Standing in the ring, blood pumping, the butterflies from seconds earlier beginning to die down: Santiago Franco feels the distinctive calmness that is only found in the ring. He’s been here before, time and time again, and knows what he has to do. It’s time to fight.
The next thing he knows, the announcer’s voice is declaring him the winner: “From Portland, Oregon, Santiago Franco!” He knows two things in the moment: first — if he looks outside of the ring, he’ll see his father who has trained him in boxing his entire life, jumping with excitement over the realization that has just dawned on both of them; second — he has just secured his spot on Team USA.
Franco, known by “Sandman” in the ring, is a nine-time state champion, nine-time regional champion, three-time national champion, member of Team USA and a freshman computer science major at UP.
Franco’s 10-year career started on a whim when he was nine years old. His family had encouraged him to try a new sport. He was already playing basketball, but they wanted him to have something to do during the off-season. His dad, an avid football fan, encouraged him to try it. But it didn’t last long for Franco — he didn’t like tackling or being tackled. Eventually, he thought of boxing.
“I had always known that boxing has been a part of my family, because on the weekends, my uncles and aunts and my grandparents would come down to watch big fights,” Franco said. “And I never used to watch the fights. I would just be playing with my cousins.”
Franco knew there was a boxing gym nearby, and partially in an attempt to get the idea of football out of everybody’s minds, he suggested it to his father.
“He gave me kind of a weird look, and I wasn't really sure why,” Franco said. “And looking back, I'm pretty sure he was like, ‘why would you choose something that’s more violent than football?’”
In the end, Franco had found his sport. But at just nine years old, he had no idea that he would grow up to rank 5th in the Americas and travel with the Team USA Youth Competition Team to compete in the Pan American Games.
Franco explained that in boxing, you’re a novice until you’ve fought 10 fights, and novices only fight each other unless both sides agree to the match. This is a sort of preparation period; after just 10 fights, you’re eligible to fight against anyone.
He said it was in this novice stage that he realized he might actually be good at boxing. In his first 10 fights, his record was eight and two.
“It was like, man, I'm winning,” Franco said. “I don't like getting hit, but I'm winning. So I must be doing something right.”
Around this time, when he was still a novice and had only six fights under his belt, he was set up to fight against someone with around 20 to 30 fights.
“My dad was my coach, and he was the one making the matches,” Franco said. “So I'm like, ‘dad, why?’ And he said, ‘You can beat this kid.’”
When he proved his father right by winning that match, Franco knew he could go far.
Years later, in 2017, Franco was going for his first national title. He had competed for this title many times before, and felt like he was continually coming up short.
“I’d still lose, but I was going against these big names, and I'm not getting annihilated, so it was pretty close,” Franco said.
The blood, sweat and tears finally paid off, though, and he came away as a national champion. This title was a defining moment for Franco.
“You can be on a national champion team, you can be a national champion in football, you know, but there's nothing like going into a ring by yourself, isolated and having to fight another person with just your hands,” Franco said.
He would go on to win two other national titles, the most recent one scoring him a spot on Team USA. But Franco went into this tournament with other expectations.
“That tournament, it was supposed to be my final hurrah, as in, you know, hanging up the gloves,” Franco said.
He was 19 years old, about to enter college, and he knew that it was time to come back and focus on school and work. But he had one more tournament left, so he was going to make the most of it.
In the midst of COVID-19, this tournament was one of the first ones brought back by USA Boxing. Franco anxiously watched the roster, wondering who we would be up against. Late in the registration period, a name turned up that made things serious — Angel Biorato, someone who had beat him one year prior.
“He had bricks for hands,” Franco said.
Franco and his father both knew what a fight against Angel Biorato meant.
“My dad saw his name and said, ‘this guy is going to be the guy that you need to beat. If you beat this guy, this tournament is yours,’” Franco said.
Sure enough, he was paired up against him for the semifinal match of the tournament.
“Before the match, it's always butterflies,” Franco said.
Franco knew that what happened inside the ring was unpredictable — every possible scenario ran through his head.
“But when I step into the ring, it's like a sense of calmness runs through me,” Franco said. “Because once you walk in there, no matter what you do, you're going to have to fight.”
And fight he did. Franco came away from that match, and then the final match afterwards, a victor. His spot on Youth Team USA was secured. He would go on to train for the Pan American Games.
“They gave me the belt and the jacket and everything,” Franco said. “It was a dream come true.”
Franco left two weeks ago to begin training, looking forward to seeing the Olympic Training Center as he read the names of those who came before him.
“Those were the big names that I had always been looking at, like, those are the big people that had always been there on the roster,” Franco said. “And it was crazy to see when they posted the roster that I'm on that list.”
Franco is excited to take full advantage of this opportunity to compete with Team USA, but he knows there’s a lot of pressure.
“It'll hurt if I lose early on, or if I don't make it as far as I want to, which is of course the gold medal,” Franco said. “But, I know if I'm putting in all my hard work and giving my 110% then I gave my all. I did everything I could.”
In the meantime, while he accumulates these titles and trains endlessly, Franco is a computer science student. As a freshman, he has had to adapt to many areas of his life in order to balance school, which he prioritizes over everything else.
“School has always been my priority — boxing has always just been an alternative route,” Franco said.
After he graduates from UP, Franco hopes to go into the computer science field. Right now, he isn’t planning on continuing with professional boxing after receiving his degree. Partially, this is because he loves his studies, but it’s also because of his health.
“If you're getting hit in the head continuously, eventually the accumulation of shots can affect you in a negative way,” Franco said. “At least when you're young, you really don't get hurt. The most you get is shock. I mean, it is some pain, but I think more of it is just like, ‘holy crap, I just got hit.’”
But when you’re older, and competing against 30+ year old men, it’s a different story.
Franco’s family has supported him through it all: the endless tournaments, every match and school as well.
His younger brother is boxing now too, following in his footsteps. Franco considers his little brother to be a more talented boxer, and is excited to support him through his journey. He credits his father with much of his progress.
“It just made us that much closer, because I know he's training me hard,” Franco said. “He's on my ass like all the time, but I know it's because he doesn't want to see me get hurt.”
Even though he doesn’t plan on continuing boxing after graduation, the sport has completely shaped who Franco is, and his boxing experience will stay with him forever.
“One of the lessons that I learned from boxing was that I have to put everything I got into what I want to do, because if you don't, then you're gonna get hurt,” Franco said. “It brought me out of my shell. It taught me to build relationships in the gym and in the ring. I was shy and awkward, but knowing how to fight gave me confidence.”
Now, in between training with Team USA and doing his homework, Franco has stepped into a teaching role.
“I actually used to teach the little kids at my gym how to box,” Franco said. “I like giving back to the community.”
Currently, Franco teaches Boxing Technique classes at Beauchamp on Thursdays from 9-10 p.m.
Sadie Wuertz is the Sports Editor of The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.