WESTMORLAND — Westmorland is a small, rural California town with a population of about 2,200 in an area of less than one square mile situated seven miles away from its neighboring “big” city of Brawley. It is a town that when driving through, many can miss with just a couple of blinks. But a few blocks off the main road, hidden from a passerby, there is a building that everyone who grew up in this city knows well:
the Westmorland Youth Center… or as it is called by most, Mono’s Gym.
“I always tell my fighters, it doesn’t matter where you come from, but where you are going,” said Ernie “Mono” Fierro. This is just one of the many phrases he uses to inspire and motivate youth in Westmorland and Brawley areas. A former professional boxer, Fierro spent many years in the Brawley Boys and Girls Club as a boxing trainer and was a part of the La Gente Boxing Club as well, prior to taking up training responsibilities at the Westmorland Youth Center.
“For a little town, Westmorland has always produced very tough young fighters, and it is great that Mono’s Gym offers them a place where they can channel that strength in a positive way, rather than on the streets,” said Luis Aguilar of the Westmorland Police Department, who also has had some ring experience under Mono’s tutelage.
The youth center opened in 1985 and since then has provided the people of Westmorland a place for recreation and community, especially the youth. Under Fierro’s care, the gym has earned a reputation for robust young fighters. Although the stories of many of the fighters differ in terms of wins/losses and time spent in the sport, the narrative from those who trained under Mono always begins the same way.
“At that time there was nothing to do in Westmorland,” said Victor Rocha, an Imperial Valley amateur boxing standout in the ‘90s. “Mono had a boxing team. He gave me the chance to be on it and train.”
From there, Rocha was able to influence his best friend and future main sparring partner, Neto Aguilar, to jump into the mix.
“Victor would always ask me to spar, but I never did. Until he got a little carried away one day. So I did — my mistake,” laughed Neto Aguilar. “It did make me think about self-defense though, and I started boxing from there on. Two weeks later was my first fight and I’ve liked it ever since.”
Almost ten years later in the early 2000s, another young fighter would share a similar experience on his introduction to the Westmorland boxing program.
“My younger brother Jesse started going to the gym and I went with him one day,” said Charlie Romero of his introduction to Mono’s Gym. “From then on I was hooked.”
Now years later, Romero has a career working with children as a teacher and soccer coach. He utilizes and shares the life lessons he learned not just in the ring, but outside of it as well, and credits past mentors, including Imperial Valley boxing trainers and notables Ruben Garcia, Greg Diaz, Luis Aguilar and of course, Fierro.
“I learned a lot from a father figure like Ernie ‘Mono’ Fierro,” Romero said. “Mono taught me the ropes of life.”
Through the years, many, if not all of Westmorland youth have stepped foot in Mono’s Gym, whether working on boxing technique or just focusing on physical health. Even as the years go by and the faces change, there are a few things that never change. The gym is open, and “Mono’s Talking.”
(Keep Reading for Part II)
Over time, the Westmorland youth center boxing program was coined Westmorland B.A.D. (Boxers Against Drugs). As boxers’ reputations grew, Mono took local fighters to USA boxing tournaments throughout California. Some Westmorland B.A.D fighters even faced future amateur Olympians and pro boxing superstars.
“I’ll always remember when Mono took us to the Blue and Gold Tournament, we got to meet Oscar De La Hoya,” said Victor Rocha on his greatest memory while competing for Westmorland B.A.D alongside fellow Westmorland fighter, Neto Aguilar.
“My favorite ring memory has got to be fighting Fernando Vargas,” said Neto Aguilar.
Vargas went on to represent USA in the Olympics in 1996 and win multiple world titles professionally.
For Charlie Romero, the thrill of the being in the ring, and the rush of adrenaline while in competition were his fondest fight memories.
“Being in the zone; as time slows down and seeing every punch thrown is something I will never forget,” said Romero.
Romero also competed against a future Olympian, Vanes Martyosinin, in his amateur days.
While competitive boxing successes are the “sugar on top” for Mono and volunteers of Westmorland’s boxing program, their true aim is keep the youth of Westmorland positively motivated and away from any possible negative influences around them.
“Boxing kept me from trouble, and I thank Mono for putting his time and effort into his boxing gym. The Westmoreland B.A.D. boxing team has helped a lot of youth and I’m proud to say I was part of it,” said Victor Rocha of his time spent at Mono’s gym.
This mentality is something Mono has taken beyond the gym. In 2008, he created his special “Mono’s Talking” T shirts designed to keep kids in the right track through popular sayings and phrases used by Mono while working with High School Students at Brawley Union High.
” I started the T-shirt campaign in hopes of sending a message to kids to stay in school and not do drugs. I feel that if the kids wear it ,they’ll send a message to other kids and adults as well,” said Mono.
Alongside Mono, Westmorland P.D. Officer Luis Aguilar has donated his time to help with training and words of wisdom to Westmorland youth over the last fifteen years. Aguilar began boxing at 17 in exhibitions put together by Mono, and has represented Westmorland’s B.A.D. in various Battle of the Badges in the Imperial Valley.
“I’ve been around the sport for 25 years and I really enjoy passing on to these young, up and coming fighters what I’ve learned,” said Officer Aguilar.
As Victor Rocha, Neto Aguilar, Charlie Romero and Luis Aguilar continue on their paths through life, they will be connected strongly by their respect and love for the sport of boxing, the place where they learned to practice the craft, and the man who introduced them to it.
“I would like to give a big thank you to the City of Westmorland and Westmorland PAL,” said Mono. “Without them none of this would be possible.”