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Daniel Soto: Boxer Fights For Kids

by Frank Carroll

September 1, 2001
Copyright © 2001 ORLANDO SENTINEL. All Rights Reserved.




KISSIMMEE -- A former amateur boxer who never fought for a title in his native Puerto Rico, Daniel Soto, 36, is a champion nonetheless, one who fights bureaucrats on behalf of youngsters.

At the rear of a north Kissimmee strip shopping center in an out-of-the-way former auto body shop at 18 W. Fletcher Ave., stands Dan's Boxing Gym and Fitness Center. It's reminiscent of a gym that Soto put together to reach at-risk youth in Arroyo, a southern coastal town of 20,000 people 45 miles east of Ponce.

Dan's has opened weekdays around 5:30 p.m. since late May, usually after owner/coach/trainer Soto has put in a full day as a home repair handyman to support his wife, Marisol, and four stepchildren, one a mentally challenged 5-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn.

Dan's gym, sanctioned by the United States Boxing Association, has a clientele of 26 would-be fighters and seven adults who train like boxers to improve their fitness.

"All are welcome, 8 to 80," said Soto, an USBA-certified coach whose boxing career began in Puerto Rico's carnivals. Before putting away gloves, he won 48 of 60 bouts, mostly against 148-pound competition.

Amenities at Dan's are Spartan.

"Financially, we're struggling, but we have the will," Soto said.

That explains the absence of a ring within the 1,800-square-foot gym.

"I've spent $500 to buy the four corner posts," he said. "We're selling bottled water to raise money for the rest."

Born in Patillas, but raised in Atlantic City, N.J., Soto returned to Arroyo in the mid-1990s hoping to eke out a living in his homeland.

Disturbed by a lack of organized youth activities, he and trainer Frankie Valentín built a ring in 1995 to attract at-risk children to the sport. Six years later, a gym without a ring. That foam-padded floor and garden hoses for ropes, look pretty good.

Despite a flourishing gym in Arroyo, the medical needs of Soto's stepdaughter necessitated the family's move back to the United States.

Watching stepsons Miguel, 16, Gabriel, 12, and Jonathan, 8, train in the family's backyard inspired Soto to open a gym after the Osceola Boxing Academy's demise.

"I kept waiting for someone to step forward and do something for the kids," he said. "When no one did, I took a little bit of money to get this place off the ground."

At Dan's, open doors provide a low-tech air-conditioning system. Equipment, acquired at garage sales, rests on a paint-stained cement floor. Gloves of all sizes cover a pegged stand near spit buckets and water bottles. Four heavy bags dangle by chains from metal ceiling beams and mirrors lean against a wall to facilitate shadow boxing rounds. There are double-end bags, speed bags, jump ropes, mitts for punching drills, and even a truck tire to aid fighters with footwork.

Photos of Puerto Rico's most successful professional boxers -- Wilfredo Vázquez and Félix Trinidad -- share wall space with a score of motivational phrases.

Despite good intentions, the gym is fighting for its life. Soto is sparring with Osceola County officials on zoning issues, such as parking, but counts on "government types wanting to do what's best for the kids."

Mike Klein, administrator for the county's growth management division, which oversees zoning and code enforcement, predicts smooth sailing for the gym. He said a technical review committee looked at the gym's application and will recommend its approval to both the planning board and county commission.

Battling politicos is no new experience for Soto.

It took a face-to-face confrontation to persuade Arroyo's mayor to open a shut-down gym to for at-risk kids, many of whom were selling drugs on street corners because "they had nothing better to do," Soto said.

Regulations are just part of the gym's fight to stay open. Dues -- $10 weekly -- barely cover monthly rent.

But Soto is no quitter. When he wins, he says, the kids win.

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