JOEL DIAZ STANDS on the ring apron while there’s chaos all around him. In two rings beside each other, there are two fights going on at the same time. Instructions are yelled in four languages; English, Spanish, Uzbek and Russian. And if all that weren’t enough, there’s always someone calling his phone.

He’s on the main ring, next to the banner with his logo on it, a gamecock wearing boxing gloves, circled by the gym’s name: Joel Diaz Training Camp. The gym is located in California’s Coachella Valley, in the desert town of Indio, roughly 120 miles away from Los Angeles.

As the fists and shoulders of fighters brush by him, it looks as if their violence might spill over. He simply moves, resets and continues yelling.

“Jab! Jab!”

He stands, sometimes with his hands on the top rope and other times holding them behind his back. If he weren’t watching men fight, he’d look like an appraiser examining a piece of art. Despite having diminished vision, he sees everything, his single functioning eye darting in every direction.

He was just 23 years old when boxing took it from him. With his right eye gone, so too went his dreams. To make the hurt worse, he was one round short of qualifying for California’s boxer pension. In the nearly two years that followed, Diaz walked through nihilism’s dark desert as a man angry at God.

“Things happened for a reason,” he says. His gravelly voice, built for teaching people how to fight, makes you wonder whether he has found peace at 50 years old, or whether he’s too busy to give much thought to what he lost more than a half-life ago. While still yelling instructions, Diaz is organizing who’ll fight next. He’s showing fighters how to pivot their feet to maximize their leverage. He’s wrapping hands and tying gloves. He’s looking at a boxer’s pinkie to see how badly it’s hurt.

“Let me go grab my gun,” he says, “I’ll shoot that thing off.”

The boxer with the hurt pinkie laughs.

Diaz shouts between sneaking looks at two clocks. One to keep track of rounds. The other to keep track of his day. “One minute!” he screams inside the 6,995-square-foot gym. His voice rises above the rhythmic sounds of speed bags thumping, above the jump rope slapping the floor, above the grunts of those who sound as if they’re fighting for their lives.

“Ponle una putiza!” he yells at a Mexican boxer, imploring him to attack. “Work! Work! Work!” he shouts at no one and everyone at once.

“Time!” he says. The chaos stops.

Boxers walk around trying to catch a breath and get a drink for their burning throat. The thermostat says the gym is 75 degrees, but it feels hotter.

Between rounds, Diaz keeps teaching. He tells a boxer what he wants by showing it with his own body, moving his legs as if he’s evading punches. The boxer is one of several Eastern European and Central Asian boxers — from Uzbekistan and Russia mostly — who train here. The best known is Dmitry Bivol. Last May, Bivol beat Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, a boxer many considered the best in the world.

“It’s a good way to stay focused on training,” Bivol said of using Joel’s gym. Its isolation eliminates distractions. And although Joel has long been considered one of boxing’s best trainers, being part of Bivol’s team, and Bivol beating Canelo, who hadn’t lost in nine years, made people take further notice of what was happening in this boxing gym out in the desert. Other talents have learned from Joel’s assertive style of fighting. People like 2020 Olympic gold medal winner Bakhodir Jalolov and former welterweight champion (and soon to be Hall of Famer) Timothy Bradley Jr., to name a few.

“You got to come in like this,” he says, as he moves side to side while throwing punches. The boxer, a 2016 Olympic silver medalist from Uzbekistan named Bektemir Melikuziev — everyone calls him Bek The Bully — nods. Even if they share just a few words of a common language, they understand each other.

This is what Diaz does throughout the day. He trains about 20 professional boxers, and with three of them fighting the next day, tomorrow will be busy. He built his camp from the ground up, starting with a twice-burned-down building he bought ten years ago for $230,000 dollars.

“This is a bad area.” Diaz says, then immediately corrects himself. “Was a bad area.”

He’s talking about where his gym is, on the eastern side of the Coachella Valley. It was a high-crime area, known for drugs and prostitution. Not far from an abandoned gas station with a fading sign for cold beer and cheap motels with pools that’ve been filled in with sand and covered. The type of place that looks as if the things happening there are kept secret.

“I made it a good area,” he says.

World champions and contenders fight along with boxers early in their careers, risking it all for a shot at their dreams. Kids come after school to hit the bag and spar, too. Looking for something to do in a desert where it’s easy to get lost. Only a few of those kids will ever be good enough to box in amateur tournaments, but coming from here, all of them will have to fight. They’re kids with parents who are agricultural, construction or service workers.

“They come from nothing,” Diaz says. “A lot of the people are just like me. A lot of the boxers are just like me.”

IF YOU’VE HEARD of Coachella Valley — that place 45 miles long and 15 miles wide, surrounded by the San Jacinto, Santa Rosa and Little San Bernardino Mountains — chances are it’s because of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the yearly music and arts exhibition held every April. For three days on consecutive weekends, some of the biggest names in music perform in the country’s largest festival. Beginning in 1999, it has showcased acts as diverse as Guns N’ Roses, Beyonce and Kendrick Lamar. Last year, the event drew 750,000 attendees.

For six days, festival goers from across the country, and world, will pack into the 250 acres of the Empire Polo Club’s immaculate green fields. From noon until past midnight, they’ll listen to emerging artists and superstars alike. The festival is part of the valley’s annual $7.5 billion tourist industry that attracts more than 13 million people a year.

The small Palm Springs Airport will get so crowded it’ll be difficult to walk through. If hotel rooms are even available, some will double their usual price. Car share apps charge $40 for a two-minute ride to the festival grounds.

It’s one of the desert’s last major tourist events before the population plummets in the summer.

“It’s a different place, and a different world, within the same community.” That’s how state Assembly Member Eduardo Garcia describes the contrasts within Coachella Valley, part of the district he represents.

On the western side, it’s greener and bluer because of the golf courses, pools and artificial lakes. As the water supply diminishes, some of those golf courses consume up to a million gallons a day. That side is where most of the Coachella Valley’s tourist industry is centered. It’s where the snowbirds live in million-dollar homes and car dealerships sell Rolls-Royces and Lamborghinis that glisten in the sun.

“People are attracted to, and come here,” Garcia continues. “They’ll spend weeks and months here and a lot of money, which is good for our economy and our communities. But it’s just not the reality of the working families.”

While the Coachella Valley is a perfect winter escape for those with money, it’s also home to some of the country’s most fertile lands. Around the turn of the 20th century, the Colorado River was diverted, and water flowed into what was barren desert. Just about everything planted here came to life: watermelon, grapefruits, dates, squash, radish and cabbage, to name a few. The demand for labor followed. Mexican migration increased. And because of that, this place also has a long history of farmworkers fighting for their rights.

Fifty years ago here, around the time when a farmworker’s average life expectancy was 49 years old, the Coachella Grape Strike’s picket lines turned violent. With pipes, tire irons and brass knuckles, Teamsters tried to intimidate the United Farm Workers out of contracts with growers. Thirsty for liquid, the burning desert absorbed each drop of blood.

Reminders of that past are everywhere on the valley’s east side, in schools and parks named after Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. In the murals around downtown Coachella, like the one showing endless rows of fields along with the words, “Lucha Sin Fin.” In English it means “fight with no end.”

Across the street from that mural, there’s an old fire station on the corner of 6th Street and Vine Avenue. It’s now a restaurant. Decades ago, when this part of Coachella, the city — right next to Indio — looked abandoned, the building housed a crumbling boxing gym. That’s where Diaz and his brother Antonio (or Toño, as he’s commonly called) trained. It’s where Garcia once got punched in the face so hard he understood that boxing wasn’t for him.

That’s what ultimately led him to politics, becoming Coachella’s first elected mayor in 2006. And because boxing is everywhere here, he still follows it, especially when there are ties to this place. He says this side of Coachella is where fighters come from, and he swells with pride whenever he sees them on television.

“People come to this country for a better opportunity and a better life for their kids and their family, and they’re fighting every step of the way to make that happen,” Garcia says. “Those types of values and principles are instilled in the kids many times. And it sometimes translates to the actual, literal fight that is presented to us when we grow up in places like Coachella.”

“WE STARTED WITH THIS,” says trainer Librado “Lee” Espinoza, pointing at a yellowed newspaper article taped to the wall of his gym.

It’s the old gym that’s now a restaurant, the place where every day he and his fighters swept away plaster and pieces of concrete that fell from the walls. Cracks that looked like spider webs, spread across the cold floor in a place just big enough for a couple of heavy bags. The place looked so brittle, everyone worried that if an earthquake hit, it all would collapse.

There were so many fighters the city built Espinoza a 9,000 square foot gym and named it after him. It stayed open until 1996 and inside there was a plaque from when Garcia was mayor, listed beneath “Lee Espinoza Coachella Valley Boxing Club.” It hangs near the old newspapers next to photos of some of the fighters who have visited the gym.

Of those fading photographs on the gym wall, a lot of them are of the fighters he trained. Fighters who, for a variety of reasons, reached their level here, among the desert’s drab colors, instead of the bright lights of places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York. This is where the Diaz brothers learned to fight.

“Every time I went to a show or to a tournament, Lee would take five, six of us. Everybody would win, I would lose,” Toño says. Back then, to raise funds for travel, Lee sold raffle tickets where the prizes were pigs and cows and TVs. Toño says at that point, in his early teens, he just wasn’t dedicated enough.

Dedication was never a problem for Joel. “Nobody pushed me, I pushed myself,” he says, remembering how he’d wake up to run hours before school. Motivated because he’d discovered what he was good at, even if, when he first started, he’d come home with his shirt full of blood.

“I was a bleeder,” Joel explains.

He lost his first four amateur fights. But by the time he got to high school, he’d won 55 of his next 57 fights along with two national titles and knew exactly what he was born to do. He became a professional boxer.

In his first bout, a promoter paid him $400 then filed for bankruptcy as soon as the fight ended. “The f—ing check bounced,” Joel still remembers.

In his last fight, things were going well. As was his career overall, maybe not well enough where he could quit his construction job, but things were getting better.

He’d bought his parents used cars and earned enough for a down payment on a modest house where all nine of them — five brothers, two sisters, his mother and father — could live. He’d just gotten paid $20,000, the most he ever made boxing. That amount shocked him, considering $5,000 was the most he’d been paid until then. Joel was close to delivering on the promise he made to his mother, who didn’t want him fighting.

“One day, I’ll make money,” he told her. “You’ll see.” All he had to do was win and he’d fight for a world title.

He won. With the fight over, he saw a doctor about his right eye that’d been giving him problems. Toño knew about the problem because he’d been Joel’s sparring partner and saw how his brother couldn’t see the left hook. “You should tell someone,” Toño told Joel. He couldn’t risk losing the money or the opportunity, so he waited until after the fight.

“Mr. Diaz,” the doctor said, “you can’t fight anymore.” Joel’s retina was almost entirely detached. “You’re going to lose your eye,” the doctor warned.

The sense of urgency every boxer lives with was replaced by uncertainty. “This is all I know how to do.”

Joel was 23 years old.

He put away every trophy, plaque and medal he earned.

When the anger got too much, he’d drive to the mountains, as if trying to find answers.

He’d scream and yell. From all the rage he’d pass out in his car during the middle of night. “I’d wake up the next day, go home and try finding something to do,” he says.

ON A THURSDAY night in early April, when the valley’s mornings and evenings are still cool, there’s a growing tension in the last place where Diaz fought as a professional. Inside the Special Events Center’s dressing room, in the Fantasy Springs Casino Resort, a boxer is bleeding.

While wrapping his hands, Oscar Garcia, who helps train fighters at Diaz’s gym, accidentally cut Angel “Tito” Acosta, their boxer on the main event. It’s not a serious cut — a notch above a paper cut, on the meaty part of the palm closest to the thumb — but it hasn’t stopped bleeding.

“I’m going to call the doctor,” says Larry Ervin, an inspector with the California State Athletic Commission.

“No, it’s OK,” Garcia says, trying to keep the doctor away. “It’s just a nick.”

Diaz doesn’t know of the tension in the dressing room shared by three of his boxers on the Thursday night card. He might see everything, but he can’t be everywhere. And right now, Diaz is sitting behind the ring’s red corner, giving instructions to Leonardo Sanchez, a young southpaw, also from the Coachella Valley, who everyone calls Bazooka.

In the second fight on the card, another one of his fighters, Grant Flores Jr., is warming up for his second career fight by stretching and jumping around. Flores is 18 and has boxed since he was 7 years old. When Joel built his gym, Flores’ father, a carpenter, did the framing.

As Garcia wraps Acosta’s left hand, and Flores shadow boxes, Diaz returns to the dressing room. He sings a Chalino Sánchez song called “Recordando A Armando” that was playing earlier and must have gotten stuck in his head.

During his post-fighting years, Diaz worked as a bodyguard for the type of men Chalino wrote songs about.

“Tijuana, linda frontera, cómo te podré olvidar,” (or in English, “Tijuana, beautiful border how can I forget you?”) he sings. Since Bazooka won his fight, Diaz is happy. More than anything, he looks relieved. Until he finds out Acosta’s bleeding.

“Joel, do you have adrenaline?” Garcia asks him in Spanish.

Wondering why he’d need the bottle of adrenaline now, Diaz answers with a confused look.

“I accidentally cut Tito,” Garcia tells him as Diaz hands over the small dark bottle with a yellow label.

“It hasn’t stopped bleeding,” Ervin adds. “We’re waiting for the doctor.”

Diaz knows it was an accident. He and Garcia have known each other for nearly 40 years. He trusts him with his gym and with his boxers’ lives. With nothing else to do, Diaz stops singing and helps Flores warm up.

“What’s going on?” the doctor asks when he arrives a few minutes later. The doctor looks at Acosta’s hand as he hears the story. He dabs away the blood and looks at everyone. “It’s fine,” he says. “It’s a small, surface level cut.”

As soon as the doctor says all’s well, everyone’s able to joke. It’s like a light switch flipped. Diaz sings again, only stopping to tell Garcia to visit an optometrist. He says he will because next time he just might cut off Acosta’s finger.

“If Arely knew about this, she’d drop you with a punch to the liver,” Diaz tells Garcia.

“She’d have beat the s— out of me,” he answers while smiling.

Arely is Acosta’s wife. More than a partner, she’s Arely Muciño, the IBF flyweight world champion. The two met in 2018, at a boxing convention in Panama. Since they understood the discipline and sacrifices required to make a living from fighting, they became fast friends. Their relationship grew, brought closer by pain and uncertainty. The pain of losing a child during pregnancy. The pain of Muciño unexpectedly losing her father — who trained them both — in July 2021. The uncertainty of changing trainers that far into their careers.

They’ve been married for two years, splitting their time between Mexico, where she’s from, and Puerto Rico, where he’s from. But when it’s time to fight, they train in Diaz’s gym, in part because his strong personality reminds them of Muciño’s father. And because he doesn’t treat her any different than any of his other fighters.

“When I got here, I started sparring with men,” she says.

Flores wins his fight in the first minute. It’s his father’s birthday; the victory is part of his gifts. Diaz is back in the dressing room and back to joking with Garcia. Acosta laughs along. It’s a welcomed distraction from the importance of this fight. He’s 32 years old and wants to be a world champion again. If he wins tonight, against Angelino Cordova, who has never lost and is five years younger, they want to fight for the world championship next.

“Vamos Tito!” a voice among the many in the dressing room yells. It’s been almost 40 minutes since the sun set on Coachella Valley, and now it’s Acosta’s turn to fight.

Garcia tucks in his shirt and gives him a small squirt of water. Muciño comes into the locker room to say a prayer and Diaz gives him some last-minute advice. “Put him in the oven and slowly cook him, and when he’s done, take him out.”

Acosta walks down the hall, surrounded by about a dozen people. They all stand behind the heavy black curtain separating the dressing rooms from the ring. These are the fights away from the bright side of boxing; the big events with big money that attracts people from all over the country. If things go well for some of these boxers, maybe they’ll fight as the main event in those places. It’s a stepping stone to potential greatness in the profession.

The curtains part and the crowd chants Acosta’s name. Muciño walks beside him. She looks calm even if her stomach is full of nerves.

“It hurts me,” she says of watching her husband fight. When Muciño fights and Acosta watches, he feels the same. Whatever sense of peace they find, it comes from knowing they’ve done all they can to prepare.

Not just them, but everyone here. It’s the stomach pain from hunger while trying to make weight. It’s the sameness of a daily routine, made a bit easier by a few inside jokes at the gym. The reach for glory finally within their grasp.

They’ve sacrificed for all of this. Everyone here has.

GET UP, I want to meet you guys,” a man told Joel and his brother, Toño, then aged 11 and 5. He was big and tall and had a beard. “I’m your dad. I’ve been here so long, and I sent these guys to pick you up.”

“These guys” were the coyote and his family — his wife, mother and kids — who drove them for over a day from their rancho in the mountains of Michoacan, Mexico to an unincorporated part of eastern Coachella Valley. Until then the Diaz boys had been raised by their grandparents.

The man hugged them tight then picked them up. He put them in his truck and they drove the long way home out by the fields.

“This is where I work,” the father told his sons. His job was irrigation. Every day and every year, he’d turned so many spigots that his palm blistered then calloused. Maybe by showing them those fields, that’d help explain why he and their mother left and were apart for so long. Maybe that would help show how much they sacrificed.

The idea that it was easier to show the separation of Mexican farmworkers, than to explain it, was something that’d been happening for decades. The goal for many was always to work here, for a season or two, maybe longer, then return. To save money, so they could buy a house back home on the other side of the border. To sacrifice, doing backbreaking work, while being apart from the ones they loved.

After seeing those fields, the man drove them home where the Diaz brothers met their mother, sister and another brother.

As he explains it now, a few months after that experience, Joel walked into the boxing gym in downtown Coachella. He found his purpose in a strange world where he didn’t even speak the language. He fought because he saw it as his path to escape from the desert where the harsh realities of life operate at high decibels. At its best, it’s a low frequency hum. At its worst, a yell of desperation.

Toño fought too, even though he wanted to go to college, but that wasn’t financially possible. So he did what his brother did, he even won a minor world title. His promoter told him he’d soon fight for millions but that didn’t happen. Joel wanted to become world champion, but of course, that didn’t happen either.

So he made the best of it, and built a life with his wife and four kids. It’s this story of survival that explains why people in Coachella Valley’s east side are drawn to him. He could have left, opened a gym somewhere else, but he didn’t.

This energy, this level of commitment, is also one of the things that draws fighters to Indio. Yes, you can learn things here as a boxer that will help you win. But also, you can see up close what devotion looks like and learn how to overcome obstacles that would break less hearty souls.

ACOSTA LOST. When the announcer reads the judges’ scores, the crowd boos. Diaz throws up his frustrated hands. And because there was nothing left to do, they all exit the ring and return behind the thick black curtain.

The air is full of questions and the quiet confusion of trying to figure out what went wrong and what they could have done different. Maybe it was the cheat meal from a few weeks ago. Maybe a couple miles more of running and a few rounds more of sparring. Maybe a thousand other things and it would’ve been different. Garcia just raises his eyebrows and gives the slight shrug of “I don’t know.”

“The doctor says if you want to go to the hospital, they can take you,” a member of the team translates for Acosta.

“Tengo que ir?” He asks if he must go. He’s sitting in a foldable metallic chair, getting his post-fight medical examination. And in the cruel world of boxing, as he sits there and his team stands near, they can hear the voice of the man who just beat them. He’s still in the ring, talking into a microphone, saying he wants to fight for a world championship next.

“No, you don’t have to go,” the man tells him, “Only if you want to.” He doesn’t go.

He returns to the dressing room that not even an hour before had been so full of excitement. As a couple, one of Mucino and Acosta’s goals was to be world champions at the same time. With this loss, that now becomes more difficult.

He sits on the couch, his face is disfigured and bruised. The small cut on his right palm has long ago stopped bleeding, but that’s the last thing on anyone’s mind. There’s a lump on the back of the right side of his head. He says he won the fight and wants a rematch. “Cordova was a tough opponent,” Acosta says. “But he kept hitting me behind the head.”

Diaz and Garcia put away the tools used to help their boxers fight. The Vaseline and the cotton swabs. The bags of ice to help ease the swelling between rounds. Everyone else, including Muciño — whose voice is hoarse from yelling throughout the fight — stands around, trying to process the loss.

THE FOLLOWING AFTERNOON Diaz leaves for San Antonio where he’ll join his brother. But not before a full day of training. It’s Friday and that means it’s sparring day for his pros.

And so, it’s back to yelling commands and instructions. Back to the chaos of the boxing gym where the hungry people fight.

“I got to get these guys ready,” Diaz says. One of those guys is Bek The Bully, who’ll rematch against Gabe Rosado on April 22. Since he speaks little English, around the gym he’s congratulated on the opportunity to avenge the sole loss of his career. “Rosado, Rosado,” other boxers tell him. They make a fist, then give him a thumbs up. He nods as he smiles and makes a fist too.

No loss is good, but Diaz says he’s learned from it. In a fight he’d been dominating, Bek dropped his guard for a literal second and suffered a sudden and violent knockout. Another loss to Rosado, and the only thing to learn from it might be that his potential isn’t as high as they all thought.

The day after Diaz is gone, Muciño and Acosta will leave too. They aren’t sure yet whether they’ll go to Mexico or Puerto Rico first. Wherever it is, they’ll rest and enjoy the things they’ve denied themselves for months. Muciño has a fight sometime in June or July, so in a few weeks, they’ll return to train again in the Coachella Valley.

In about a week from Acosta’s fight, the Coachella music festival will start. Bad Bunny, as the most streamed artist on Spotify for three consecutive years and who might be the biggest musical act in the world, will be headlining. Social media influencers will be there too, charging thousands of dollars for a single post. And though the festival is on the east side, about four miles from Joel’s gym, most of the tourists will stay on the west side of Coachella Valley. They’ll come and leave along with the part-time residents that make this place their part-time home.

In a couple of months, the heat will be so unbearable those who can buy their way out will. The brutal sun will make the gym in that once-bad place, so hot that in between rounds, boxers will drink their water and stand beneath the air conditioning vents that work best. They’ll run their daily miles and their feet will feel as if they’re on fire. And yet, the professionals, who aren’t from here, will return because, despite the heat, they come to train with Diaz.

“The gallo is the bravest animal in the world,” Diaz answers when I ask him why the gamecock is in the middle of his gym’s logo. “Even when he’s dead, he’s still fighting.”

That, along with intelligence, is how he trains everyone here to fight.

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How a trainer in California’s Coachella Valley built one of the most important boxing gyms in the world