Nelson Antonio “La Maldad” Manchego Sierra returned to San Andrés island in the Caribbean after a successful boxing career abroad with a view to opening a boxing-gym to train local kids on the island. The building that now houses the gym was originally filled with drug-addicts. Clearing them out, Nelson lobbied local businesses and his contacts from his boxing career to garner equipment with which to open the gym. Despite the donations, the space is still very basic. There is no inside lighting, the floor often floods and the water must be swept out of the building.
“La Maldad” was a moniker that was given to Nelson by his friends because he never shied away from conflict. Reminiscing with an menacing glint in his eye, he describes an altercation where after punching one guy a number of times, he then proceeded to beat him with a stick, and henceforward “The Evil One” was born.
Colombia won a bronze and a silver in the most recent Olympics. Considering the fact that Colombia only sent five boxers to the finals in Rio, and in a country where the overwhelming sporting focuses are football and cycling, that is a truly excellent achievement.
San Andrés is a sweaty place — the humidity is frequently somewhere between 75-85%. With the temperature always hovering around 30° celsius (86° fahrenheit) there is little respite from the heat. Training in these sorts of conditions is not for the faint-hearted.
Nelson has about fifteen students, aged from about 10 and upwards. Eulogising about his students with a rare passion, he describes how every day turns out differently. Some come once and never return, others are more dedicated and come most days. He believes that five or six have the quality to turn the sport into a profession and from watching some, I can’t say that I disagree. There’s a level of professionalism I’ve rarely associated with adolescents.
In a many ways Nelson’s students are fighting to fulfill their talent as there is little work on the island. Nelson estimates the approximate peak shelf-life for a professional boxer is around about 5 years, which would make it one of the shortest windows in any sport.
Nelson’s gym is the only of its kind on the island. Post training, everyone sits around on the mismatched chairs lying around the gym and talk about all things boxing. In a lot of ways Nelson has created a family whereby his students not only learn a valuable profession but also keeps them out of trouble.
Sadly, there is a looming horizon in which the building may be taken away from Nelson to build a financial centre. Despite having the support of the Governor, Nelson says he doesn’t know what’s going to happen to the gym as it stands. Yet, he is confident that there will be alternative spaces. We just hope that the hiatus in between finding another space and its opening is short and doesn’t disrupt the family that has been created here.
Photos and text by Theo Gould