She’s a 4-time Chicago Golden Glove champ. She’s in the Illinois Boxing Hall of Fame. A feisty, 5’4” powerhouse sidelined by a life threatening injury refuses years later to leave the sport of boxing.
So she’s using her skills and experience to help young men succeed, and in many cases, survive.
Some people might describe Rita Figueroa as rough on the exterior. If you saw her in the ring you would agree. She’s passionate about boxing and loves to win. For the past seven years, she’s been using her will to win to teach men how the sport of boxing can save them the way it saved her.
On a hot day in the heart of Chicago, the city is constantly in motion. Inside the walls of AT&T, 47-year-old Rita Figueroa works in customer service. For 27 years, it’s been paying the bills.
But her life’s calling, her real job is outside of telecom. She does it for nothing. It takes her to Brighton Park
“She’s everything to me, you know what I mean. Without her, I wouldn’t be here. Honestly,” said pro boxer Martez McGregor. “I’d be dead or in jail, honestly.”
“My life after high school was a mess. In and out of jail continuously. Doing the wrong things,” said amateur boxer Antonio Canas. “Without fighting or boxing, without her nah–I’d probably be in trouble.”
For nearly 15 years, Rita Figueroa was known as Rita “La Guera” Figueroa. She won title after title, unstoppable in the ring. Until 2009 when an accidental head butt during a boxing match broke a blood vessel in her brain.
She calls it the “best day and worst day of my life.”
She’s more compassionate, Figueroa says. And being outside the ropes does have its advantages. Now she fights something else: violence in the streets. She does it her way. In the gym.
“You’re not fighting in here, you’re learning. Skills not just for the gym, but for everyday life,” Figueroa said.
“Being on the streets of Chicago for one is a lot of pressure,” McGregor said. “I lost a lot of my guys. I lost probably 30 of my homies that I was close with, you know.”
So Figueroa hits, hollers, and hugs her way into these young boxers lives. Giving them hope and helping them stay off the often-deadly streets of Chicago that are all too familiar to them.
Each of her encounters here are memorable. One is unforgettable, reminding this athlete turned trainer and mentor why she volunteered over 500 hours last year to help these young men. Men like Rashad.
“A family member of his got shot and he wanted to retaliate so he called me and said, can we go to the gym?” Figueroa recalls. “We were here for hours and hours and hours ‘til he had no energy to do anything but go home and go to bed.”
Figueroa stopped counting the volunteer hours after she hit 500, but her employer did not. Executives contacted the White House. Barack Obama is honoring the retired boxer with the President’s Volunteer Service Award.
At her gym, tempers don’t flare, only fists fly. At the heart of it all, a warm smile and more heart than the five-foot-four, tattoo covered, bundle of “love” can share. The kind of love these boys, now men, still need.
“She challenged me to challenge myself. That was key. I will love her forever for that,” Martez said.
Her motto: hard work pays off no matter what you do. For Figueroa and the boxers she works with, that lesson starts in the gym.