Boxing in my hometown, with all the people who support and encourage me, so many people who’ve been dying to watch me fight, here to watch, that’s really exciting for me. —Whitney Gomez
SALT LAKE CITY — Amber Montoya saw the boxing gloves as a message from her late father.
“After my dad died, I went up to his gravesite about a week after his funeral,” the 30-year-old said. “There was a pair of gloves that were left for me on the gravesite. I knew what that meant.”
What it meant, even though she didn’t want to admit it at first, was that her father wanted her to return to the sport that the entire family had embraced.
“I was upset,” she said. “I took the gloves, and I threw them in my car. I went through some other things, but I kept hearing in my spirit that he left those gloves for me.” Almost four years later, she is using those very gloves to pursue a goal she knows he saw in her future when she joins more than 600 of the country’s top boxers in competing in the USA Boxing National Championships this week at the Salt Palace. She is one of four Utah women who will compete in the amateur event that will determine which fighters will represent the U.S. next year.
Montoya, who fights at 178 pounds, won a qualifying tournament in Tennessee to earn a spot in the semifinals on Friday night.
“We always talked about this,” she said of her return to the sport she loved as a youngster when she competed alongside her cousins and under the tutelage of her father and uncles. “I was actually starting to work out, and I’d lost 30 pounds when he was still alive. After he died, I took the rest of the weight off (a total of 75 pounds lost), and I’ve been training with the gloves he left me ever since.”
Those gloves were signed by those who attended his funeral, and they were supposed to be buried with him. Montoya said it doesn't matter to her what anyone else thinks, she understands the message in her heart every time she looks down at those gloves.
“It pushes me just to know he’s right there with me,” she said. “I knew it was a sign for me personally. When I was walking up to the ring that first time, I could feel him. Tears fell down, but then I knew I had to focus and go to work.”
The other Utah women competing are Monica Villa, 29, who qualified in both the 106 and 112 divisions; Whitney Gomez, 30, who fights at 141 and was a wild-card pick; and Maryguenn Vellinga, 35, who qualified in Tennessee in the 112-pound division.
Villa, Gomez and Vellinga all juggle motherhood with their amateur boxing pursuits. Each of them has left the sport at different times for different reasons.
Villa started boxing when she was 14 because her brothers and cousins participated.
“Back then, I weighed about 98 pounds, so it was hard for me to find fights and stay consistent,” she said.
She got married at 20, had a daughter, and spent six years focusing on her family. “I just always had that thought, ‘I wonder how far I could have made it?’” she said. “I came back because of my love for the sport. I just love it.” Now the mother of a 6-year-old and 2-year-old says she's just taking each moment as it comes.
“I just take it day by day,” she said. “I’m a mom of two. (She pauses to laugh.) I’m focusing on this fight, and what the next step will be. We’ll see. Everyone always asks me if I’m going to go pro, and before I had kids, the answer would have been 'Yes. I’m going to do it.’ But it takes a lot of work, and it’s not easy. I got the opportunity to give it all I have this time and see how far I can make it.”
Gomez didn’t find her way to boxing until she was an adult. A group fitness class at her gym gave her a taste of boxing, and it was a steady progression to competition. The mother of three has ambitious goals that include making the U.S. team so she can pursue Olympic glory.
“Boxing in my hometown, with all the people who support and encourage me, so many people who’ve been dying to watch me fight, here to watch, that’s really exciting for me,” Gomez said. “I’m excited about the energy that comes from fighting in your hometown.”
Vellinga, 35, took a year off as her daughter dealt with some serious health issues.
“It was kind of an up and down year, but I couldn’t fight,” she said. “Last January, we got her on medication that stabilized her, and I started training again.” She qualified in Tennessee, and her goal this week is just to make the U.S. National team.
“I am in a pretty tough weight class,” she said, noting the woman now on the team in her weight class went to the Rio Olympics and has won four international titles this year. “A lot of the other classes are open because the top girls turned pro. It’s kind of an open year.”
Her goal, like the others, is to face one fighter at a time in hopes of taking her career to new heights. Now a personal trainer in Park City, Vellinga said she feels that it’s a bit fortuitous that the year the qualifications change coincided with the tournament landing in Salt Lake City.
“That is something I have to be grateful for,” she said. “I don’t take that lightly.”
The bouts begin Tuesday from noon to 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Salt Palace. There will be four rings featuring fights continuously, with the championship matches on Saturday night. Tuesday through Friday admission is free while admission to Saturday’s championships cost $10.
Friday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. organizers and fans will welcome the first-ever USA Boxing Alumni Hall of Fame Banquet featuring World Champions Evander Holyfield, Micky Ward, Michael Carbajal and Virgil Hill.