Born Again Ex-Gang Banger and Pugilist, Now Minister, Servando Perales Makes Victory Boxing Club His Mission Church for Saving Youth from the Streets
It’s doubtful that another amateur boxing club has received as much ink and video coverage in the short time Victory Boxing has since starting about a decade ago. The magnet for the attraction is founder Servando Perales, whose personal story of transformation and redemption and unbridled passion for helping at-risk youth are the driving forces behind his boxing gym. The gym is really his mission church and sanctuary for getting kids out of the gang life that consumed him and landed him in prison. That’s where his own turnaround began. If you’re a boxing fan, then check out the boxing category on the right — I have many stories there about pro and amateur fighting, past and present.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Rev. Servando Perales and his faith-based Victory Boxing Club at 3009 R Streets is a story of redemption laced with irony. He’s eager to share the story at its April 25 grand opening, when from 1 to 3 p.m. the public’s invited to experience the program USA Boxing magazine recently named national club of the month.
In terms of redemption, consider how this one-time boxer and gang-banger from south Omaha survived The Life of a drug dealer-abuser only to undergo a profound transformation in prison. Behind bars Perales found God with the help of fellow con Frankie Granados, an old friend he’d run with on the outside. Granados already had his own born again experience in the pen and he worked on Servando to take the plunge, too. It took time but Perales finally “surrendered.”
On the curious side, consider that Victory head coach John Determan is both a former corrections officer and cop. He donated Victory’s first ring. He appreciates the oddity of a gringo badge and a Latino fist teaming up.
“I knew him as a bad guy when I was a cop,” said Determan, a former Mills County (Iowa) deputy. “That’s what’s cool, you know — bad guy-cop coming together to do something like this,” said Determan, whose son Johnny, a nationally-rated 119-pound amateur, and daughter Jessica, a former amateur world champ, train there.
Beyond their lawman-outlaw roles, Determan and Perales knew one another from boxing circles. They even traded blows in the ring when the older Determan was a journeyman pro fighter and Perales a feisty young amateur. They dispute who got the better of each other in those long ago sparring sessions.
Fighting’s not all they share in common. Both are devout Christians. Determan ran a faith-based boxing club in Glenwood, Iowa. The evangelists boldly fly their Christian colors at Victory, whose “t” is an oversized cross with a pair of boxing gloves hanging from it. A wooden cross adorns a wall inside, where Perales ends pep talks with, ‘You guys ready for the risen Lord? Alright, amen.’” The pair hold weekly Bible studies on Thursdays. All part of the signs and wonders that distinguish Victory from other gyms, where Christ is more apt to be an expletive than a prayer.
“The thing that separates us from all the other ones is that we’re Christ-centered,” said Perales. “We do not waver our faith, our values, and we stand firm on who can change a person’s life, and it’s Jesus Christ. That’s my strong belief and that’s what sets us apart. That’s why you see 30 kids in here. It’s not because we’re the best coaches or because we have the best fighters, it’s because they sense a presence of God in this place. I actually believe that.
“We acknowledge that God is the only one that can change circumstances and change people. If He did it for me he can do it for anybody.”
“It’s great when we have our Bible studies,” Determan said. “They’re really hot topics where we talk to the kids about things they might struggle with and they’re hearing it from two perspectives — the gang member and the cop. And that’s one of our testimonies to our kids — that it doesn’t matter who anybody is, skin color, background or any of that, you can come together.”
Perales, a father of five, said the fact he and Determan can speak with first-hand authority about both sides of the law, gives them an edge in dealing with kids who may have problems at home or school and be veering off track.
“They can’t pull a fast one over on either one of us,” said Perales, whose gym serves members ages 10 and up. The coaches field calls from kids at all hours.
“Servando knows the challenges some young people face, having traveled that road himself, so he has an incredible ability to relate. His story is real and he has much credibility with youngsters. Consequently, he’s very effective, especially in helping troubled youth be positive and productive citizens,” said Martinez.
When storm damage made Victory’s previous site uninhabitable last summer, the gym was homeless. Martinez told a friend about it. Perales and the benefactor met and Victory soon had a spacious new home in the former Woodson Center.
“Actually, we wouldn’t be in this building had it not been for (ex) deputy chief Martinez. He’s the one who helped us get in this building by introducing us to a gentleman that actually put $65,000 up for this building,” said Perales.
A Weed and Seed grant purchased a new ring. The minister sees Victory as a partner with law enforcement to provide safe havens and activities. The gym hosts all-night lock-ins, takes kids camping and has them participate in community events, from parades to Easter egg hunts. Cops are frequent visitors. Some come to train, others just to kick it with kids. “We have a lot of cops that are friends,” Perales said. “Law enforcement is really deep out here. They’re strong. The gang unit, I know those guys personally. I grew up with them. We’re working, we’re doing everything in our power to keep the streets of south Omaha safe.”
It’s only logical the local Latino Peace Officers Association (LPOA) is a major backer of the gym, given its makeup and location in Hispanic-rich south Omaha and the club’s predominantly Hispanic members. But what you wouldn’t expect is that past LPOA president Virgil Patlan, the man who arrested Perales in ‘96 in a bust that sent Perales away for 18-months, ardently champions Victory. Once on opposite sides of the law, Patlan and Perales are friends and admirers today.
Perales attributes this turn of events to divine whimsy. “Yeah, God has a sense of humor, man — He put an ex-gangster and a cop together, and all for the glory of God,” said Perales, whose tats are remnants of the old life he left behind.
Patlan admits being dubious of Servando’s change of heart until hearing him preach and talking with him. “I was real skeptical at first because you hear this all the time about cons,” said Patlan. “It took a lot of ice-breaking but we became good friends. I knew he had a heart to help young people. I knew he didn’t want them to go through what he went through. I know if someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes — he’s not. He’s authentic, he’s genuine.”
An Omaha Police Department retiree, Patlan is an active community advocate and neighborhood association volunteer. He and Perales collaborate on projects.
“I think that’s where the trust and the respect came for each other,” said Patlan, “and we’ve just kept doing programs for the neighborhood.”
A program they formed called This is Your Neighborhood makes presentations to school-age kids about the evils of gang affiliation-activity and the importance of staying in school. By his late teens Perales was incorrigible and got expelled from South High. His troubles escalated after that. It’s why Victory requires members abide by a strict code of conduct that includes maintaining good grades and refraining from swearing, gang signs and any disrespectful behavior.
Since Victory’s inception Patlan’s helped with donations. He and his wife are planning a “fun run” to raise funds for the program’s operating expenses. Patlan and Perales share so many values they don’t dwell on the divergent paths that led them to the close bond they enjoy today.
“Now I don’t even think of it. It’s natural. We call each other brother,” said Patlan.
Something more than fate led Perales back to his roots. Before he got mixed up in a gang, he trained under Kenny Wingo at the Downtown Boxing Club. The promising amateur soon wasted his potential, using his skills to protect turf and wreak havoc. After his conversion and ‘97 prison release Perales turned pro. “The Messenger” once fought on the undercard of a world heavyweight bout. He hung up the gloves with a 9-5 record. His heart wasn’t in it anymore.
Between matches he’d already begun missionary work with at-risk kids in his old South O stomping grounds — steering youths away from bad influences he’d succumbed to and bad choices he’d made. His regular job as a YMCA membership coordinator reflects the Christian outreach he’s felt drawn to. Unable to ignore the call to serve, he was ordained a minister in the Assemblies of God Church in 2005. He launched Victory in his garage that same year, using “the gift of boxing” to coach/mentor/minister kids from the same streets he ran wild on.
“This is my church,” he said of Victory. “God called me to do this. It wasn’t by accident I boxed for 20 years. But with that comes responsibility, man.”
It’s no accident the Downtown club let an alum — Perales — train his kids there after the storm left Victory homeless. No accident he reunited with Determan, who took over Downtown after Wingo died. They’re family. It’s all come full circle for Perales. He sees in kids today the same hunger for love he craved at their age.
“Hopefully, God-willing, they learn and they feel valued here, because that’s the thing man — they’re all searching really for a sense of belonging,” said Perales, whose alcoholic father ditched the family. “For the most part they embrace our values and they love it here. 90 percent come to the Bible studies, and it’s optional. They want to be there. We tell ‘em, ‘You don’t have to join gangs to belong to something bigger than yourself. You don’t have to be a follower, man, you can be a leader.’ And that’s why were here — to provide that outlet.”
He said kids find escape at Victory from lives on the edge. “There’s maybe a couple I keep a close eye on and talk to one-on-one,” he said. Impressive prospect Luis Rodriguez, a gang member before Perales turned him onto Christ and boxing, “is one I think about a lot,” Perales said, “He’s been with me for about three years. I keep him very close to him. He and his little brother Ezekiel. They really respect our values.” Success stories include three Victory alums now in the military.
Peer pressure though is a constant worry. “I’m not going to lie, some kids have come and gone,” said Perales. “They didn’t embrace our values. They didn’t like the fact they couldn’t cuss, they couldn’t bag and sag, they couldn’t fight out on the streets. We’re not teaching them how to box so they can go out and hurt people. That’s what I did and I regret every minute of it.”
Victory’s road from humble beginnings to its envied new 10,000 square foot facility is the start of “a dream” Perales has to create a full-service “hope center.” A rec room’s set-up but computers are needed. The kitchen needs a new stove and fridge. The training area holds two rings and assorted bags and free weights but boxing equipment wears out fast. Hundreds of spectators can fit on the main level and balcony for boxing shows, which provide revenue for the nonprofit gym. But Victory struggles making the $2,000 monthly rent. Overdue repairs await fixes.
Meanwhile, he said, grant monies have run out. More donations would secure Victory’s future as a community center. “It’s got so much potential, there’s so much room to grow. But one day at a time. It’s only been five months since we moved in,” he said. He’s counting on the grand opening adding new members and support. “I’ve personally invited all the organizations in this community and hopefully they’ll make it out.”
He worries but then he remembers to trust in his Higher Power. “We’ve been walking in faith the whole time. He hasn’t left us yet. He didn’t bring us here to leave us hanging. He opened this door for us. I know He’ll take care of us.” Amen.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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