On a Sunday morning in October, Riel Martinez walked into the Nelson Boxing Club ready to train. He had every reason not to.
Riel was greeted by club owner Jesse Pineiro who had been training him for the B.C. provincials set to begin later that week. Pineiro had already notified organizers that Riel may not be on the card.
Less than 24 hours earlier, Riel’s older brother Elias unexpectedly passed away just shy of his 20th birthday. But when he showed up the next day, Riel had already made up his mind: “I wanted to fight for my brother.”
The boys grew up in the ring together. Their father, Orlando, had trained in Edmonton, and when he and his wife Denielle moved to Nelson they signed their boys up at the club. The Martinez family has since been a regular fixture at local and regional competitions.
Elias, two years older and with a much bigger build, earned a reputation for being a heavy puncher with plenty of potential. He was a four-time provincial champion, a B.C. Golden Gloves champ, and won bronze and silver medals at nationals.
Riel, by comparison, has only just recently began to come into his own. Already this year the 18-year-old fought at the Canada Winter Games, won a gold at the YYC Cup in Calgary, competed in Ireland, and was preparing for his first provincials fighting against adults.
The brothers were close. At the gym when they sparred, Riel says Elias would take it easy on him — until he decided not to.
“If I brought it at him, he would come back. You can’t just let your little brother push you around.”
Elias stepped away from boxing three years ago, but kept watching Riel’s fights and gave him feedback after every bout.
“[Elias] was the kind of person that I try to produce in the gym,” says Pineiro. “Somebody that not only doesn’t mess with people, but sticks up for people, helps people who need it.”
After Elias died, Riel found his grief was salved by training. The club is tight-knit, with plenty of casual athletes but only a handful of young boxers who fight at competitions. As everyone mourned Elias, Pineiro noticed Riel’s focus was somehow providing solace to the club.
“Everybody in the gym could feel it. Everybody in the gym was pushed by his energy. It’s like he took the whole community on his shoulders in a moment when people should be supporting him and he just doesn’t need it.”
The club took four fighters to provincials Nov. 3 to 5 in Richmond. Porter Hansen earned a silver medal after losing to Coquitlam’s Csongor Basco. Without opponents, Lola Brouillette and Milane D’Aurelie each walked over as gold medallists.
But the focus was on Riel, who was fighting for the first time in the elite 67-kilogram division that featured boxers in their mid-20s.
He got a bye into the semifinal against Surrey’s Ijaaz Faheem, who Riel caught flush with a punch in the third round and earned a unanimous decision.
That moved him into the final against Ankush Panghal of Surrey. In the first round as Panghal tried to hit Riel with hooks, Riel responded with a snappy jab to the face and an uppercut.
The second round opened with Panghal connecting on a punch to the side of Riel’s head. Riel in turn used another uppercut that caught Panghal’s chin, and kept ducking as Panghal relied on sweeping hooks with both fists.
“He was loading up lots of punches,” said Riel. “So it was like easy to read, I could see them. They were telegraphing a lot too. Whenever he was throwing upper cuts he was kind of looping them, so I could see and get out of the way and counter.”
Panghal tagged Riel with a right jab in the final round, but Riel finished the bout by pressuring his opponent into the ropes.
The judges awarded Riel a split-decision victory. Only eight days after Elias died, Riel was a provincial champion.
Pineiro was working in Riel’s corner for the bout and started to cry when he won. He looked around and noticed others in the crowd crying as well.
“All the normally tough gangster people who hang around boxing clubs did the same thing. Some of them knew Elias well and some of them didn’t, but they all saw Riel and they all understood what was happening.”
Riel has more boxing ahead of him. He’s secured a spot on Team BC for 2024, where he’ll be joined by Hansen, Brouillette and D’Aurelie.
But winning the provincial title was special. Elias may be gone, but that day he was in Riel’s corner.
“When they raised my hand at the end it honestly brought peace to my heart. I honestly felt him in the room watching.”