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An undefeated Allentown boxer was shot off his dirt bike and left for dead. Now, he is determined to get back in ring

When Juan Sanchez took up boxing as an Allentown teen nearly a decade ago, it was obvious where the hard-hitting style that helped him win his first five pro fights came from.He got it from his boxing idol. He called him dad.Agapito Sanchez, known as “El Ciclon,” or “The Cyclone,” was a scrappy Dominican boxer who captured the World Boxing Organization super bantamweight title in 2001 during a 16-year career that included many memorable fights, including a bloody brawl with a young Manny Pacquiao that ended in a draw.Two months after his 50th professional fight in 2005, his father was in the Dominican Republic visiting family and friends when he was shot and killed during an argument with an off-duty Dominican Air Force sergeant, according to published reports. The popular boxer’s friends went after the shooter and pummeled him.Juan Sanchez was a 10-year-old in Bethlehem and remembers being taken out of school to get the devastating news from his mom.He says he couldn’t comprehend what had happened. To him, his father was larger than life, a professional fighter who could go toe-to-toe with anyone.”It didn’t hit me,” he said.It took four years before Sanchez would follow in his father’s footsteps and get into the ring, starting his training at the former Allentown Boxing Club run by Luis Melendez, who has helped dozens, if not hundreds, of city youth find an alternative to a life on the streets.Fighting as “Ciclon Jr.,” Sanchez, a 23-year-old featherweight, won his first five professional bouts, including three at the Sands Event Center in Bethlehem, and was training for a sixth fight in Colorado last summer. If he won that one, it would have likely given him a chance to contend for a title.But in a cruel twist, Sanchez would mirror his father’s life once again, this time as a victim of gun violence.Sanchez was riding his dirt bike on June 18, 2018, in the 400 block of Liberty Street in Allentown when a yet-to-be identified person in a car began firing at him. He zoomed through the streets in a desperate escape, but he was shot in the back and knocked off the dirt bike.The bullet got him in the spine, fracturing a vertebrae. He was hospitalized for weeks, unable to move his right leg.It took a month to get any feeling in the damaged leg, and several more months before he was able to ditch his wheelchair and crutches.Now nearly a year later, Sanchez is relying on faith and determination in an attempt to defy the odds and return to the ring.“It’s gonna be a long road,” he said. “But boxing is the only thing I got, so I got to push it.”The gunman has not been caught, and the motive for the shooting is unknown.Back in the ringSanchez walks carefully down Seminole Street in Bethlehem’s South Side as dark clouds of a recent thunderstorm start to clear.He’s heading to Indio’s Boxing gym, on the first floor of a nondescript, red brick building on Broadway, and Sanchez is all smiles because this will be his first day back in the ring in a few weeks. The shooting that nearly left him unable to walk is the furthest thing on his mind.“I’m not even worried about it anymore,” he said. “I’m just worried about getting back to the gym and getting back to my regular life.”During his training session in the musty gym, there were moments when Sanchez looked like the undefeated professional boxer with the bloodlines of a champion.He displayed his hand speed and defense during mitt training with Melendez. He showed off his power, blasting heavy bags with ferocious hooks like the one that took down his much older opponent in his last professional fight. And he still had the confidence and bravado he’s always had.“See how much power I got in that one,” Sanchez yelled after a jarring punch to an uppercut bag. “I still got that power, probably more.”But there were times during the two-hour session in Indio’s gym that Sanchez showed the effects from the shooting that put his boxing career on hold.Juan Sanchez, 23, trains at Indio’s Boxing Gym in south Bethlehem. Sanchez was riding his dirt bike a year ago in the 400 block of Liberty Street in Allentown when he was shot in the back by an unknown gunman, causing injuries that initially left him unable to move his right leg. Sanchez has since regained the ability to walk, and with the help of trainers like Luis Melendez, he’s hoping to get back in the ring.
(April Gamiz/)Because he has more strength in his left leg ― atrophy has left the muscles in his right leg visibly smaller than his left ― Sanchez has converted to a southpaw stance, the same way his father fought. Once he’s able to, he said he plans on being a switch hitter.Sanchez was careful as he maneuvered in the ring, at times rolling his right ankle and tipping over when he lost his balance.Not discouraged, Sanchez quickly got to his feet every time he hit the canvas and continued as if nothing happened.“That’s right,” Melendez said. “You fall seven times, you get up eight.”Melendez, who trains a number of area boxers, has tried to work with Sanchez as often as he can to sharpen his ring skills. Sanchez also sees a trainer who helps him build leg strength.Last month, Melendez took Sanchez to the Sands Event Center to watch another local boxer Martino Jules Jr. win the American Boxing Organization featherweight belt, a title Sanchez could’ve fought for had he won the fight he missed in Colorado.Sanchez has trained with Jules since they were teens, fighting together as amateurs and then pros. That day, Melendez said he could tell Sanchez was itching to get back in the ring.“Seeing his face that day, I could tell he wanted to fight,” he said.Knocked DownIt was a late Monday afternoon last year, and the 400 block of Liberty Street in Allentown was bustling on a record-tying 95 degree day.A number of residents were out on their porches and children were playing on the sidewalks when a dirt bike rider flew by on the street, a familiar sight in many downtown Allentown neighborhoods.What was different was the dark car chasing the biker, and someone in the car shooting at him.Sanchez said he bought the yellow Suzuki months earlier, but rarely rode it out of fear he would hurt himself and ruin his boxing career. The first time he rode it, he fell trying to pop a wheelie, he recalled.On this day, he was out to see his daughter and son for an extended Father’s Day weekend when he stopped the bike at Liberty and Fourth streets.That’s when he first noticed the black car with tinted windows behind him.When he passed a truck on Liberty Street, he heard the first gunshot and saw dust flying up from the ground. He quickly shifted gears in an attempt to get away when a second shot whizzed by his leg, he said, and “it felt like my calf was on fire.”The neighborhood near the 400 block of Liberty Street in Allentown, where Juan Sanchez was shot and knocked off his dirt bike on June 18, 2018. (April Gamiz / The Morning Call/)The bullet missed, but the quick shifting on the dirt bike caused the front wheel to pop up as if he was performing a wheelie, and that’s when the next shot got him, right in the middle of the back.“The bike hit the curb, and it goes one way and I go another way,” said Sanchez, during an interview at his hospital bed less than two weeks after the shooting. “I feel my body flying like I’m still on the motorcycle.”Sanchez tumbled onto the front yard of a home on Liberty Street, his head striking a landscaping rock and the sidewalk.The black car made a right down the Mohr Street alley, and Sanchez said he never saw it again.As he lay there shot in the back, his head bleeding and suffering from a serious case of road rash down his arms and shoulders, Sanchez called out for help.The once-busy neighborhood was now empty as people ran off, hid in their homes or ducked for cover.Sanchez said he was fortunate a friend recognized him and got him inside a house and out of danger. Two other friends and his younger brother arrived a short time later, and began to flag down cars for a ride to the hospital.Drivers in the first three cars refused, but a man in a minivan agreed to take him a few blocks to Sacred Heart Hospital.“I understand,” Sanchez said. “I just think everyone was scared at the moment.”Emergency room doctors prepared Sanchez to be moved to the trauma center at St. Luke’s, attaching tubes and wires and placing him on oxygen.Allentown police only have released a few details about the shooting, initially saying they were investigating whether the victim was specifically targeted or if it was some type of road-rage incident triggered by growing frustration against nuisance bikers. Allentown police say they’ve received little cooperation from witnesses.Sanchez said he’s only talked to police once. On the day he was shot, police had tried to talk to him, but he admits he was in no shape, physically and emotionally, to say much. Besides, he said, he didn’t have any information to give them.“I said I don’t know who shot me, they shot me in my back,” he said.In the days after the shooting, Sanchez was angry, saying the person who shot him was a likely a “hater,” someone jealous of his boxing success. He later wondered if the bullet was intended for someone else, theorizing it was a case of mistaken identity.To this day, Sanchez has no idea why he was targeted.Since the shooting, Sanchez and his family have moved away from Allentown, but remain in the Lehigh Valley. His mother felt unsafe living a block away from where her son was nearly killed.Down but not outEight surgical scars on each side of Sanchez’s lower back show where doctors attached rods to his spine. A larger scar cuts across his abdomen, splitting the middle of his New York skyline tattoo. The bullet remains lodged in his upper chest, just below his right shoulder.Juan Sanchez recovers at St. Luke’s University Hospital in Fountain Hill in 2018 after the shooting. (Madeleine Cook / Morning Call file photo/)In his hospital bed, Sanchez shadow boxed to keep his mind off thoughts he may be paralyzed.When his mother learned his prognosis, she rubbed his feet and prayed.“From Day 1, I had to learn how to use the bathroom again, put my socks on, get dressed,” Sanchez said. “I was like a baby again.”Within a week of the shooting, Sanchez regained movement of his left leg, but it took a month before his right foot would even twitch.But that positive sign was enough to convince Sanchez he would fight again ― even though he still couldn’t stand.Marshall Kauffman, his Reading-based promoter, visited Sanchez in the hospital in the days after the shooting.“First thing he talked about was coming back,” Kauffman said. “I said let’s not worry about that right now. Let’s just get better, healthy.In a wheelchair, Sanchez was moved to Good Shepherd to recover from his injuries. He also saw a spine specialist.Melendez, his longtime trainer, visited him at the facility. In the waiting room, they would work on hand speed and defense exercises.A former New York Golden Gloves champion with a brief pro career, Melendez first met Sanchez about a decade ago when he walked into the now-closed boxing gym on Ridge Avenue where Melendez was training many of the city’s disadvantaged youth.Juan Sanchez, 23, trains at Indio’s Boxing Gym in south Bethlehem with trainer Luis Melendez, a former New York Golden Gloves champion with a brief pro career. (April Gamiz / The Morning Call/)“I come from the projects in Puerto Rico and boxing kept me away from the streets,” he said. “That’s what I want to show these kids, but it’s a challenge because the streets have so much to offer in a negative way.”Sanchez was 14 the first time he walked into the gym. He told Melendez who his father was and the trainer responded, “OK, get ready and we’ll spar next week.”As a child, Sanchez would go with his father and watch him train at some of the more famed boxing gyms, including Gleason’s in Brooklyn.Sanchez had a less than stellar amateur career, but after he became a father himself, something clicked and he found success as a pro.“If he took it as serious when he was younger, he would have made the Olympics,” Melendez said. “He’s got real good, fast hands. He’s a technical fighter who knows how to make you miss and counter-punch.”Sanchez won his first professional fight in July 2016 by a second-round technical knockout. The fight, held in Layton, Utah, was followed four months later by a second victory, a unanimous decision in Las Vegas. His last three victories have all been held at the Sands Event Center.With every victory, his confidence grew and it showed in his ring attire ― he knocked out his last opponent fighting in chinchilla shorts.Seven months after the Sanchez shooting, another boxer Melendez helped train as a youth was shot and killed in Allentown.Johnathan Williams, 25, was near his home in 600 block of Liberty Street when he was fatally shot on Jan. 4. Williams had a brief professional boxing career and had been working as a boxing trainer and personal trainer.Police have made no arrests in his homicide, which happened two blocks from where Sanchez was shot.“It was a bad year, so tragic,” Melendez said.The fight’s not over Sanchez said he has a goal of getting back in the ring in April, less than two years after the shooting.“It’s been hard, it really hurts, but this has made me so much more humble and hungrier,” he said. “Once I get physically and emotionally ready, no one can stop me.”During this training session at Indio’s, Melendez and other trainers talked about past fighters who endured traumatic injuries and overcame them. There were a few, most notably Vinny Paz, the champion boxer who broke his neck in a car crash, learned to walk again and fought two dozen times after the injury. They made a movie about him recently, Melendez said.Melendez said he believes once Sanchez regains the strength and balance in his right leg, he can see him having a similar comeback.“His boxing skills are rusty, but they won’t go away,” Melendez said. “It’s a lot like riding a bike, you’ll never forget.”Manuel Gamiz Jr. can be reached at 610-820-6595 or at mgamiz@mcall.com.
Source: Morningcall

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