I said I’d write about my last fight, but something else happened about a month before that I want to address first. Not only is it more important, but it feeds into my last fight and will make more sense. So that story will be told in the next installment—as a continuation of this one. I do my best not to mention names of people who may or may not want to have their business out in public, but I have to talk about Little Juan. (Well, talk some—but mostly show pictures.)
Little Juan Ocampo died in a car accident close to home on September 29th, 2014, at the age of 19. He was the passenger in an SUV driving too fast in rain on the interstate very close to both the gym and his home. He was the only one who died; another passenger was taken to the hospital. He went through the windshield and shattered the heart of the gym.
I found out about our loss when Terri (our trainer) texted a group of us a link to a news article (here, and later here) along with a picture of her with him. The picture was taken at the weigh-in for his first boxing match, which was on Atlanta Corporate Fight Night 7, our first boxing promotion since opening Buckhead Fight Club.
Before the gym had even been open for one week, “Little” Juan Ocampo joined and took up residence with us. He would come train in the morning, hang out and talk for half the day, run off, and then return to train again in the evening. He kept this up all summer. He lied a couple of times about his age, but it turns out he was 18 at the time. He was great company, and a real talker—he knew everybody and everybody knew him. He wouldn’t leave the gym until he’d said bye to every person there. Sometimes his friends from outside the gym would come looking for him at the gym, because that’s where they knew to find him.
Every Juan in the gym has a nickname so that we can tell which Juan we’re talking about, and “Little” Juan came right after “First” Juan (who joined a day or two earlier). It was a bit of a joke because he was actually relatively tall, but he was young and that made him little. :) It was also definitely a term of affection because he was our Little Juan and we loved him no matter how big he kept growing.
After that summer of hanging out with us, he came and went—sometimes for months at a time. He always came back, though. Sometimes just for a couple of days; sometimes for a steady few months. That’s part of why it was so hard to believe he was dead after we learned about the crash, because it was normal for him to be gone for a while. We still expected him to come back any day, running down the stairs.
Not long before he died, Terri told him to claim a locker at the gym so that he could stop leaving his things in the open. I happened to have a lock that I wasn’t using, so I gave it to him. I didn’t trust him to remember his lock combination, so I wrote it down to keep it in case he forgot. To his credit, he never forgot his combination—but the fact that I kept the numbers means we were able to open it and return his belongings to his family. The locker is empty now, but we locked it back up and put his name and picture on it.
Remember how I said that his friends and sometimes family would come by the gym to find him? This continued after he died (overwhelmingly so). Family dropped in as if they wanted to connect with the place he loved. It was hard to see them come in crying, wanting to hear stories about him. I’d end up crying, too. His friends would come by, as well. One guy called the gym for information about the funeral, because he wasn’t able to get in touch with his family any other way. He hugged me at the funeral and thanked me for making sure he didn’t miss it.
Even months later, every now and then, someone comes in and sees his picture and tells me that they knew him. (He knew everybody, because there isn’t a person in the world that he’d turn his back on.) People who don’t know about him ask questions, too, because his picture is all over the gym.
That week, his family asked if they could hold a vigil in the gym, and we did. The car accident was on Monday; the vigil was on Thursday evening. We didn’t know what to expect, but I was overwhelmed by the number of people and their singing and grieving. We had his picture set up in the ring with some of his belongings (his backpack!), flower arrangements, candles…
That was rough. I stayed on the outskirts because I couldn’t handle being close.
His funeral was held Friday, October 3rd, at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church. Between there and the burial at Gwinnett Memorial Park, I was amazed to see how many people attended, and especially people that I recognized from the gym—some of whom hadn’t been around in a really long time.
He’s still our boy, with a prominent place in the gym. Little Juan was anything but little. His big heart changed my life.
One day—after he died but before his funeral—I was babysitting and the toddler and I were out on a walk on a sunny morning. When we walked past this rose bush, I thought the dewy petals were so beautiful (like life, somehow, I don’t know). I had to take a picture and stop to admire them… trying to get the 1.5 year-old to do the same. I posted the rose as my profile picture on Facebook and someone (who didn’t know anything about what was going on) commented that it was a “knockout” rose.
On November 1st, 2014, we held Latin Fight Night: “Dia de los Muertos” (Day of the Dead) at Buckhead Fight Club. You see, months earlier, we had already sanctioned this promotion to feature local Latin amateur boxers. Once Juan died, suddenly the show felt very heavy: while it might’ve looked like any boxing show in the entertainment business capitalizing on a traditional holiday, for us it was solely dedicated to Little Juan.
More about that next.