He inspired generations of Austin youth, helped shape lives and sparked countless sporting dreams. But at 87-years-old, local boxing legend and beloved coach Joe E. Vela, Jr. has hung up his gloves for the last time.
Vela, who died last week, made waves locally as an amateur boxer during a golden age of Austin boxing. The flyweight first captured the hearts of Austinites when in 1951 he became a regional Golden Gloves champion.
Over the years, Vela went on to train boxers and hundreds of students through Austin Boxing Against Drugs, also known as ABAD, a youth boxing program he launched in 1991.
“You can’t mention boxing in Austin without talking about Joe Vela,” said Nick Gonzalez, a mixed martial arts champion and local MMA pioneer who got his start as part of Vela’s youth boxing program.
Gonzalez remembers stepping into the South Austin Recreation Center, where Vela first started the ABAD program and feeling a little nervous, not sure what to expect. At 10 years old, Gonzalez’ grandfather introduced him to Vela’s gym after Gonzalez got in trouble at school for fighting. His grandfather thought boxing could steer him in a positive direction.
With a growing gang problem in Austin at the time, Vela’s nonprofit aimed to combat the issue by instilling confidence and discipline in young Austinites through boxing. His free programs meant no one was turned away.
If a student didn’t have boxing gloves, Gonzalez remembers Vela encouraging them to stay and work on footwork drills instead. If a student couldn’t afford boxing hand wraps, Vela found a donor so it wouldn’t be an obstacle. Throughout the years, ABAD relied on mostly donated equipment and country music superstar Willie Nelson even got behind Vela’s mission and donated a speed bag rig.
“He’s an icon in the boxing community, not just for (what he accomplished in the sport), but how much he gave back,” Gonzalez said.
Boxing created an escape, he said, from the outside neighborhood elements that were tempting kids into trouble. Gonzalez soon learned lessons from Vela about commitment and sacrifice that he carried throughout his career.
WATCH SHORT DOCUMENTARY ABOUT ABAD PROGRAM
Vela’s open-door policy approach ensured all youth were welcome despite income levels. This philosophy inspired Zack Martinez, a current boxing coach at Montopolis Recreation and Community Center, to run free boxing programs for today’s youth.
“Not everyone (who participated in ABAD) was going to be a champion,” Martinez said. “But just because you weren’t going to be a champion didn’t mean you weren’t just as welcome.”
Martinez – who also runs the Austin Texas Boxing Facebook Group to shine a light on the accomplishments of local amateur and professional boxers – met Vela as a teenager when the ABAD gym grew out of the temporary spaces at Austin recreation centers and moved into an 11,000-square-foot space on East Cesar Chavez Street. As an adult, Martinez later had the opportunity to coach alongside Vela at various tournaments and charity boxing matches.
“Everybody loved him. All of the boxers took his advice, and everybody always wanted to hear his feedback,” Martinez said.
Vela didn’t just uplift generations of Austin men though. In 2013, Vela, who was then in his 80s, began serving as a visiting instructor at the Austin Women’s Boxing Club – a notable feat given that the gym rarely invites male coaches.
Vela helped coach some of the boxers, often working with them three or four days a week. Up until the pandemic began, Vela could still be found at the gym.
Aside from his coaching skills, boxers there also valued Vela as a “grandpa figure and a best friend,” said Julia Gschwind, owner and head trainer of Austin Women’s Boxing Club.
She often ran her ideas by Vela and vented to him when things weren’t going well because she said he always understood. He’d encourage her to talk things through with her boxers and have patience.
“He would never give up on anyone and I think the boxers in the gym knew that,” she said. “They felt safe talking with him because they knew that he would not give up on them and always find a way.”