I was born on a Sunday morning in Milwaukee, a first-generation Puerto Rican American. My mother often told me I had received special graces because I was born on the Lord’s Day.
I was baptized and confirmed in the Catholic church and regularly attended Sunday Mass with my mother and sister until I was about nine years old. Eventually, they stopped going, but I continued this weekly ritual. I prayed to God for help, since I was growing up in a hostile environment.
Becoming a champion
Adam was my age, one of many Polish kids whose families had lived in the neighborhood for generations, and he took an unpleasant interest in me. One of his favorite pastimes was following me around and taunting me, drawing on a vast arsenal of racial slurs he had evidently picked up from his father.
One day I came home crying with a bloody nose, and my father demanded to know what had happened. With tears in my eyes, I repeated Adam’s words, including several epithets. “We don’t want you here,” he had warned me. “Leave our neighborhood now!”
I had seen my father angry before, but now I could also see the pain in his eyes. With a stony expression, he said, “The next time you see Adam, you will defend yourself. Then he’ll leave you alone.”
The very next day, my father marched me into the boxing gym. Instantly, I was intimidated by the other men there. They towered over me as they pummeled the heavy hanging bags, sweating and focused. I was pushed in front of a mirror and shown some basic combinations by my future coach and mentor, Israel “Shorty” Acosta. He turned to my father and said with conviction, “Héctor is a natural. He will become a champion.”
Shorty’s prediction was correct, even though my father never saw me compete. He and my mother divorced when I was 12. I prayed often for his return, but there were no calls—no financial support, either. The father I loved was gone.
At the time, my 17-year-old sister had become addicted to drugs while descending into mental illness. And I was still enduring racism, bullying, and gang violence with regularity. Thankfully, boxing provided the structure and support I needed. It taught me dedication, determination, and discipline.
As a successful young boxer, I began traveling around the world representing the United States national boxing team. These travels brought a greater awareness of my own ingrained biases. When we had scheduled bouts in Poland, I assumed everyone there was bad because a Polish kid had bullied me. While visiting Barbados, I came face to face with genuine poverty, beyond anything I’d experienced in Milwaukee.
But if boxing taught me more about myself and my blind spots, it also slowly distanced me from church and my faith. And it entangled me in some unhealthy relationships. Once, at a restaurant, a group of friends and I decided to sprint from the table without paying. The police rounded a few of us up and took us to jail. When Shorty arrived to retrieve us, he was furious. He reminded me that I needed to be a champion both in and out of the ring. With my mother’s permission, he brought me into his own home to ensure I wouldn’t be surrounded by negative influences.
Thankfully, God reentered my life when I attended a Bible study in Colorado Springs while training for an international fight against Italy. I found meaning and purpose through studying Scripture and enjoying fellowship with other men. When I got back home, I wanted to take my faith more seriously, but I was easily distracted. One friend said, “You’re too young. Why would you give your life to God? You need to experience life, revel in your success, and enjoy all the benefits that will come along with being a champion boxer and perhaps one day a millionaire.”
During this time of contemplation, I began turning my gaze toward the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona. I had spent years preparing for this moment. As a teenager, I was a seven-time US national champion, which made me the favored welterweight to represent my country in Barcelona. I was beyond excited.
The Olympic trials pitted me against Jesse Briseno, another American boxer, for a coveted spot on the team. I knew I was in for the toughest fight of my life. When I lost, I was devastated—my dreams of Olympic glory had vanished.
Before the bout with Briseno, I had counted on hearing from major boxing promoters who could advance my career. When they failed to come calling, I felt lost and rudderless, wondering what to do with my life. That’s when I started attending church and Bible studies again, and on December 27, 1992, I purchased my very first Bible. That same day, I gave my life to Jesus Christ.
As I began immersing myself in the life of the church, I continued to box. Eight months later, I stepped back into the ring with Briseno, where we fought for the 147-pound US National Championship. This time I knocked him out in fewer than two minutes. That victory breathed new life into my career prospects. The fight was televised, and the publicity landed Shorty and me on the cover of USA Boxing’s magazine, as well as the inside cover of Sports Illustrated. With all this attention, I once again considered turning professional.
At the same time, I was feeling conflicted. I found myself torn by a passage from 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies” (6:19–20). I pictured myself in the ring hurting someone who was a temple of the Holy Spirit. I pictured my own temple getting hit and endangering my body and my brain in a way that God had not intended. Was boxing compatible with the words of Scripture?
After a year of prayer and discernment, I left boxing behind. Walking away was the hardest decision I had ever made. I knew my choice let many people down, and I was devastated by the pain I caused Shorty. At the same time, I felt an overwhelming sense of joy and peace.
Moving on from boxing was a blessing in many ways. For starters, it freed me from many hazards professional fighters face. Promoters often take advantage of the athletes. There is pressure to use drugs and engage in unhealthy relationships. And the threat of brain damage or even death always lingers.
Leaving the ring also allowed me to form a family, pursue God with renewed vigor, and explore career opportunities better aligned with my faith. Today, I head up a Lutheran social service organization committed to the infinite worth of everyone under our care, no matter their circumstances or challenges.
I’ll always be thankful to boxing for providing character-shaping structure and discipline when I needed it most. But only by giving myself to Christ did I discover a calling worthy of my utmost devotion.
Héctor Colón is president and CEO of Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan. He is the author of My Journey from Boxing Ring to Boardroom: 5 Essential Virtues for Life and Leadership.
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