A win in Carlos Olmeda’s third professional fight may not save him from deportation to Mexico. But boxing may have saved his life, no matter where he ends up living it. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com
A win in Carlos Olmeda’s third professional fight may not save him from deportation to Mexico. But boxing may have saved his life, no matter where he ends up living it. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

With deportation looming, a Raleigh boxer finds himself in the fight of his life

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

October 18, 2017 09:31 AM

UPDATED October 18, 2017 05:35 PM

There is only one thing about Carlos Olmeda that is simple, and that’s his left hook, a powerful weapon for a boxer who is a wiry 130 pounds. Everything else about him, from why he’s 27 but has only two fights as a professional, to how he entered this country and why he might have to leave, is a tangled mess of stories and threads and contradictions.

Olmeda’s third professional fight comes Thursday night at the Durham Armory, and it’s hard to imagine much more riding on it. If he’s going to make a career of this, chase the big paydays and get ranked and get on television, he’s going to need to impress the promoters who will be scouting the card. And if he wants to remain in this country, he needs to do everything he can to convince an immigration judge next month he has a future here.

Ah, but it’s even more complicated than that.

Olmeda came to the United States illegally from Mexico as a teen before becoming a “Dreamer” – part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that allowed children brought to the United States by their parents to remain legally. But Olmeda let his DACA status lapse, and now he can’t renew it. He could be deported to Mexico as soon as next month, even if the only family he knows is all in Raleigh.

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“I’ve been living here more than half of my life, and if I go back I don’t have nowhere to go,” Olmeda said. “I’m not scared, but where should I go?”

A win could jump-start Olmeda’s boxing career, and potentially help him with his immigration status down the road, but there’s nothing simple about it. With Carlos Olmeda, nothing is ever simple, except this: At this point in his life, he’s trying to do the right thing. It just might be too late.

***

The PR pitch was alluring: Win could keep local boxer from being deported. All the juicy details were there. He endured a dangerous border crossing to join his family here, convincing his mother not to give up in the desert (true). He worked his way through high school, where he learned to box (true). He let his DACA status lapse in the wake of his mother’s death and has an immigration hearing next month (true).

And yet, even those details were less than half the story. His treacherous border crossing was his second; he’d already been in the country before deciding he wanted to go back to Mexico and changing his mind again. He got involved in amateur boxing as part of an intervention program for troubled teens when he was at risk of getting expelled from Broughton. He couldn’t renew his DACA status because of a drunk-driving charge that was still pending when President Trump issued his executive order winding up DACA last month, making the issue moot no matter what happens at his next court date, Oct. 30. (In any event, his case is likely to be continued.)

At the moment, Olmeda is considered undocumented. His best chance of remaining in the country is on what’s known as a U visa, which goes to crime victims who cooperate with the police, which Olmeda says he did after he was robbed at gunpoint in October 2016. At his immigration hearing Nov. 16, his lawyer will ask for a continuance, either because she has yet to receive certification of Olmeda’s cooperation from the Raleigh police, or because Olmeda has that certification and is in the process of applying for the visa. Such continuances are routinely, but not always, granted. (The government backlog for processing U visas is measured in years.)

Carlos Olmeda works out with coach Derrick Reed during open workouts at Title Boxing Gym in Cary on Oct. 12, 2017. He fights Thursday night at the Durham Armory.
Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

If the continuance isn’t granted, Olmeda would have the choice of accepting a deportation order, which would allow him to remain here while that order is appealed and he pursues the visa, or a voluntary departure to Mexico, where his only family is his estranged father, and he could potentially return on a visa issued to athletes of significant ability. A win Thursday could bolster his eligibility for that, but that’s a last resort.

Still, it’s the most pressing matter facing Olmeda. If he loses the four-round bout Thursday night against Vinny Denierio, his dreams of boxing stardom will be over. If he wins, he could get signed by a national promoter. He could get the opportunity to work his way up the featherweight rankings.

There’s no doubt that Olmeda has boxing talent. He proved that a long time ago. The question is whether it’s too late to make the most of it.

***

The first fights came on the streets of Mexico City. Olmeda has always been feisty, always a tough opponent in the ring or on the streets. His cousin Jorge Duran started boxing first, then dragged Olmeda into the gym with him. Olmeda joined his brother and sister in the United States the first time when he was 11, but left after only a year, homesick for Mexico and his mother. He returned for good in 2003, and she came with him this time. The first crossing was easy. He made it across the border on his second try. His brother met him on the other side. The second was a nightmare.

The group of eight included Olmeda, his mother and Duran. They were set up by their coyote – border smuggler – and robbed, strip-searched at gunpoint, then left to wander the desert for three days. His mother begged him to leave her behind. Olmeda can talk cheerfully in his squeaky voice about the most difficult parts of his life, but he chokes up telling the story about how he and his brother-in-law convinced her to keep going, telling her they had only a few hours to go when they still had days. When they did finally reach the safe house in Arizona, the smugglers held them hostage until the full payment arrived from North Carolina.

Once he arrived in Raleigh, Olmeda was getting in fights at Broughton before a juvenile intervention program shipped him to Second Round, an after-school boxing program for at-risk youth administered by Haven House Services. Derrick Reed watched him, at first, from across the gym. Known as “Coach D,” Reed worked with the good boxers, the promising ones, the ones who followed the rules and got to travel to fight in tournaments. It took a while for Olmeda to get into that group.

By 2010, when Olmeda graduated from Broughton at age 20, he was on his way to being a legitimate amateur star. He won a regional Golden Gloves tournament in Maryland in the novice 132-pound class that summer, then won Golden Gloves titles in two other states, his promoters say, although records are scarce. (This is not atypical of amateur boxing.)

“It got me out of trouble, from going the wrong way, the wrong path,” Olmeda said. “Gloves instead of guns.”

Carlos Olmeda works out at Title Boxing Gym in Cary on Oct. 16, 2017.
Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Word of his quickness and left hook traveled quickly. Over the next few years, he made a name for himself on the amateur circuit while working various jobs with Duran – the night shift at Dunkin’ Donuts or for an electrical contractor. Duran quit boxing when he had his first kid and started working three jobs; Olmeda kept at it until his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and he fell apart.

“I was in depression,” Olmeda said. “I didn’t care about nothing. Just smoke and drink.”

By the time she died in 2014, Olmeda had stopped boxing, started drinking and doing drugs and let his DACA status lapse. In an attempt to clean up his life, he joined a new church and decided to turn professional.

In April 2015, he won his debut at JC Boxing Gym in Raleigh but became entangled in what his camp describes as a contract dispute with the promoter. In October of that year, he was involved in an accident on New Bern Avenue. The responding officer observed an odor of alcohol and noted Olmeda admitted to smoking marijuana. Olmeda was charged with driving while under the influence, which made it impossible to renew his DACA status.

Olmeda was convicted on the DWI charges but appealed, claiming discrepancies in the blood-alcohol testing. After he missed a court date in October 2016, a warrant was issued. Days later, when he called police to report the robbery, he ended up being arrested as well. He was in a detention center in Georgia and on the verge of being deported to Mexico when his family hired an immigration lawyer. She was able to get him freed on bail, but his immigration status has been in limbo ever since.

***

Duran, his cousin, says Olmeda had to wait out his contract with the promoter before he could fight again. The two-year delay between fights was not ideal. Unlike bigger boxing cities like Philadelphia or Buffalo or Detroit or Washington, D.C., there aren’t a lot of promoters here, not a lot of chances to fight. Olmeda was already off to a late start. A boxer’s career window isn’t as short as an NFL running back’s, but it isn’t long, either.

“Right now, the door can be wide open for him,” said Reed, the trainer who worked with Olmeda at Second Round. “He’s not a young guy, but he’s not old. He hasn’t been beat up yet. He’s fresh. He’s in shape. He just has to continue doing those things, because you’re 27, you can look 30 tomorrow.”

Working with a new promoter, Olmeda got back in the ring and won his second fight in April at the Durham Armory and had a third scheduled for July, only for his opponent to pull out and that promoter to leave the scene entirely.

Since then, Olmeda has waited for this fight, training at night at Box-2B-Fit in Brier Creek with Santos Ramirez, one of his coaches from Second Round, while working for an electrical contractor during the day. In the weeks leading up to this fight, he took a leave of absence from work and asked Reed to help put the finishing touches on his technical training at Title Boxing Club in Cary.

Most fighters at his level make about $500 a fight. If he sells out his allocation of tickets – Olmeda gets a cut – it’s a fair guess that Olmeda will end up making close to $1,000 on Thursday. But a win could open the door to sponsors and bigger purses, and there is plenty of money at the top of the ladder, if Olmeda can get there, if he can make his name mean something. He already has a nickname: Hijo de Dios, Son of God.

At least one promoter believes in him already. Michelle Rosado grew up in the Philadelphia fight scene and was working as a promoter in Arizona when she was hired to help publicize those April and July fight cards. When the promoter of those fights walked away, she saw enough promise in boxing in Durham to take over and try it herself. She also saw promise in Olmeda, a name she recognized from his amateur days.

“There was word going around that Carlos Olmeda was back in the gym, wanting to fight again,” Rosado said. “He’s a pretty good fighter when he’s training, when he’s fighting. He’s got all these other things outside of the gym, but let’s put him on the card and see if he’s focused.”

Rosado suggested a couple opponents for Thursday’s fight, but Olmeda wanted to face Denierio, a tough lefty from New York who represents a step up in class and a chance to make a big leap up the ladder. It’s an aggressive move, but he’s always been an aggressive fighter, from the first time he walked in the door at Second Round.

Durham’s up-and-coming Marko Bailey, who headlines the 10-bout card Thursday, got that prime spot in part by beating Denierio twice to prove his bona fides. Rosado says there are promoters coming down from the northeast to scout the fighters Thursday and see if any are worth signing nationally. If Olmeda knocks out Denierio, he has a chance.

***

There’s a practical side to this. Olmeda and Duran are as close as brothers, born only a month apart, and Duran is his unofficial manager. Duran coaxed Olmeda back into the ring and has helped out with his legal fees, but has a family of his own to support. As his legal bills mount – $1,000 here, $3,000 there – there’s only so much he can do.

“It is hard, but it is what it is,” Duran said, wiping away tears. “God has a plan for everybody.”

Olmeda faces three big fights in the next six weeks. Thursday night against Denierio first. Then his DWI court date. Then his immigration hearing. To stay here, in the country he considers his home, the last matters more than the first two. But to chase the dream he wants to chase, the first matters the most.

It seems simple. Fight and win.

“Immigration wants to see that I’m doing actually something good, that I’m not just here to be here,” Olmeda said. “They want to see me progress. They want to see me doing good.”

But there is nothing simple about Carlos Olmeda. He fits neatly into no compartment of the immigration debate. Those who would sympathize with him must be willing to overlook his past issues with the law; those who would see him deported must be willing to overlook his productive employment and family ties here. This is really the only home he knows – and he knows he’s the one who has put that at risk.

Would a victory in the ring Thursday matter to a judge with a huge backload of immigration cases? “Probably not,” said Beckie Moriello, Olmeda’s immigration lawyer.

Even if Olmeda wins, he might still end up alone in Mexico. Even if he wins, there are no guarantees of future success at this lowest level of boxing in a state that isn’t exactly known for it. But it’s all he can do.

There’s no telling what lies ahead for Olmeda, win or lose. The path to this point has been anything but easy, and sometimes there’s only himself to blame. There’s only one thing he can control now, one thing that’s simple for him, and that’s what happens in the ring Thursday night.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock can be reached at 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

THURSDAY NIGHT FIGHTS

Carlos Olmeda (2-0, 2 KO) is scheduled to fight Vinny Denierio (2-2, 1 KO) in a four-round featherweight bout Thursday night as one of nine scheduled undercard bouts before Durham’s Marko Bailey takes on Steve Massey in the lightweight main event.

WHERE: Durham Armory, 200 Foster St.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday

TICKETS: $30/$50/$75 at the door, ragingbabe.com or Dame’s Chicken and Waffles in Durham