyone who would glove up against him. His challenger—a bulky, aspiring UFC fighter with a three-to-four inch height advantage—heard the call and bet $100 he could win.
That fight now lives on YouTube. In it, Vences fights shirtless against his taller, heavier opponent. The fight lasts 8 ½ minutes, at which point the UFC fighter takes an uppercut to the body that knocks him to the wall, and Vences steps in to finish the job. His opponent calls it there. The two pull away, shake hands more or less amicably, and part.
When it’s all over, Vences turns to the camera and winks.
“I just wanted the workout, you know?” he says.
His opponent stands nearby, red-faced and swollen and $100 lighter.
Andy Vences can tell you the exact date his life changed. It was April 28, 2021.
By then, he already had a family to support and a mortgage to pay, neither one being an easy task in one of the most expensive cities in America. Even for a professional with a sterling record, boxing is an unstable career with payments that arrive suddenly and deplete just as suddenly.
“I’m not a millionaire, so I have to do something to generate income,” Vences says.
In a testament to the hard-working nature of fighters, Vences describes himself as a “lifelong employee.” Ever since he was a teenager, he’d kept up steady employment—even while his boxing career was taking off.
“I always juggled one or two jobs, sometimes even three, even when I started my professional career,” he says.
All of that changed on April 28th.
The day began like normal: he got up and began training. For years, he’d worked evenings as a security guard at a friend’s company. It was a reliable gig that afforded him the flexibility necessary for his constant slew of training camps, sparring sessions, press circuits and fights. But as he was getting ready for that night’s work, his employer called to tell him the gig was over.
It’s rare to hear a boxer admit to shedding tears, but Vences says when he got the news he felt so helpless he couldn’t stop them from coming.
“I was kind of freaking out, me and my wife had just bought a home. I was devastated, didn’t know what I was going to do,” he says.
For a lifelong employee, it was back to the job hunt. Then, in rapid succession, two monumental things happened. First, his manager, Peter Kahn, called with an offer for an undercard spot on a Pay-Per-View fight, Vences’s first. It was life-changing news, but it was still months away. He needed money fast. So, it was back to the job hunt. That’s when the second thing happened.
“My friend Sergio, he was like, ‘why are you looking for a job? Look at you. You’re a professional boxer. Why are you going to do security? Why don’t you train people? Look at all these fake trainers out here that don’t even know boxing. People would want to train with someone who’s been in the ring,’” Vences recalls.
Sergio was not wrong. Soon, Vences was training clients in the off-hours at a barbershop on the East Side. As luck would have it, his mother had also been considering converting the family garage into a rental unit. After a brief negotiation, he managed to convince her to let him convert it to a small training facility instead.
Now, just a little more than a year after the day that changed his life, Vences draws his entire income from boxing, either as a fighter or as a trainer.
“The most devastating thing to happen to me ended up being the best thing to happen.”
By the end of the fourth round, things have heated up in the ring. Both fighters have landed considerable punches, though Vences seems to be consistently establishing the pace of the sparring session.
“Be first and last,” Perales yells from ringside. After a flurry of punches to Cardona’s head, the coach shouts a reminder: “Touch the body after that.”
A common myth says that if a shark stops moving it will die. In truth, only some species of shark need to swim to survive. Many—like the leopard sharks common to the San Francisco Bay— breathe through small openings near the eye called spiracles, which keep the animal alive regardless of movement. However, myths often contain a kernel of truth, and for El Tiburon constant motion is part of the program. On an average day, he drives around 150 miles, crisscrossing South County from his home in Los Banos, to coach Perales’s gym in Hollister up to his own gym where he trains clients in San Jose—then back again.
“He drives far to do this stuff,” Perales says, in typically understated fashion. “He’s committed.”
Recently, the two have been testing that commitment with the development of a new, sharpened fighting style.
Though for the majority of his professional career Andy Vences went undefeated, in his last four fights, he’s 1-3. The win was a unanimous decision, each judge seeing him consistently out-landing and out-working his opponent, the spirited Filipino fighter Mark Bernalez. The losses, however, were another story. All three came from decisions, two of them split.
It all began with his 2019 fight against 6’ super featherweight Albert “Prince” Bell. When the decision came and the judges scored in Bell’s favor, Vences humbly treated it as a learning experience, telling The Ring magazine: “the next time around, I can’t assume a fight will go a certain way. I needed to go forward, and I didn’t get really aggressive the way I would have until late in the fight.”
When the next time around came around, things weren’t so clear cut. In 2020, against Mexican fighter Luis Alberto Lopez, Vences fought a tough, consistent battle. Neither fighter clearly rose to the top and each suffered serious cuts from accidental head clashes. ESPN’s unofficial scorecard had Vences up seven rounds to Lopez’s three. One of the ringside judges also gave it to Vences, but the other two had Lopez winning 6 rounds to 4. The sharply split decision stung.
In 2021, against Irish fighter Jono Carroll, Vences again appeared confident. Though his opponent threw many nasty-looking punches, few of them seemed to land. Official counts during the 8th round showed both fighters’ power punches (their hooks, crosses and uppercuts) connecting at nearly identical rates. Again, Vences was up on the unofficial scorecard. But when it got to the judges, all three ruled for Carroll.
“They had me losing about 7 rounds. I was like, Jesus, what were you guys seeing?” Vences says.
The experience taught him a hard lesson.
“I think this last fight made us better,” he says. “We’re in a mode now where we know we need to make a huge statement. We can’t really leave it up to the judges too much.”
On a quiet residential street in south San Jose, a trickle of hip-hop spills out from under a cracked-open garage door, muffled here and there by the thick slap of gloves against pads.
Inside, what was once a two-car garage now contains a small gym complete with weight bench, heavy bag, speed bag and poster of Muhammad Ali looming over a supine Sonny Liston. While Andy Vences trains for his own fights in Hollister, many aspiring athletes and fighters around the South Bay now learn from him here, in his childhood home in San Jose.
He runs a drill with his client, a friend from the San Jose PAL gym. Acting as coach, Vences taps his client on the shoulder, who responds with three quick shots. After a few trips around the garage, they switch it up, Vences teaching him how to throw from close range.
“Bring your body into me,” he instructs. “Slip the right hand and come over.”
In the corner of the room, an iPhone on a tripod records the day’s training. Vences dutifully uploads the files online for his clients to view. Not only do the videos help them track their progress, it helps him see the sport from new angles.
“I realize what I’m not teaching them when I see it,” he says. “All this is helping me be a better fighter. My coach sees it in sparring. You have to break it down to teach it.”
“I feel like it’s helped him a lot,” Perales says, in agreement. From his perspective, more than anything else, the act of teaching deepens his fighter’s commitment to the sport. “When he leaves the gym, he’s not leaving the gym—he’s still in the gym. His mind is never off boxing. I love that. I always tell him, that’s gonna show. That’ll be a big time factor in his next fight.”
Before Vences’s first client has finished, another arrives, ducking under the garage door as the sun begins its descent over the valley. Due to an earlier injury to his right hand, today this client is only training with his left. To begin, they practice setting up shots off a jab: jab, hook, jab, hook, hook.
“You gotta be able to generate that power,” Vences says, coaching. “Get your coordination with your steps.”
At his own training sessions, Vences has been changing things up lately. At this point, no one doubts his chin, heart or wits in the ring. The goal now is to fight in a way that sends a clearer message to the judges—or doesn’t require judges at all.
“I’m pushing him on breaking people down with punches, beating them up a little more,” Perales says. “It sounds kinda mean, but like, kinda hurting people and stuff. Making them stop.”
“I’ve never been in a match where it’s like, ‘damn, he’s getting his ass kicked.’ It’s always been competitive,” Vences says. “I just think I’ve had some unfair decisions, from the Lopez fight to the Carroll fight. In this next fight, if I hurt someone and really break them down bad, it’s going to make people realize what kind of fighter I am.”
By the sixth round of sparring, Cardona’s shirt is soaked through with sweat. Vences still looks confident, controlling the ring. In the seventh, he gets backed into a corner, blocking or slipping most of Cardona’s shots on the inside. Back in the center of the ring, both fighters exchange punches.
Joyce Carol Oates has commented that boxing is more about getting hit than about hitting, a sort of scarification process she claims is “about feeling pain, if not devastating psychological paralysis, more than it is about winning.” Though Vences has certainly sustained his share of both, he holds that fighting is more simple. For him, it is a proof, like the ones used in math, except this one is physical, its postulates and conclusion playing out in real time.
“Your job as a fighter is to prove yourself. And everybody else’s job is to doubt you,” he says, before shifting suddenly from theory to YouTube. “You know who said that? Jake Paul said that.”
When the buzzer sounds again, sparring concludes. The punching over, the fighters exchange instead a friendly hug. By now, both have been (in Vences words) battle-tested, the struggle between proof and doubt waged heavily by both sides.
“He’s good,” Vences says, stepping out of the ring. “If you’re in there with a hitter, you need to box.”
As of publication, it’s been 305 days since El Tiburon’s last professional fight. Though the wait has been long, it’s been far from empty. Each day has been like this: an endless treadmill of training, sparring, more training, teaching others to box and driving the many miles between the various gyms where it all takes place.
Just as Vences has been upping his dedication, so too has his coach. Aside from the young boxer nicknamed “Trouble,” Vences is currently his sole professional focus.
“I always remind him, there’s so many fighters in this position who get a lifetime opportunity. You never know when it’s gonna come,” Perales says. “It’s about being ready for the opportunity. You just gotta be ready, gotta be in line.”
If ever there was a time when Vences was ready and poised at the front of the line, it is now. Despite pulling a muscle in the ring, he’ll be right back at it the next day, back in the gym, preparing for the next fight—one-handed, if necessary.
“Either way, you can shadowbox, you can work on your moves, your head movement,” he says. “That’s the thing about boxing: there’s always something to work on.”