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Mexico City family still makes the boxing gloves of champions

Ofelia Valencia Heras puts together boxing gloves on 1 August at the Cleto Reyes factory in Toluca, Mexico. Cleto Reyes Boxing gloves are used by professional boxers around the world and considered the best in the industry.

One day about 10 years ago, a package from China landed on Alberto Reyes's desk. Inside was a knock-off pair of his company's signature Cleto Reyes boxing gloves. The copies looked identical, but the Chinese factory offered to make them for Reyes for just 11 euros a pair, far less than what he spends on manufacturing in Mexico.

It was a chance to turn his company into a cash machine. Then Reyes began to scrutinise the Chinese version. The stitching was wrong. The materials were poor quality.

Reyes thought of his late father, stooped over a sewing machine late into the night, making each pair of gloves by hand in his cramped workshop. He put the Chinese copies back in the box.

"My father's name is on our gloves," Reyes said. "The money didn't matter."

Today, the company logo still bears the Cleto Reyes name and proudly declares "hecho en Mexico" (made in Mexico), even as that phrase increasingly means low-cost maquiladora-style manufacturing, rather than old-fashioned handmade quality.

But that is what the gloves have come to be known for among the world's top boxers. They continue to seek out the family-run Mexican company even though it doesn't offer endorsement deals and makes even the most famous fighters pay full price.

"Manny believes in those gloves, and he doesn't feel comfortable with anything else," said Freddie Roach, the legendary trainer of Manny Pacquiao, interviewed by phone from his gym in Los Angeles. "I fought most of my fights with his gloves, too."

In the boxing world, Roach said, the Reyes brand is known as "a puncher's glove" because it has a lightweight feel, a slimmer profile and, most important, an inner layer of horsehair padding that tends to flatten down and harden over the course of a fight.

"Some guys have bad hands, so they want a softer, pillow-type glove," Roach said. "But the Reyes gloves are what you use if you want to knock people out."

Nearly 70 years after Cleto Reyes made his first pair, the gloves are sold all over the world. The business Alberto Reyes inherited from his father now has more than 100 employees and two manufacturing facilities outside Mexico City, producing a full line of boxing and martial arts equipment. About 40 per cent of its sales are in the United States, where a pair of professional-quality gloves retails for around 115 euros.

The gloves' reputation has grown along with that of the Mexican boxers who favor them, and who have come to dominate the mid-range weight classes of the sport. No other country after the United States has produced as many champion fighters.

"Boxing was introduced by US sailors in the port towns like Veracruz and Tampico," said Victor Cota, a historian and statistician at the World Boxing Council. "Its popularity grew along the border during Prohibition and spread from there."

For the Reyes family, a big breakthrough — crossover appeal among non-Mexican fighters — came in 1978, when Muhammad Ali wore the gloves in a fight against Leon Spinks in New Orleans.

Ali had lost to Spinks earlier that year. "So he told his trainers, 'Get me some of those Mexican gloves,' " Alberto said.

Ali had an endorsement deal with another brand and was told to tape over the Cleto Reyes logo on the gloves, according to news accounts. But when he arrived at the ring, he told Angelo Dundee, his trainer, to rip the tape off.

Ali won the fight, and won back his heavyweight championship.

The next day, Alberto Reyes opened the Mexican papers to see Ali wearing his family's boxing gloves. His father's name was perfectly framed in the image. Alberto has the photo in his office.

"I cried that day," he said. "I still get choked up thinking about it."

It would be Ali's last victory in the ring. But the company was just getting started.

Cleto Reyes grew up down the street from a famous boxing arena in Mexico City. He dropped out of school at age 12 for a job in a leather workshop, sewing baseball gloves.

By then his broken family had fallen apart, and Reyes had nowhere to live, Alberto said. His boss let him sleep in the leather workshop, and he began to experiment on the sewing machines at night after the other workers had gone home.

Reyes made his first pair of boxing gloves in the late 1930s, offering them to trainers and fighters outside the arena. "They would tell him what they wanted, and he'd try to improve with every pair," Alberto said. "He only made two or three pairs a week."

In the early 1950s, Reyes opened his own workshop in the family home, and his six children often helped out. "My father would send me around to ask the neighbourhood shopkeepers for their empty sugar sacks," Alberto said. "He used the sackcloth to line the gloves."

Boxers from Mexico City began travelling to Los Angeles for fights at the Olympic Auditorium, and, a little later, at the Forum. Their trainers would bring Cleto Reyes gloves to sell on the side for extra pocket money.

"That's how we broke into the US market," Alberto said.

Cleto wanted Alberto and his brothers to study engineering, but when his father fell ill, Alberto took over the sewing machines and made gloves full time. He, too, began to tinker with the design. "I trimmed and trimmed to make them more ergonomical," he said. Fighters liked the streamlined style because it made their punches tougher to block.

Alberto also began travelling to Mexico's famous shoe-making region in Guanajuato to find tanneries that could supply the leather he wanted: as thin, light and durable as possible.

"My challenge was to standardise production, so that all the gloves would be the same quality," Alberto said, turning his father's handcraft into a proper company. He obtained a trademark for the logo in 1975.

Despite their reputation for less padding, Reyes insists that his way of making gloves is safer for fighters and less likely to produce traumatic brain injuries.

The bigger, foamy gloves produce more of the reverberating effect that leads to the worst brain damage, Reyes said, while the horsehair in his design delivers a hard but clean shot.

Cleto Reyes, who died in 1999, was honoured posthumously by the World Boxing Council, and Alberto was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2008.

At 62, Alberto says he's ready pass along the business to his children. They essentially run the company already; one daughter is in charge of manufacturing, another manages the commercial side, and his son is the IT director.

The company has its offices and a small showroom in a nondescript Mexico City building not far from the house where Cleto Reyes had his first workshop. The walls are covered with photos and boxing gloves signed by the sport's biggest stars: Mike Tyson, Don King, Julio César Chávez and Oscar De La Hoya.

Reyes has stories about all of them. Once in 2008, a few weeks before their "Dream Match" welterweight championship fight, both De La Hoya and Pacquiao asked Reyes to provide them with gloves.

Pacquiao wanted standard red leather. But De La Hoya requested them in a burgundy colour, and rush delivery — two weeks.

Reyes had to scramble to find a tannery that could prepare the leather that fast. It left no time for shipping, so De La Hoya asked Reyes to personally courier the new gloves to Las Vegas in his carry-on luggage.

"He gave me first-class tickets, ringside seats and put me in a fantastic suite," Reyes said.

Soon after Reyes checked in, De La Hoya came by to pick up the gloves.

De La Hoya embraced him, then gestured to the huge, luxurious room. "What do you think?" he asked.

"It's great," Reyes said. "But you still owe me for the gloves."


Nick Miroff – The Washington Post
Photo by Dominic Bracco II/Prime for The Washington Post

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