Updated June 17, 2020 - 6:54 pm
He’s undefeated as a professional boxer as he approaches the most significant fight of his burgeoning career. But lightweight prospect Gabriel Flores Jr. already knows far too much about loss.
More than any 20-year-old should know, regardless of their profession.
Flores (17-0, six knockouts) will fight Josec Ruiz (21-2-3, 14 KOs) on Thursday inside MGM Grand’s Grand Ballroom in the co-feature of Top Rank’s fourth boxing card since its return amid the coronavirus pandemic.
His father, Gabriel Sr., will man his corner as his trainer, as he has since he began boxing at age 7. His mother, Juanita Maldonado, will not be there.
She was shot March 17, 2013, while attending a child’s birthday party in Flores’ native Stockton, California, and died the following day at age 35.
“You’re reminded by it every day,” Flores Jr. said. “It’s just about how you deal with it and how you cope with it.”
Flores is among Top Rank’s premier prospects and hopes to become a world champion and one of the sport’s greatest pound-for-pound fighters.
But he fights first and foremost to honor his mother and her memory.
“The way I look at it, I had 12 years with her. I have to be grateful for those 12 years,” Flores said. “I could have got less time. There are people out there in the world that didn’t have 12 years with their parent, but I did. That’s one way I started looking at it.”
Triumphing through tragedy
Flores was inspired to become a boxer by his older brother, Rogelio, and learned the sport under the tutelage of his father, a full-time trainer who used the sport to escape gang activity.
He knew by age 11 that he wanted to be a professional fighter and often trained several hours a day, even at an elementary age. He was in the midst of preparing for an amateur fight when he learned that his mother was shot in an act of gang-related violence.
The elder Flores said his son was numb to it initially, showing little emotion as he grappled with his grief.
“A couple months later down the line, I think it really hit him,” Flores Sr. said. “It just motivated him. … We had a fight in May. His mother passed in March. I was like, ‘You have this tournament coming up. We don’t have to go.’ And he turned to me right away, no hesitation, and said, ‘No, we have to go.’”
And, thus, boxing became his outlet.
The younger Flores said he’s still not quite used to not seeing his mother every day, but slowly adjusted by immersing himself into his amateur career. He accumulated a 91-7 record, a berth on the junior national team and the 2016 junior national title in the 138-pound division as he contemplated pursuing a berth in the 2020 Olympics.
But he bypassed Olympic glory to sign a pro contract with Top Rank in November 2016 at age 16 and debuted in May 2017 at 17.
“Top Rank treated him like a blue-chip prospect,” Flores’ father said. “They treated him like a star. … He was meant to be a world champion sooner than later.”
Flores moved from Stockton to Las Vegas in February to utilize the wealth of local boxing resources. He’ll be fighting Thursday in his first 10-round bout and will enter the ring wearing a shirt that honors his mother’s memory.
Like he has for his first 17 fights. And like he will for the rest of his career.
“She was really supportive of my boxing,” Flores said. “I just want to continue living my dreams for me and for her because I know that’s what she’d want me to do.”
Top Rank boxing
When: 5 p.m. Thursday
Where: MGM Grand
Main event: Jose Pedraza (26-3, 13 KOs) vs. Mikkel LesPierre (22-1-1, 10 KOs), 10 rounds, super lightweight