It's very easy to fall through the cracks of society as a young fledgling — especially if there is no support system and no one who cares. But for one boy there was hope, thanks to the foresight of one school counsellor and the patience of a coach.
Brandon Esquega was quickly losing his footing on the slippery slope of life and the last of his hopes of getting an education had faded away.
Born on the Fort William First Nation and growing up in Thunder Bay, Esquega found himself in too many altercations that were destroying his young life.
Having been tossed out of St. Patrick’s High school for fighting, Esquega wound up at Westgate Collegiate. It wasn’t long before trouble came knocking and the teen had to fight again.
“The first fight was from a problem I had with a kid and all the other fights were — you know — once you fight a kid another one wants to fight you because you fought his friend,” said the 16-year-old. “Once I fought one kid, everyone wanted to fight me.”
Esquega was sent to what he called “programs” where he met a group of (shady) people.
“I started drinking lots, like every day, and I started smoking cigarettes,” he said.
A trail of teachers, principals and counsellors with their hands in the air couldn’t figure out what to do with the this boy and sadly, all of them showed him the door.
Except for one councellor.
“The vice principal at Westgate put me in counselling and the counsellor asked me why I got kicked out of St. Patrick’s,” said Esquega. “I told her the reason I got kicked out was for fighting. ‘Have you ever heard of the Underground Gym?’ she asked me? I said ‘No.’”
This consellor set out to connect Esquega with the Underground Gym’s Peter Panetta, who works with area youth by training with martial arts style fighting — particularly boxing.
Little did the teen know, but his life was about to be turned completely around.
“She set me up with an appointment with Peter (Panetta) and I ended up coming to meet him that day,” recalled Esquega. “I made lots of new friends here — there are good people here.”
But “people” from the past kept crossing paths with Esquega and tried to lure him back into the darkness of the streets.
Young, vulnerable and with no solid path, Esquega found it easy to drift back into the abyss and the bad habits again.
But something in the back of his mind kept telling him that there has to be a better way. This lifestyle was wrong.
“I was hanging out with the wrong crowd and these people wanted me to join a gang,” he said. “I had to think it over lots and I went to the Underground Gym and I talked with Peter about it.”
Panetta listened and told him about a (tentative) fight that was coming up — and this piqued Esquega’s curiosity.
The fight date wasn’t confirmed, but the promise of training under Panetta to fight “properly and skillfully” was very appealing.
“I sort of started coming back to the gym slowly to train and I guess the fight became confirmed and that’s when I stopped drinking and I stopped smoking cigarettes and started (seriously) training,” he said.
With time racing on, and only street fighting under his belt, Esquega recognized the parameters and what needed to be done.
“It was about five weeks before the fight so I had to get my endurance up because I was smoking a bunch of cigarettes,” he recalled before picking up his training to the tune of running every day.
But all the training in the world could not give Esquega the confidence of a seasoned fighter who has seen the inside of the squared circle. This was all very new, intimidating and downright frightening. This fight meant a display of his skills and technique — something that is never seen-or learned in street fighting — something he was just discovering.
The fight came and Esquega described it as being “pretty intense.”
“On the way (to the Buffalo House in Duluth) I kept thinking, ‘Oh my God, am I going to win or lose?’ I don’t want to lose.’” he said. "Anxiety kicked into high gear and (Panetta) noticed I was scared. He did this thing telling me, ‘a real short guy might just come and pound you.’ I was scared.” But the Panetta was trying to make him see the worse that could happen and set him up to want to win.
Once in the ring, Esquega’s nerves got the best of him and things were panning out just like Panetta told him.
“And that’s exactly what happened — this little guy wound up pounding me in the first round,” said Esquega.
This caused him to lose the first round, along with any confidence that he mustered up, and any hopes of winning.
Esquega went blank.
“I was in the moment. I wasn’t thinking and I wasn’t hearing anything at the time. I was focused on this kid here,” he said. “It was an adrenaline rush, I guess.”
Esquega recalled the first advice that they gave him but with nerves and anxiety in the way, he “didn’t really hear it.
“When the second round came I was like, I can’t let him do this to me and he came charging at me again.” He said his opponent, Ian Bloom, got him against the ropes and caught him off guard.
Then something happened.
“We both threw a punch at the same time and I got him and he just barely got me. His shot was not effective because he didn’t throw it right,” he explained.
Esquega’s powerful punch, placed at the right spot, was a game changer that empowered him. He now had control of the fight for the first time.
“That’s where I built my confidence back up.” he added.
Panetta later explained that Esquega is a south paw (lefty), which is a great advantage for him in the ring. He used his long arms to keep his opponent away with frequent jabs.
“Brandon set him up with a jab, jab, jab and followed through with a straight right, and he connected beautifully.” said Panetta. By the third round, Esquega had total control.
“He found his range,” beamed Panetta.
“Once he did that, his opponent could not attack anymore. He tried, but was not able to connect with Brandon because he just didn’t have the range and Brandon did. In other words, Brandon found his mojo,” laughed Panetta.
“The third round was pretty intense because we were both exhausted and it came down to who wanted it more — and I did,” said Esquega.
“When the decision came, I felt pretty good how I turned this around — and I saw the crowd.”
Bloom, his opponent, was a Duluth boy who was competing in his hometown and everybody was cheering for him.
“It was intense and I was like, ‘I better win. I better win . . . and then the referee put my hand up I was like, ‘YEAH!’”
Panetta said Esquega is not going to be intimidated by someone coming at him. He has been in enough street fights to take a few punches.
“Brandon is very talented. There is something about him and he is a fighter,” said Panetta. “He grew up fighting but now he put technique with conditioning and skill and put everything together to learn how to fight properly in the ring . . . and now he doesn’t need to fight on the streets anymore.”
But winning the fight for Esquega was bittersweet. There was that crowd, cheering for Bloom.
“Once we finished the fight, we got out of the ring and I heard all his friends telling him, “we’ll see you at school on Monday,’” Esquega said.
“I felt like I never had that. I couldn’t go to school and tell all my friends about my fight — so I got a job and I’m working towards getting back into school.
Esquega’s dream is to go back to high school to get his diploma. He is working hard to find his way back into the education system — if not just for bragging rights — but just to make some quality friends and have some semblance of a normal student’s life.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been to school with all my friends,” he said.
A little self esteem can go a long way for someone, especially if they have never felt its empowerment before. Esquega has found a part-time job in the area near the Underground Gym and not only collects a pay check, but collects co-op credits that he can use toward his dream of a high school diploma.
He is currently out of town for the summer for the job and, yes, Esquega has also begun training to compete in boxing at the provincial level.