Before entering the championship match at the Ringside World Championships in Missouri, 12-year-old Tony Duarte didn’t seem all too focused.
An unexpected 20-minute intermission had been called, so Duarte was waiting in the ring, standing 20 feet from his opponent, humming and dancing along to a song.
But once the bell rang, Duarte snapped to focus and went on to beat his opponent by unanimous decision.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Duarte’s coach and Olympic medalist Virgil Hill. “I’m going ‘What the hell.’ He was just as calm as can be and he got up there and just performed. It was incredible. This kid has ice in his veins.”
Since turning competitive earlier this year, Duarte has won two major events: the Ringside World Championships in July and the USA Boxing Elite National Championships in December.
And he only has eight bouts to his name.
“A lot of nerves,” Duarte said of how it felt when he began competing in tournaments. “I get very nervous and when the bell rings, it goes away automatically. You can’t think of it anymore.”
Duarte first tried boxing when he was eight years old. At the time, his father, Romeo, was working out at a boxing gym that featured classes for kids.
After trying and failing at a plethora of other sports, Duarte was encouraged by Romeo to give one last sport a try.
“It was a sparring day,” Romeo said, “so they put on gear and started punching and then on the way home, he goes, ‘I want to do that again.’”
Duarte went back for session after session. He bounced around to a few gyms before getting connected with Hill, a Santa Clarita resident and Boxing Hall-of-Famer.
When Hill first trained with Duarte, he was unsure. He was under the impression that the then-11-year-old Duarte was a lanky, clumsy 15-year-old kid.
“Once I found out he was 11 going to be 12, I went oh wow, this kid wins everything,” said Hill.
His tall, lean build was quickly overshadowed by his hard work and desire to improve.
Duarte began homeschool with the Hart@Home program to focus more on training. Whatever tournament he was thrown into, he won.
“We were surprised at first,” said Romeo. “We were like okay, let’s see what happens.
“At 11 and now 12, he’s very charismatic, he likes to talk. Before the fights, he’ll start dancing and he’s so goofy. And then as soon as he gets in the ring, he just changes into this beast mode.”
Each day, Duarte wakes up at 5:30 a.m. to get to the College of the Canyons track by 6 a.m. and train with Hill’s wife Denean Hill, who is an Olympic gold medalist and assistant track and field coach at COC.
After that, he heads home for schoolwork until 11 a.m., when he trains with Virgil in his garage. At 1 p.m., its back home for more schoolwork, dinner and eventually, bedtime.
“I miss talking to people my age, but I just talk to anyone anyway,” Duarte said. “It just gives me more time to train. It helps me.”
Duarte has his next major tournament in March – the Western Elite Qualifier and Regional Open Championships in Albuquerque, N.M.
Ultimately, he dreams of earning a gold medal in the Olympics and become a professional boxer. And he’ll do it his own way, too.
“I like boxers, but I don’t really look up to them,” he said. “I want to be my own boxer with my own style and my own personality.”