Bay Area boxers ain't nothing to mess with. In 2011, Oakland's Andre Ward was named Fighter of the Year. In 2012, San Leandro's Nonito Donaire took that honor. On May 4, Gilroy's Robert Guerrero will fight Floyd Mayweather Jr. in the year's first pay-per-view mega-fight. With a vicious three-punch combination, the Bay Area has emerged as the world's new Boxing Capital.
It's an unlikely development. At the turn of the 20th century, San Francisco, lawless and nouveau riche and full of vices to indulge, was a hotspot for boxing, a pastime even more brutal then than it is now. And over the next 50 years, legends like Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, and Rocky Marciano would be among the fighters showcasing their craft in local rings. But the Bay's boxing scene has weakened dramatically since the Eisenhower Era, a casualty of the region's increasing costs and declining middle class.
American boxers traditionally came from Philly, Detroit, Brooklyn, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. That general trend might still hold steady today. Except at the top of the rankings. Among the ten best boxers on the planet, you'll find three men who were born within three years of each other and who live within an hour's drive of each other.
Their parallel successes seem even more remarkable considering they did not rise from the same gym or under some guru-trainer reshaping the local boxing scene. Instead, they each have taken separate routes, snaking through the boxing world with their own distinct styles before meeting at the sport's peak.
Ward was the amateur stud. With quick hands, precise footwork, and impeccable technique, he became an Olympic gold medalist in 2004 and then went on to win each of his 26 bouts to date, surging past every other contender in the 168-pound division. Donaire, who moved to the East Bay from the Philippines at age six, lost his second professional fight when he was 19, in Vallejo. He won 30 in a row after that, wowing the boxing world with the best left-hook in the game. (Last Saturday, he lost by unanimous decision to two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, a slick 122-pounder from Cuba. It was Donaire's first loss in 12 years.)
Guerrero's climb has been steeper. He's won world titles in four weight classes, but remained an unknown to most casual boxing fans. Then, in November, he walloped Andre Berto, a popular 147-pounder on the track to superstardom, in one of the most vicious battles in recent memory. Now he's set for a multimillion-dollar payday against the 43-0 Mayweather, and all the press conferences and Showtime montages that come with it.
"You could call it a coincidence," says Charles King, who runs Oakland's Kings Gym, the place where Ward hones his skills and Donaire once trained during his amateur days. "Or maybe it was just our time to show the world what we got."
Or maybe it's that Bay Area magic going around sports these days. The one that fueled two Giants championship parades, a 49ers Super Bowl run, and the best Warriors season in two decades. It's a serendipitous moment, powerful and thrilling, like a glove meeting a jaw in the ring.