Last month brought boxing fans the revival of Golden Boy’s Thursday Night Fights. The main event was stellar, filled with action and drama as Joel Diaz Jr hit the canvas twice and Mercito Gesta earned his first victory since 2018.
But around here, the star of the show was a 40 year old flyweight who entered the ring flashing a smile even bigger than his bushy beard or his mane of salt and pepper hair, and left it with a twisted ankle, a sore shoulder, and the 18th loss of his professional career.
Our own Scott Christ’s immediate reaction to Ernie Marquez’s entrance was to say: “Just going by appearances I would much sooner hang out with Ernie Marquez than basically any famous boxer on the planet.”
We spent six minutes of our podcast celebrating Marquez as “The People’s Champion” and openly pleading with the universe, trying to manifest an interview with him. And, splendidly, the universe delivered.
Ernie Marquez spoke with Bad Left Hook by telephone from his gym in Fort Morgan, Colorado. He shared stories, insights, and words of inspiration from his one-of-a-kind journey.
Marquez and his wife had their first of four children when he was still just fifteen years old. Two years later, he made it to the quarterfinals of the National Golden Gloves. He turned pro, and beat an Olympic gold medalist. He took hard fights on short notice to pay for his mortgage. He took over a gym founded by his parents, and the outreach he’s done through it for his community earned him the Citizen of the Year award.
Marquez discussed all of that and more. Be warned: This is a longer than usual interview. But, the unique charm and fascinating backstory of Ernie Marquez are well worth your time. If you read it and disagree? Email me so I can apologize directly, and share my sympathy for whatever killed your capacity to feel love and joy.
Our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.
BAD LEFT HOOK: The first time I saw you was on Golden Boy’s Thursday Night Fights. You came out to a Bob Marley song while wearing a t-shirt with a peace sign on it. Big beard, long hair, peaceful demeanor, gentle smile… It’s a very different presentation, a very different vibe than most fighters try to present. What were you telling the world about Ernie Marquez when you walked out for that fight?
ERNIE MARQUEZ: Well, let me correct you on that shirt. If you notice, it wasn’t just a peace sign. It was a peace sign sitting on an Earth. It’s Peace on Earth, that’s what the message was.
Over time, the evolution of myself and watching how the world is going? I started getting a little depressed as my daughters started getting older and leaving the house. Then I started looking at the impact we’ve had on kids– My mom and dad having started our program back in 1998 and then us picking it up, us and the other amateur boxing coaches around the state, and it makes me realize we can change the damn world.
I don’t know, man. I guess raising daughters kind of softens a dude up.
Your opponent in that fight was Jan Salvatierra. He’s 22 years old, and you have at least two kids older than him. What’s it like to go out and fight a guy that, until recently, was probably too young to date your oldest daughters?
Yeah, that’s wild. It’s funny, if you watched the weigh-ins. After we did our face off, I reached over and said in his ear “Hey buddy, you’re not going to feel bad punching on an old man?” And he laughed.
It’s interesting to me. They started offering me fights after I came back in 2019, and this is the second kid that I’ve fought that’s younger than my oldest daughter. My daughter was like “Dad, are you serious? You’re not going to feel bad for punching on a kid?”
And I told them, “Hey, they signed up for this shit just like I did. If they’re not going to feel bad for punching on an old man, I’m not going to feel bad for punching a kid.” That’s kind of what we sign up for. And to feel as good as I do, to be able to do this, it’s mind blowing, dude.
“I told them, ‘Hey, they signed up for this shit just like I did. If they’re not going to feel bad for punching on an old man, I’m not going to feel bad for punching a kid.’”
Let’s go back to how you started boxing. Your dad taught you how to box, and your grandfather taught him to box. If I’m getting it right, your first serious coach was someone who took you on as a promise to your dying grandfather, right?
Yes, that’s all correct. What it is, my mom’s father was in the military in the 50s and 60s. When he got out, he was an old army champ and kind of a badass. Maybe lost one fight back then, and he was a small guy like myself, boxed at 112 pounds. When he got out of the military, though, they were in poverty, man.
He and my grandmother, raising six kids, and over time he dealt with some trauma, kind of was an alcoholic. But he brought boxing into the projects where they lived, into the south side of Pueblo [Colorado]. And that’s where boxing started in our family.
You run a gym in Colorado, coaching and training other young fighters. Started out as something your parents did, at one point in like a shed in their yard, and now you’re in a dedicated gym facility.
You’ve spoken elsewhere about the importance of “giving kids a place.” What makes a place like yours, whether the kids there are boxing or wrestling or learning martial arts, so important for young people?
The biggest thing, and it breaks my heart to see it, is the lack of support for these kids. When they come to a place like ours, it’s all love. All we want is the best for them. We’re not judging them, telling them what to do or not to do. But, if they’re on the wrong path, we can be there to help get them straightened out and put them on the right path.
I let everybody know when they come in, whatever their need is, don’t be afraid to ask for help. We have people that work in mental health. We do food delivery. Anything they need help with. Over the winter, we do some anonymous help with utility bills. But we’ve got the sort of place where if I can’t help you, probably someone else here can.
“The biggest thing, and it breaks my heart to see it, is the lack of support for these kids. […] All we want is the best for them.”
You and your now wife had your first kid when you were just fifteen, and got pregnant with the second before you turned sixteen. You’re barely old enough to get a driver’s license, and you’re working as a tradesman where all your coworkers are in their 30s and 40s.
That’s right, yep. It’s wild, man.
Then, at age 17, you make it all the way to the National Golden Gloves quarterfinals. How in the world did you find the time and energy to keep boxing, and not only keep doing it, but have that level of success with it?
When I think back? It feels like I had a lot more time in the day.
When I first got my job at sixteen after we had our first kid as freshmen in school– Well, when we first moved here to Fort Morgan, it was after we caught my dad doing drugs in my bedroom. My cousin and I beat the shit out of his friend, my dad disappears, we don’t know where he’s at. Then we get into a gang fight and we wound up getting evicted out of our apartment.
My mom and her four kids, we get evicted with nowhere to go. And when we find my dad, he’s here in Fort Morgan. He quit drugs, quit drinking, quit all the bullshit. Had two jobs. And one day he shows up with a U-Haul after we get evicted, and brings us out to Fort Morgan. I’m here for not even a month and a half, and I get a call from my girlfriend then, my wife now. She tells me she’s pregnant, and I’m fourteen years old. So, I moved back to Pueblo and stayed with my uncle until my daughter was born.
And at that time in Pueblo, I’m boxing and training. Just got back from a national tournament in California. When I got back, we moved to Fort Morgan with my five month old daughter. There was no boxing here, so my dad started training me. He started working with the city to develop a program here in Fort Morgan. Months of meetings, because boxing was not even a thing here then and they thought it was violence, that boxing was going to bring trouble.
So, it took a while to convince them, but they finally let us use the armory that was over here. We were training there for a few years. And it was pretty damn sweet, because that was when I was hitting national tournaments. I won the Ringside Nationals, the first year they had that tournament. I went over there and kicked some ass, man. I had four fights at that one, and it was pretty sweet!
“I get a call from my girlfriend then, my wife now. She tells me she’s pregnant, and I’m fourteen years old.”
Ernie, I have two kids, just like you did at that point in your life. And when this interview is over, I’ll probably go take a nap because they wore me out all weekend and didn’t sleep well last night. It’s mind boggling to me that you could juggle all of that as a teenager and still go deeper at Golden Gloves than future pros like Peter Manfredo or Steve Cunningham did that year.
I think my advantage is I was very fortunate my parents were running that gym. Because a few months after, they kind of pushed us out of that armory. We had myself, a few other guys fighting on that regional and national level. And they told us we could have the space for two days a week, an hour each time. So, we told them thank you, but no thanks, and moved into a small garage at my parents house. It was a small garage, but we made it work.
That’s where I was fortunate, because I was working 50 hour weeks at minimum. But after I get home, my daughters could be in that gym with me. It was nice we could work and still spend time together.
I always dedicated time to those kids. No matter what, whenever I got home from work, they got my first hour, at minimum. That’s the mentality I had even though I was just a fifteen, sixteen year old father. And my boss respected it. He’d try to put me on jobs that weren’t out of town so I could be home to spend time with my kids. And they would go to the boxing gym with me and watch me train.
You’ve fought on a lot of big cards. Pacquiao vs Cotto back in 2009, Crawford vs Gamboa, at least seven other shows that were big enough to be televised. And you had a draw on a Friday Night Fights card back in 2011. And, in your earliest days, you also fought at a Moose Lodge in Nebraska way back in 2006. Any particularly fond memories, close calls, or odd experiences you want to share?
I can tell you right now, man. When I first started, we didn’t have anyone looking out for us. There was no promoter making matches. It was my dad, myself, and my brother Steve.
After I turned pro, I took on a couple of bigger fights. Steve Mestas with Airtight Boxing here in Colorado now, back then he got me matched up on a couple of big cards. And luckily I impressed some of those matchmakers and promoters, so they kept reaching out.
And those losses I took in my career, in some of those bigger fights I took? A lot of them, I wasn’t even going to take the fights. They’d call me and I’m not even training, so I turn it down. Then they call me back and offer another thousand dollars. And I’m like, “Well, shoot. Okay.”
Because when you have three kids by the age of eighteen? Financially, you kind of shoot yourself in the damn foot. I was always needing money! And we took on a mortgage at 20 years old, so we’re very young with a commitment like that. I was taking fights out of shape and on the spur of the moment. I took losses, but I was in there giving it my all. They were losses on my record, but in life, I consider them wins. I paid my mortgage, my kids got school clothes, I made Christmas happen. It saved me, dude. It fucking saved me.
Maybe if I’d had more time, without responsibility for the kids, work, and life? Maybe I could have been a world champion. Even now at the weight class, at 112 pounds, I’ll beat the shit out of these kids if they’ll give me an eight week training camp.
“[W]hen you have three kids by the age of eighteen? Financially, you kind of shoot yourself in the damn foot. I was always needing money!”
Everyone can see a “W” or an “L” on a record. But nobody sees your kid take piano lessons or go to summer camp because you took a tough fight on short notice.
Oh yeah, it’s crazy. It blows my mind to think back. Two of my daughters got involved in club sports, and that’s a few thousand dollars just to get them signed up. Then we’re traveling out of town every weekend to all these damn basketball and volleyball games. At that young of an age, with a mortgage, cars to pay for, bills, it’s a wonder we could make that work.
So, I’m thankful. The love for my daughters, the love for the sport. It’s crazy, man.
You don’t strike me as the sort of guy that’s going to tell everyone how great he is, so do you mind if I talk you up a little instead?
Man, I get a little emotional, but go right ahead.
You live in Fort Morgan, Colorado, and they named you the Citizen of the Year. During COVID, your gym did food deliveries for 150 school kids a day. You helped coordinate and deliver food for a local shelter and a charity that supports the homeless and food insecure. Last September, you did a charity event for mental health and suicide awareness. You hosted a community building event for police and local residents. You host support groups at your gym.
When the kids at your gym needed a place they could practice wrestling, you not only set it up and scheduled a day just for them, you went out and tried to find someone with the experience to actually train them to succeed. I found a local newspaper story from February when a couple of kids from your gym had their first fights, and you’re smiling like you were their own proud dad.
I wish you lived in my town, Ernie. I’d feel very lucky to have you as my neighbor.
Dude, it’s all love, man. I just see how… [pause]
When you show the kids that they have everything it takes to be successful in life? That shit goes, man. That’s why I say we’re changing the world. It changes their entire direction. Not only that, people see that, and it inspires them to do better. It’s beautiful, man. It’s just all love.
Honestly, I didn’t… I… [pause]
My daughters are getting older, and they’re seeing what we’re doing. They’re helping out. My oldest daughter was the biggest helper with those food deliveries during COVID. Watching them doing adult shit and being helpful, giving back with their friends, showing that same love? It’s beautiful. It’s the most beautiful thing ever. I can say I’m living my dream. I don’t have any complaints, man.
“I can say I’m living my dream. I don’t have any complaints, man.”
To be a successful athlete, it seems like you have to be focused on yourself. You have to look out for yourself, advocate for yourself, promote yourself, and try to find a path around or through all the other people with your same goal.
Sports are not usually the place where you find people with a truly open, generous heart, trying to make the world a better place rather than just get themselves as far as they can go. It’s so unusual to see, especially in boxing. I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of what I’m talking about during your time as a fighter.
A lot of times, the ego takes over when it comes to the fight game, in any combat sport. A lot of times, they let that ego take over. And I get it. When I was younger, I had that killer instinct. When I was done with somebody, I wanted them to hurt. So I get that. I get that kids have that.
And at this point, I just want to win. I don’t want to hurt nobody. I do get that, the kids that have that ego. But what I’ve found is that using boxing as an analogy for life with these kids just changes them. Showing them that when the bell rings, it is them and nobody else. Their coach ain’t gonna help them. Their teammates ain’t gonna help them. Mom and Dad ain’t gonna help them. When they get in there, it’s them. By themselves.
The referee may stop it if they let themselves get up against the ropes, getting their ass kicked. It’s up to them if they want to give up and quit. And I tell them that in life, it’s the same shit. You have your family there with you. Parents, a wife, maybe kids, your brothers and sisters. But when it comes time for you to go to work, to pay the bills, to raise your kids? Or if you are a kid, when it’s time to turn in those assignments or get your chores done? It is fucking you and only you. You can’t be blaming anyone else. You get to either pat yourself on the back or kick yourself in the ass. But it’s you.
And when you give them that individual empowerment? It changes them, man. It changes their whole world. It’s beautiful, man.
On the ego of a young fighter: “I get it. When I was younger, I had that killer instinct. When I was done with somebody, I wanted them to hurt.”
Let’s go back to your Thursday Night Fights appearance against Salvatierra. You went down hard and a little awkwardly…
[Groans] Oh, man.
…and they stopped the fight over an ankle injury despite emphatic protests from you.
You wanted to keep going, but you did look hurt. How are you feeling now?
The ankle? Before the fight, I told my guys we need to wrap it up. Before the fight, I stepped wrong and twisted it a little bit. It wasn’t too bad, but I said before the fight we needed to wrap it up. But then we get going, start getting warmed up, and I didn’t even think about the damn ankle. I realized it as we were getting into the ring. And they asked if I wanted to just tape it over the boot. I thought about it, but just said: “Nah, let’s go, let’s go, we got this shit.”
Then, when it happened, I looked at the corner and I just said “My fucking ankle!” I was more mad that we should have just taped it. But if you saw the fight, the bigger injury was my shoulder. You can see my right shoulder, I pulled it a couple of times when we tangled up.
But the thing that hurt my feelings and broke my damn heart was that I knew I had that kid. I’ve been in lots of boxing matches, and you know when you have them and you know when you don’t. And I knew that kid could not hurt me with the punches he was landing. He hit me with a couple of solid punches, but he didn’t ring my bell, didn’t affect me.
So, I knew I had him. With the jab, I had him. I was going to counter over his jab with my jab every single time because he was throwing a lazy jab. I was able to counter over it, and when I came in with combinations… I knew I had him beat. He hit me with that right hand to the body, and when I jumped back, I landed on my ankle. It kinda rolled on the side, and oh man, that shit hurt bad. Then when I went down and landed, I landed on my shoulder. And it fucked up my shoulder even more.
The part that really hurt my feelings– And I could say it pissed me off, because for about 30 minutes after the fight, I was pretty pissed off about it. But I was hurt over it because I knew I had him. Maybe we go the distance, maybe I knock him out. But I knew I had him beat.
“I’ve been in lots of boxing matches, and you know when you have them and you know when you don’t.”
It was shaping up to be a fun fight, for sure. I’m not a matchmaker, but I can see why they’d like having you in there to test their prospects. You’re not out there trying to prove something about yourself and messing up a young guy to do it. You’re a coach, you’re not going to get rough or dirty with an opponent to try and raise your own profile.
But also, you’ve got talent and heart… You were ready to throw down and get to work in that fight. A lot of guys who come in to test prospects, you can tell when they’re just in the ring to cash a check. You were there to fight, and it was a real pleasure to watch.
It was crazy, man! I only got the call on five days notice. In the corner with me, I had [Sergio] “Big Serge” Estrada. And he says, “Bro, I need you to be honest with me. If you’re here just to get the check, I understand. I know the fight game, I get how it is when you get a call on short notice and you need the money.”
And I just said “No, bro, I’m here to fight. Every fucking time, I’m here to fight.”
When I was fighting back in the early and late 2000s, John Beninati, a promoter and matchmaker who was with Gary Shaw Promotions back then, they were the ones hosting a lot of those events on Showtime. ShoBox, and another one that they had. I was fighting on a lot of those fights [NOTE: 7 different Showtime cards from 2007-2012]. And one of them in California, John Beninati said, “Man, you really are like a little gladiator!”
Because I had just pulled an upset right before that… Well, it was a draw, but I know I beat that kid in Rhode Island [NOTE: Isander Beauchamp, November 2008 in Providence]. That fight’s on YouTube, and I know I beat that kid’s ass. But, anyways, we were in his hometown, so they gave me a draw.
Anyway, John says, “They send you over here on a platter for these guys, and you’re giving them the works! You’re pulling upsets!” Because I also had just beaten the Olympian, the Olympic gold medalist, you know, Barthelemy? [NOTE: Yan Barthelemy, 2004 Summer Olympics gold medalist at junior flyweight, who lost a decision to Marquez in August of 2008]
I pulled an upset on him when Golden Boy had just signed him. That was another one where they called me on another five, six day notice. But I went out to Arizona and pulled an upset on him. So, that’s how I got to be Ernie “The Gladiator” Marquez. It’s pretty sweet, and it’s stuck.
“I’m here to fight. Every fucking time, I’m here to fight.”
It’s definitely nice when someone gives you a badass nickname.
Yeah, and when I took over the gym and started working it, that’s where the name Fort Morgan Gladiators came from. Because we’re all gladiators, man. We’re fighting, we’re showing this world we’ve got what it takes to overcome anything. We’ll kick some ass!
I think it’s clear from our conversation so far that I hold you in very high regard, so I hope this doesn’t sound disrespectful. But, that last stoppage was your 18th loss. You’re 40 years old. I certainly don’t want you to stop boxing, but I’m also not the one getting hit. What makes you keep going out there to get punched in the face, man?
Dude, it is so fucking fun! It’s a rush you can’t get anywhere else. Even just to walk out to the ring!
I changed my diet a couple of years ago, and I can’t even keep weight on. I’ve got a great diet, and my body feels amazing. I feel better than I did when I was 25 years old. So, why not do something that I love? If I’m not getting hurt, and I’m not taking damage… I mean, a little bit of twisting my ankle and my shoulder, okay.
But, mentally? I feel sharp. My mental clarity, my body feels amazing. I’m still training and working out. So, if they’re gonna pay me to do what I love? Why the fuck not, man? I love it, dude!
And on top of that, it’s inspiring people! People love seeing me do it. It’s giving these older guys hope, these kids hope, it’s amazing! I love it. It’s the most amazing thing ever. And that walk out from the dressing room to the ring? There’s just no better feeling, man.
“I feel better than I did when I was 25 years old. So, why not do something that I love?”
Like I said, I hope I get a chance to see you out there again. If Golden Boy called you for another Thursday show, would you take the opportunity?
Oh, hell yes I will, man! Sign me up, man! I’m ready to do it. Just let those promoters know, nothing heavier than 115 pounds. I’m a small dude. I’m not trying to go in there and get beat up by these big-ass kids.
Well, I don’t really have any friends in the matchmaking world. But, if I did, I would be making calls, Ernie. Because I want to see it! You’re awesome to watch. We only saw you for two rounds, and it was this out of nowhere surprise with this amazing guy, making me wonder and regret what I’m doing with myself at my age.
I appreciate that, man. It’s very humbling. Even that message you sent, the way you were talking about me, I sat here crying. It’s cool, man. That people are recognizing me. It’s very humbling, and it makes my heart happy, man.
Well, seeing you, talking to you, learning your story, it made my heart happy, too. That’s probably a good way to wrap it up. Do you have any last words or thoughts you want to share with the people reading this interview?
What I can say to people is, find yourself some good women to surround you. Because if it wasn’t for that? My beautiful wife, Jessica. My daughters, Celena, Alizé, Elliana, Shaelei. All them girls, and my granddaughter, they’ve all transformed my thoughts and my heart into something I never thought I could be.
I thought I was a little gangster badass from the hood. And they showed me so much more. That love is the answer, man. If you can find some ladies who can surround you with love like that? Love is the answer for every motherfucking thing, man. No matter how big the problem is, love can fix it.