Howard Mena does not pull punches when he talks about the community of boxers he coaches at his hardscrabble gym.
“This is old school boxing at an old school boxing gym,” he says with an easy smile. “It’s just a matter of time before it breaks loose for us. Just takes hard work and dedication.”
It’s 5:30 a.m., more than hour before dawn, but the unmistakable sounds of a boxing gym—the dull punches to the heavy bag, the hollow of the boxing ring floor as pugilists light into each other, and Coach Mena’s short, terse coaching—can all be heard even outside the plain, off-white, pre-fab building in the middle of a row of oilfield service companies just south of Hobby Airport.
Outside, fluorescent light spills from raised garage doors into a still-dark side yard filled with massive truck tires used for training. Inside, 90’s-era hip-hop fills the gym as contenders hit heavy bags and speed bags and dance to and fro, bobbing and weaving. Everyone keeps an eye on the boxing ring in the middle of the gym as two young men pummel each other with flurries of punches.
Mena, 61, and his 36-year-old son, Howard Jr., shout to keep them moving.
Some of the fighters have years of experience, while others are just getting into the sport. The older Mena has seen it all. He grew up in Houston, taking boxing lessons at the YMCA.
He learned his craft from Kenny Weldon, a Houston legend. Photos filling his Wall of Fame at the gym are a testament to the sport that took him all over the world. In one photo, he’s smiling next to the illustrious boxing promoter Don King. In another, there’s Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini. Mena stops to talk about working with the infamous New York promoter Lou Duva, then moves on to mention the next photo of him standing next to a different legend. It’s a lifetime of boxing history.
His passion shines through as he rattles off places he’s boxed, fighters he’s trained and epic match-ups he’s participated in.
“Las Vegas, Glasgow, The Prince Albert Hall in London,” he said. “I have a pretty good resume in the fight game,”
In the middle of his career, Mena joined the Marines and was captain of the All-Marine Boxing Team. After getting out, he went pro, but his career was cut short because of injuries from a car wreck.
No longer able to fight professionally, he began managing, training, and mentoring fighters, and has led several to become successful professional boxers.
“He’s got that Marine Corps mentality,” Howard Jr. muses about his father’s intensity. “We take people and build them up, train them up from where their fitness level is.”
Their gym, filled with other trainers, volunteers and boxers, could be mistaken for a CrossFit warehouse, with men and women jumping rope, sweating through crunches and stretching out. Gym hours follow training hours: Monday through Friday 5 a.m. to noon, and 6-9 p.m.
“Some trainers do a lot more conditioning than technique, and some do more technique than conditioning; we hit it right down the middle,” Howard Jr. said. “We do 50/50 conditioning and technique. And we use old-school training methods.”
The father said he was proud to base his gym in the Hobby Area, just outside the shadow of the flight path.
“It’s just a matter of time before the Hobby Airport Area will have a couple of World Champions,” he says wryly. “I promise.”
Mena’s Boxing Club
“Champions of the Underdogs”
7792 Branff St.
— By Brian Rogers