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May 06, 2018

A high school senior by day, Branden Pizarro spends nights fighting grown men to help support his family

Boxing High School
050518_Pizarro-Heasley Matt Heasley/Courtesy

Swenson senior Branden Pizarro spends his days in school and his nights in the ring.

With his Phillies cap tugged tight over his head and grey hoodie, it’s easy to confuse Branden Pizarro with the other mix of students on a Friday afternoon, as he wends his way through the halls of Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia. 

Pizarro knows everyone. And, it seems, everyone knows him.

He walks nonchalantly with his crew, and as the quartet breaks to go their separate ways, they make a promise to meet later. There were plans that had to be made.

I fight grown men for a living, so I like to think a quiet man is a scary man. I have nothing to prove to anyone. I couldn’t think of hurting a kid, when I get paid to hurt men.

In just a few weeks time, Pizarro had a fight scheduled. And not just any fight.

See, Pizarro is a bit different than the other students at Swenson. The 18-year-old is actually quite different than almost every high school senior in the country. He’s already on his career path as one of a handful of teenaged fighters across the nation who are professional boxers while they’re still in high school.

And the fight he and his friends were meeting to discuss? That's now just a week away, on the nationally televised Showtime ShoBox card here in Philadelphia at the 2300 Arena on Friday, May 11.

As a pro, Pizarro has a 9-1 record, with four knockouts, fighting as a lightweight (135-pounder). He’s in there with grown men right now fighting at the six-round stage. He’s 5-foot-10, walks around at about 145 pounds and somehow manages to do everything from support his family financially, to serve as a positive mentor to his friends, train as a professional fighter and maintain a strong GPA as a high school senior with the intention of going on to college in January 2019.

There is also something else that distinguishes Pizarro from the rest, too: a visceral, genuine confidence that many twice and three-times his age will never find. 

At Swenson, he’s more content burrowing into the woodwork, being a “regular” student, laughing it up with his entourage – Alex Bautista, a Swenson baseball player who possesses a 90-m.p.h. fastball and is getting major-league attention; Adriel Menendez, who jokes that he’s Branden’s de facto manager and runs for the track team; and his “official” photographer, Chris Riebow, who’s known Pizarro since they were five ... and credits Pizarro for saving his life.

"I had to do something... We hit rock bottom."

Pizarro, who started boxing when he was 6, could beat his chest, yell from the mountain top and claim he’s the “baddest dude” in the school, yet he doesn’t. If they know him—and it seems almost everyone at Swenson does—they know he’s a professional fighter. But it’s not something that Pizarro blares from a bullhorn.

It’s not important to him that everyone knows he’s a pro boxer. It’s only important to him.

“I know what I’m capable of, and I know what I can do each and every day, but I don’t go around showing what I can do,” said Pizarro, whose nickname is “The Gift.”

“In training camp, I have rules and regulations that I follow,” he continued. “In school, I have rules and regulations that I follow, so I can be me with my friends and hang out and have a good time and laugh. I have to live a strict lifestyle, but on fight night, I get to be somebody else. It’s why I have the flashy outfits and wear the sunglasses and have fun.

“I don’t try to be the tough guy with anyone, in or out of school. I know what I’m capable of doing and I don’t have to prove myself to anyone, only to me when I’m in the ring. I fight grown men for a living, so I like to think a quiet man is a scary man. I have nothing to prove to anyone. I couldn’t think of hurting a kid, when I get paid to hurt men.

“It doesn’t make any sense.”

Pizarro’s foundation derives from his father, Angel Pizarro, and his mother, Judy Rosario.

A life-changing day started with a phone call. His mother answered and Branden, then 9, was told his father was mugged by four men when he was cashing a check.

Angel’s left elbow was broken, his jaw wired shut and he laid there in a hospital bed one yellowish, purplish giant bruise.

“Seeing my father on that bed, everything just came down on me, and my father wasn’t even able to talk for a while,” Branden recalled. “I was scared for my life and my family, because my father is really all I know. I had to do something.

“It was tough growing up. We hit rock bottom. We moved into a one-bedroom apartment and there were days when I wouldn’t eat so he could eat, and vice versa. There were times I was so hungry that my head hurt. It’s when I told my dad that I would never leave his side. My father was out of work on disability. We had nothing coming in. He told me to go and move in with my mom.

“I couldn’t leave my father. I had to learn to pay bills as a 10-year-old. I was never outside. I never had a chance to really be a kid. I sometimes look at it in a good way, because a lot of kids from my area who I grew up with are doing nothing with their lives. They’re smoking, drinking, out in the streets. I had my father’s hand on my shoulder. That made me determined to make something out of my life, to do whatever it is I have to do.”

Angel still wakes up in pain every day and remains on disability due to the injuries he sustained in that mugging nearly a decade ago. And Branden, who took over as his family's main breadwinner when he turned pro, remains by his father's side.

"She said I would be lucky if I reached the age of 18. I’ve run with that ever since."

Pizarro had an excellent amateur career. 

He forged a 65-5 record, with 32 KOs, so on October 25, 2016, Pizarro filed with the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission to turn pro, when he was a junior at Swenson. His pro debut came on October 28, 2016, 10 days after he turned 17.

All state athletic commissions work independently, though most follow the standard that amateurs are not permitted to turn pro until they’re 18. The California and Pennsylvania state athletic commissions, two of the nation’s best, work by that criteria. But special exemptions are allowed, based on various variables that include ability and their amateur background.

For Greg Sirb, the 28-year Executive Director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, the nation’s longest tenured commissioner and the best in the country, allowing Pizarro to turn pro was an easy decision.

“Everything is done on a case-by-case basis and knowing Branden’s background, his ability and seeing him in the gym for years, I felt comfortable in giving him his license,” Sirb said. “It was literally Branden’s boxing abilities that made it easy.

“Could he have stayed in the amateurs for another year, yes, he would have had a great amateur career. With Branden’s abilities, I don’t think it would have gotten him anything extra, to be honest. His abilities, when I saw him in the gym [sparring] other pro fighters, showed me he could handle himself.

“To me, the extra year in the amateurs wasn’t going to do him all that much good. I sent Branden the proper paperwork and he got it right back to me.”

As the ShoBox fight nears, Pizarro goes into fight mode. He becomes a little more rigid with his time. Days begin with 6 a.m. three-mile runs, then it’s back home for a shower, drive to school, some days he gets out around 2 p.m., other days around 3 p.m. He comes home, does homework, and is at his own gym, The Gift Boxing Gym, at I and Tiago Streets, by 5 every afternoon until around 7:30-8 p.m. He returns home, showers, gets something to eat, finishes his homework and he’s usually in bed by around 10:30 or 11.

He wakes up the next morning and repeats the same process.

From the “Badlands” of North Philly, Pizarro, the middle of five children, recounts sitting in class once when he was in seventh grade. He was winning national amateur tournaments then and would leave school on Thursdays to reach the weekend events. He would coordinate his missing work with the teachers, when one teacher took exception.

“She didn’t like me missing school and she began talking down to me,” Pizarro recalled. “I told her that her opinion didn’t matter to me. I said it was up to me whatever I wanted to be in life. She said if I continued with that attitude that I won’t make it far.

“She said I would be lucky if I reached the age of 18. I’ve run with that ever since.”

"The main thing I care about, that Branden gave me, was he kept me off the streets."

After graduating Swenson next month, Pizarro plans on taking off a semester from school and applying to either La Salle or Temple in January 2019.

“I have to put my grind in now, so I won’t have to when I get older,” Pizarro said. “I made sure I went back to that teacher after I made my pro debut to let her know that I made it — and I’m not stopping. 

"My focus is on a bigger picture.”

Dean Lent is the Swenson Athletic Director, track coach and dean of students. Lent has known Branden since he entered high school. Lent and Branden used to butt heads early on about being on time. The last few years Branden hasn't been late at all.

Chris Riebow/Courtesy

Branden Pizarro during a recent day at Swenson, including posing for a picture with Dean Lent (bottom left).

“One thing Branden tries to really excel in is his academic work in the classroom, and he’s someone who takes his academics seriously, it’s an essential issue to him, that’s why he’s a very good student here,” Lent said. “The kid that I know is a pretty humble, respectful kid, and he’s someone who can easily be an arrogant kid, that’s just not him. I’ve never seen him rub his success in anyone’s face. 

"The other thing that’s impressive about Branden is the influence he has on the other kids around him, and the kids in his inner circle. They see the way he carries himself and you can see the other kids want to be like him. Branden surrounds himself with good kids, and his influence is there on them. That core group of Branden’s is always together."

Chris Riebow, 18, has shot every one of Pizarro’s fights except his pro debut. Riebow and Pizarro go back to when they were 5. Riebow started becoming interested in photography his freshman year and is planning on going to the Community College of Philadelphia, with the intention of transferring into Kutztown for photography.

Riebow remembers Branden was regulated from playing basketball and riding dirt bikes, things normal kids do. Branden had to be in the house early, while Riebow himself was leaning toward a wayward path.

“Branden has an old soul,” Riebow said. “He’s always offering to buy me laptops, or cameras. He offered to pay for a baseball camp for Alex, and he asks Adriel what he needs. We don’t take anything from him.

“The main thing I care about, that Branden gave me, was he kept me off the streets. Growing up, there isn’t a lot of good people around here. I was getting in trouble in school and I was smoking weed in eighth grade. I was 14 and Branden kept telling me that if I kept doing it, screwing up and smoking weed, that he couldn’t be around me anymore.

“I stopped everything. I’m glad I did it. All of the kids I used to be with got in trouble. I would say there were around maybe 10 kids Branden and I grew up with that are involved in the streets. I call Angel, Branden’s dad, my second father.”

Alex Bautista had a problem with the kid everyone said was a boxer. Bautista and Pizarro didn’t like each other freshman year at Swenson. It was a matter of two bulls in the field measuring one another. The icebreaker came when they shared a class. Branden told Bautista he boxes, and Bautista told Branden he played baseball. Branden showed up to one of Bautista’s games, and Alex doesn’t miss a Pizarro fight.

Last year, Pizarro offered to pay half of Bautista’s fee for the Luis Polonia Baseball Camp in New York.

Chris Riebow/Courtesy

One (Branden Pizarro, right) will knock you out with a right hook, while the other (Alex Bautista, left) will strike you out with a 90-mph fastball.

“Branden’s a good man, in and out of the ring,” Bautista said. “If you’re part of Branden’s circle, he makes sure that you’re good. It’s not like he’s 18. He does more for people and his family than 21-year-olds do, or people [who are] 31. He keeps to himself, and he’s always saying he doesn’t have to show anyone anything.

“No one will try him at all, because they know they have to go through us to get to him. Besides, Swenson isn’t like other public high schools in the city. It’s a good school, it’s not a neighborhood school where there’s any fighting. I’ll be there May 11 when Branden fights. We’re always there for him.”

"He’s not a boxer in this building. In this building, he’s a teenager. Outside the building, he’s a boxer."

Adriel Menendez knows when camp time is approaching. He can see it on Branden’s face.

Menendez used to box when he was younger, and noticed that this kid kept coming to school a little bruised. They struck up a conversation and Menendez asked Pizarro where the bruises came from, and Branden told him he got them boxing.

“When Branden is in camp, he has a whole different personality, he becomes quiet and he’s getting serious about the fight,” Menendez said. “After the fight, he returns to being himself, all goofy, and playing around.

“We know and understand it. Branden likes to get his school work done and do what he has to do. I think it’s pretty cool he’s a pro fighter and he’s doing what he likes. He offered to buy me a baseball backpack, and I told him, ‘No.’ I don’t think any of us, the guys close to him, like taking anything from him.

“He thinks of a lot of people before himself. It’s why there’s going to be a lot of kids at the fight [next] Friday night. We’re like family to each other.”

Lent said he’s curious to find out where Pizarro is 10 years from now.

“What’s impressive is how much Branden takes on to himself right now – and he’s 18,” Lent said. “I like finding out what they do years later. I keep track of hundreds of alumnae that come through this building, and it’s cool to see their success.

“Branden knows what he is doing — and he’s still looking to get the education part of it. I’ve known some athletes who get scholarships to college, so they can go on to this or that. They’re not looking at college to be a student, they’re looking at it as a means to get out of being a student. Branden is looking at college as a means to be a student.

“I’m impressed. As much as they say generations have changed, I don’t think so. Those students that want to do something are going to put the time and effort into doing it. Those that don’t, it doesn’t matter what you do. Branden knows what he wants and he has a good head on his shoulders. He’s not a boxer in this building. In this building, he’s a teenager. Outside the building, he’s a boxer.”

It’s two lives that merge well.

Photos by Chris Riebow and Matt Heasley

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