Boxer fighting to improve his community

Shawn Estrada (left) lost to the eventual gold medalist at the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Shawn Estrada was on his way home from school, doing what most 15-year-olds do, when his life changed forever. He saw yellow police tape and a mass of people around his home just outside Los Angeles.

He dropped his belongings and sprinted to the house, elbowing his way through the crowd, to find his 24-year-old brother, Eric, lying on the ground, shot, caught in the crossfire of a gang shooting.

Of his 16 siblings, Shawn was particularly close to Eric, who – along with his father, Juan – had helped coach him in track and boxing.

Juan Estrada, the family patriarch and a member of the 1968 Mexican Olympic boxing team, spent hours with his sons, Eric and Shawn, going to track meets and practices and back and forth to the gym for boxing training. Juan was Shawn's coach, Eric his top assistant.

His brother would die of his wounds, leaving a hole in Shawn's heart which could never possibly heal. But it also created a determination in him to make a difference. He didn't want to just acknowledge the problems; he wanted to play a role in solving them.

And now, at 25, the 2008 U.S. Olympian and professional super middleweight prospect is taking the step to honor his brother's memory and solve his community's problems. He's one of five candidates running for two spots on the city council in Commerce, Calif., a poor community of about 12,000 southeast of Los Angeles, where about one in five residents live below the poverty line.

Estrada has released a slick flyer outlining his positions: lower trash and water rates; the elimination of government waste; the promotion of job fairs. But, truth be told, those objectives are all secondary to his primary goal.

"We've got to do something to keep our kids busy and off the streets," the 25-year-old said resolutely. "That's a big priority – it's critical."

Estrada knows firsthand the dangers of the streets in Commerce, where gangs patrol and the violence is frequent. Estrada grew up on these streets and understands the delicate balance that exists between success and failure and, indeed, between life and death.

Now a promising fighter with an 11-0 record, 10 knockouts and the look of a future champion, Estrada decided it was time to do something about the problems he'd seen in the area for years. He and his buddy, Walter Sarnoi, had long talked of making a difference, of improving their community by making it a safer and friendlier place.

Sarnoi, who is running for a council seat in nearby Monterrey Park, said he and Estrada had long conversations about ways they could help for as long as he could remember.

"Shawn always felt a very strong sense of duty and obligation to give back, to do something for the people here – especially the kids," Sarnoi said.

After Eric died, Shawn knew he had to find a way to do something to honor his brother. The thought that Eric's was such a preventable death couldn't escape him. Give the kids something to do, Shawn thought, and provide them with role models to show them the right way, and they wouldn't seek the company of gangs.

A decade later, that's his impetus for running for office. Yeah, the water rates and the trash bills are too high. Maybe the government is spending money on things which don't make sense. Unemployment is a major problem, as it is throughout the country.

But the real problem here, Shawn determined, was the kids.

"Politics is a tough business; I know that," he said. "But I also know this community needs to do something to make its kids a priority. We have to put more money into our schools and we have to put money into finding ways to give our kids positive things to do. We need to keep them busy in sports and give them an alternative to the trouble that is out there."

Boxing was Shawn's vehicle. From an early age, he showed promise. He was a big, strong and fearless kid who excelled at the fight game almost from the first time he walked into the gym.

His father, a garment cutter, loved boxing and made no secret of his desire to see Shawn fight. He was so insistent that, briefly, Shawn rebelled and moved into a friend's garage because he was so tired of hearing about boxing from his father.

But Shawn loved it too. Not only that – he was good at it. He'd won scores of amateur tournaments and had long been one of the best fighters in the country in his weight class. When he qualified for the Olympic team, it was one of the great moments of his life.

Before he did, though, he nearly lost his mentor. Juan Estrada became ill early in 2008 and was given mere weeks to live. He ordered his large family to keep the secret from Shawn so as not to distract him from qualifying for the Olympics.

Shawn never knew and made the team, as his father had in Mexico four decades earlier. But he got an inkling something was wrong when his father, with heart, kidney and liver problems, didn't fly to Beijing with him.

Juan was not long for this world, but he wanted more than anything to see his son in the Olympics, to see him stand on the podium with a medal around his neck. The same instructions were given to the family as had been issued earlier in the year: The severity of his condition was off limits to Shawn.

His father was lying on the precipice of death, the family listening to the television broadcast of the fight on their mobile phones, as Shawn Estrada dropped his second-round bout to eventual gold medalist James DeGale.

A few hours later, Juan Estrada died.

Shawn was devastated. But he also wanted to honor his father. He vowed to be the best fighter he could be as a pro, to make his father proud. More than that, though, he wanted to be a difference maker.

What better legacy could his father leave than for his son to become a community leader, to help beat the misery that enveloped many in this small, poor city?

"I know he's looking down on me and I want to make him proud," Shawn said.

And so he goes about his business on two fronts. His promoter, Dan Goossen, is a longtime boxing man who knows talent when he sees it. A powerful 168-pounder, Estrada is the real deal, Goossen says. Not only is he talented, he has the kind of style which draws people to watch him.

Estrada is not a cautious, defensive fighter. He loves to mix it up, to make the crowd rise to its feet and roar at the action.

"He's the type of fighter fans like – a real rough-and-tumble guy," Goossen said. "The first time you see him, you know you don't want to miss any more of his fights because of the way he fights. He has a mindset of going out and knocking someone out. In today's world, in whatever sport it is, as much as the sweet science is still practiced, people like brutality and seeing knockdowns and knockouts.

"It's part of why a football game can generate 100 million viewers, why the people watching hockey get so excited by the fights. They want to see knockdown, drag-out battles, and that's the kind of fighter he is. He's an attacking, entertaining fighter."

Estrada is coming off a first-round knockout of Jon Schmidt on Jan. 28 and has no fights scheduled so that he can focus on his March 8 election. He's running for one of two seats against four other candidates. Being organized, prioritizing his work, will be crucial.

Estrada is still a novice as a fighter – "He's still learning and developing," Goossen says – but he's even more inexperienced as a politician. He figures his passion for the city and its people, in combination with the discipline and work ethic he learned from boxing, will set him apart from the other contenders. Who could resist, he says, a candidate who would work as long as it took and fight any battle that needed to be fought to benefit the voters?

"Politics are really rough and I'm ready for that," he said. "I'm as committed to this as can be. I have good people around me, advising me, and I'm learning a lot and working a lot. I think I can make a difference, and so I'm going to give everything I have to this election."

Who knows if he'll be able to lower the trash bill? Who can predict if he'll cut the water rate? But if there is one thing the voters in the City of Commerce should know by now, it's that Shawn Estrada is going to fight and fight and fight and never give up.

If effort, desire and determination mean anything, Estrada figures to be the best councilman in the city's history. He may become a bigger champion outside the ring than he will in it. And that's a good thing.