Francisco Mendez came to the United States from the small town of Huehuepiaxtla, Mexico, when he was just 20 years old. When he first arrived in New York, he worked as a dishwasher in restaurants; when he left work, he would head straight to the boxing gym.
Two decades ago, Mendez opened his own gym. He trained amateurs and professionals alike out of the Midtown location, which was open every day from 5 a.m. to midnight. He’d stay in the gym all day. People who trained with him said he made a point to work with everyone who wanted to learn, and he allowed other trainers to use the gym to build their own businesses.
Last month, at age 61, he died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. His son, Frankie Mendez, told BuzzFeed News his dad tested positive for the disease in a hospital in New York about a week and a half before he died on April 21. He left behind his son, daughter, and wife.
“[To come from] where he came from, to building a successful business and in the heart of New York — that's something that's just a perfect example of achieving the American dream,” Frankie said during a recent interview with BuzzFeed News. “He always had boxing in his heart.”
The gym expanded to larger locations over the years, and Hunter Walker, a journalist who used to train with Mendez, said he was always struck by how inclusive and welcoming he was. He trained, Walker said, both amateurs and professionals, men and women alike.
“One thing that was really, really special about Francisco is: Here was a guy who was a very legitimate professional … and the thing is, he was doing it 20 years ago for a mixture of, you know, aspiring pros, Golden Gloves guys, total amateurs like myself, and women,” Walker told BuzzFeed News.
Walker and other people who trained with Mendez said he was calm and quiet, with a perfect sense of when to push the people he trained and when to be encouraging.
“Boxing is a very tough sport, and it's, you know, very aggressive by nature, but he was always a very gentle, calm presence,” Walker said.
In an email to BuzzFeed News, Hadas Merimah-Yin, a woman who trained with Mendez, shared some of her thoughts after his death.
“Francisco was one-of-a-kind & it is so hard to talk about him in the past.. cause every time I pick up my gloves or see a punching bag he is in my mind (telling me to punch harder, to not give up, to fix my form), I am so going to miss that,” she wrote.
She trained with Mendez even while pregnant; she held her baby shower at his gym.
“Francisco allowed personal trainers to use his gym to build up their own training business,” she wrote. “While other boxing gyms closed, struggled and even [tried] to imitate the culture. Mendez Boxing Gym thrived & flourished because he always gave people an opportunity and he always put his people first. Mendez Boxing is not a gym, It’s family. It’s because Francisco wanted it that way.”
Frankie said it was not until his father died that his family got a sense of how important he was to so many people.
“After his passing, the reach that we got from all over the world was huge, and that opened my eyes [to] more of what he was able to accomplish, the amount of people he touched,” he said. “We were receiving all these stories of how he helped them. He was never selfish. Always stayed humble. He didn’t let success get to his head.”
Not long after Mendez died, the World Boxing Council released a statement, mourning the trainer. “Mr. Méndez was one of the humblest people in boxing, always helpful, and did a lot to help the fighters,” the statement, originally released in Spanish, said. “Rest in peace!”
Mendez’s family put together a GoFundMe campaign to raise money to bury him in his hometown, a process that his son said has been expensive and complicated to navigate during the pandemic.
“[Mendez’s gym is] a place where many of us, not only learned to box but also discovered our full potential. For many of us, it became like a second home because of the camaraderie that was easily developed there,” wrote Henry Deleon, who organized the fundraiser. “This was all thanks to Francisco Mendez for starting this community, and who with open arms welcomed us all in.”