LACKLAND AIR FORCE BASE, Texas –
Last week, members of the Air Force boxing team returned to Lackland's gym, laced up their boots and taped up their knuckles.
It's their first time back since departing for the Armed Forces Boxing Championship in April, and this time they're preparing for the "best of the best" in the country.
Under the guidance of Air Force coach Steven Franco, lightweight James Barber, Tinker AFB, Okla., light welterweight Marcus Pena, Kirtland AFB, N.M., and welterweight Jose Gonzalez, Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, will face off against the nation's top-ranked amateurs at the 2010 USA Boxing National Championships in Colorado Springs, Colo., July 12-17.
The team will undergo another round of Franco's intense brand of training.
Unlike the Air Force training camp, the three boxers will have a full month to train, instead of 13 days to get ready for the Air Force Boxing Championships and another 11 before Armed Forces.
"It will be tougher than before," Franco said, with Pena and Gonzalez jumping rope in front of him. "Right now, these guys are in decent shape.
"I'm trying to push them all the way to their peak."
Training includes 3.5- to 5.5-mile runs daily, followed by plyometric workouts, and the addition of sparring sessions three or four times weekly.
The Air Force boxing coach also said fewer boxers means more one-on-one time; he'll be able to devote more attention to helping each be at his best.
Gonzalez, the only Airman selected to stay with the camp through the Armed Forces Championships this year, is ready to get back under his coach's watchful eye, recognizing he still has a lot to learn.
"It's amazing how much I've learned in the short amount of time," he said. "I feel like a whole different person."
Pena is stepping in for Matthew McCoy at light welterweight.
He said mental strength is a key attribute he developed during his first training camp this year.
He recalls having "never worked out that hard in my life."
But the road ahead is rough.
Franco said it's likely their opponents have as many bouts as the Airmen just on the way to nationals.
Gonzalez and Pena are conscious of, and yet undaunted by that fact.
"I'm glad to have the opportunity and I'm just going to give it my all," Pena said. "I only have five fights, but I'm going to take it to them and do the best I can."
Franco knows from experience nothing comes easy in Colorado.
He has been there twice, in 1995 and 1996, with the Air Force, and was the No. 10 fighter at 106 pounds.
"They're the best of the best," he said. "Once you are in there boxing the best in the nation, just going three rounds is big, and if you win that's even bigger."
Franco said once the boxers are back in fighting form, he'll use sparring sessions with local boxers to gain additional experience.
A smoker competition at the San Fernando Gym, in downtown San Antonio, June 26, offers the service boxers their first taste of competition since April 20. Each Air Force boxer will fight once during the one-day event.
The last to arrive, Barber will be back at Lackland July 2, but Franco said he isn't worried about his fitness.
An Air Force boxer at Armed Forces and nationals last year, Barber enters as the most experienced of the three.
Although the Airman lost a decision to eventual national lightweight champion Ernesto Garza, Franco said the experience was a confidence booster.
"He's tough," Franco said. "He'll get hit and keep coming, and I like that. You have to have that, especially at the national level."
The Air Force boxing team continues training at the Chaparral Fitness Center boxing gym until departing for the five-day tournament July 10.