Jason Quintana has only been knocked out once. At 30, the Albuquerque native has fought his way through karate tournaments, city parks, streets, bars, prisons and kickboxing rings.
Nobody K.O.’d him, he says, until T.J. Trujillo landed a high kick and left hook to his head at a smoker held in the Rosales Kickboxing and Karate gym on Saturday, Nov. 8.
“Smoker” is an old boxing term. In the early to mid-1900s, illegal amateur boxing matches were held in bars, where spectators filled the air with their cigarette exhalations. Now the term refers to amateur fighting competitions held at kickboxing and karate gyms.
There are no cash prizes. The only accolades awarded are respect, experience and amateur belts.
On the night of Nov. 8, shortly after Trujillo knocks him to the mat, Quintana weaves through a sweating and shouting sold-out crowd in the Rosales gym. Slightly dazed, yet unbloodied, he approaches a friend and asks, “What’d he catch me with?”
“A kick to the head,” his friend replies.
“Oh well, can’t cry over spilled milk,” Quintana says before walking away.
Jason Quintana has always been a fighter. While his childhood peers were playing T-ball, he was learning to punch. Instead of soccer games, karate tournaments filled his weekends.
At age 12, Quintana earned a children’s black belt and helped instruct classes at the American Kenpo Karate Academy (A.K.K.A. Karate USA). By 15, he was an adult black belt. He dominated karate tournaments, remaining undefeated for nearly eight years. As a young adult, he decided to take a break from formal martial arts. Now, having lost six years to prison, Jason has resumed training at his old gym, aiming to become a 30-year-old professional kickboxer.
Although he left the gym, Quintana never quit fighting. He fought outside the walls of A.K.K.A. as often as inside them.
This was partly the result of growing up in a rough neighborhood, he says. The Quintana family’s home was located in the heart of Albuquerque’s War Zone, a block away from Trumball Park. Police dubbed this area north of the Fairgrounds the War Zone during the late '80s when homicide rates skyrocketed. The community has improved in recent years, yet it continues to rack up some of the highest crime rates in the city.
“It was pretty bad. People were getting shot, stabbed and beat up almost every day," Quintana recalls. "To us, it was nothing. We had to know how to fight."
“My brother and I were constantly fighting just to live at our house," he says. "I have never been involved in a gang. But we knew karate and ended up getting in a lot of fights with gangsters because we were living in their hood.”
As a youth, karate training five days a week gave Quintana an edge in street fights and left little time for getting in trouble. But when he stopped training, he started exchanging blows with the law.
“My record is so clean as a juvenile because I never did anything but karate and compete,” he says.
With age, things changed.
“Then I turned 18, stopped going to practice and began hanging out with my buddies more. That’s when the trouble started. I lost focus on what I was supposed to be doing.”
He began bombing walls as part of a tag crew in high school. He beat up a classmate and caught an aggravated battery charge. He was busted for graffiti, which, when coupled with his previous charge, placed him under probation. Quintana used his fists instead of tournament trophies to gain respect for his graffiti crew.
“Very rarely did I go and start fights. The main thing for taggers to do is get known. Naturally enemies came our way, so we’d set up dates and fight these guys. I was never going to back down from a fight,” says Quintana, claiming he also never lost any of those fights.
In 2001, a probation violation for changing residences without informing his probation officer landed him a yearlong stint behind bars.
He wasn’t reformed by 365 days of lockup. After being released he continued doing “stupid shit”: drinking, fighting and becoming involved with drug dealing.
The climax of his criminal activity came on Feb. 27, 2003. The crime would cost him the next four and half years of his life.
A big party was thrown for his friend’s birthday. The booze flowed, and everyone got drunk. Quintana’s friend was a weed dealer. Another dealer owed his friend money. They decided to pay the debtor a visit.
Quintana and three others drove to the guy’s home.
“We went to the house and kicked in the door. It was a drug dealer’s house, so we were going to grab the weed and some money or whatever they had,” he says.
A neighbor called the police before the door came down. Quintana was charged with aggravated battery, armed robbery and kidnapping. In New Mexico, restraining somebody through verbal intimidation constitutes kidnapping; Quintana says he picked up the charge by telling the debtor not to move.
He was sentenced to 18 years. The judge suspended 13, reducing the time to five years. He was released in June 2007. Quintana is on parole; if he violates it, he must automatically serve the suspended 13 years.
“Those 13 years are basically a rope to hang myself with if I get in trouble,” he says.
Prison offers ample opportunity for contemplation. Quintana reconsidered the life he was leading. He had gone from karate prodigy to repeat offender.
“Being locked up was an eye-opener. I realized you have to surround yourself with positivity, or you’re not going to be positive,” Quintana says.
He decided to do the time instead of letting the time do him. He chose not to worry about the outside world. He adopted a routine of working out and knocked months off his sentence for good behavior.
“The time made me mentally stronger. I had to step back and say, ‘This is your life right now. This has to be your home now.’ It’s just like fighting: It’s 90 percent mental," says Quintana. "Whether you're locked up, on the streets or in the ring, the majority of what’s going on is in your mind."
After his release, Quintana surrounded himself with positivity: He returned to martial arts and began training as a kickboxer.
Quintana knew he’d never stop fighting. It’s who he is.
“I decided if I’m going to fight, then to do it in the ring where it means something instead of getting in trouble and losing more years.”
The amateur kickboxer’s alarm buzzes at 5 a.m. He lifts weights for an hour before starting work at 7 a.m. His day is spent erecting scaffolding, mixing mud and unloading pallet after pallet of brick block as a mason for Beaty Construction.
After work, Quintana jogs laps at UNM’s Johnson Field before kickboxing class at 7 p.m.
“I train five or six days a week, but I’m really training 24/7 in my head," he says. "At work I’m fighting in my head, shadow boxing in the corner. I’m at it all day long. It’s always on my mind."
Three nights before the Rosales smoker, the 166-pound, 6-foot Quintana is jumping rope with his classmates. The rope blurs between skimming his shaved head and whipping a white floor splattered with red paint.
Trainer Fernando “Fernie” Calleros, a four-time kickboxing world champion in his 30s, paces the floor, scanning his fighters.
“It smells like feet and ass in here!” he shouts before fiercely snap-kicking a heavy bag almost as an afterthought.
Valerie Quintana, Quintana’s very pregnant second wife, smiles at the trainer’s declaration from her seat against the wall. His first son, who’s 11, lives with his first wife in Arizona.
After an hour of endurance, kicking and punching drills, Fernie addresses the class.
One of his female fighters backed out of a fight, and he’s outwardly pissed.
“If you have a fight, you don’t have a broken nose. You’re not sick. You don’t have family problems. You show up! If you don’t show up, it’s not because of any of these reasons, it’s because you’re scared,” he says, eyeing the students, who will fight at the upcoming smoker.
“And it’s all right if you’re scared, just don’t be a kickboxer," Fernie continues. "Go do something else. Play soccer.”
Facing a mirror spanning the entire wall, Quintana, front and center, nods to his reflection in agreement.
After class, Fernie walks across his office above the gym and lifts a frame off the wall. A 10-year-old Jason Quintana is featured on the cover of Fighter magazine.
Fernie is trying to build a kickboxing scene in Albuquerque, aspiring to hold at least two large-venue professional bouts a year. He sees promise in Quintana, who will go pro in April 2009. He hopes Quintana will raise A.K.K.A.’s notoriety. As a pro, Quintana may take fights out of state and will limit entering the ring to four times a year; he'll also fight for cash prizes.
Fernie spent the past four months transforming Quintana from a experienced streetfighter with a formal karate background into a kickboxer. Quintana’s already 30, which leaves him a small window to launch a professional fighting career, so Fernie has pitted him against experienced fighters.
Fernie says his greatest attribute is toughness.
“There’s a lot of great talent out there, but most them do not have the mental or physical ability to absorb punishment, so they end up folding," says Fernie. "Jason can take punishment and give it."
On Nov. 8, Rosales Karate and Kickboxing is filled beyond capacity. A piece of paper taped to the door reads “sold out.” More than 200 spectators, fighters and families fill the dim, muggy room. Flourescent bulbs above the ring provide the only light. Fighters pace through the crowd or stretch outside the front door with taped hands in anticipation of their bouts.
Going into the smoker, Quintana is 2-1, both wins by knockout. He had been lined up for a rematch against Eduardo Rios, a fighter out of Rosales gym whom he had previously knocked out.
But Rios backed out two days before the fight. T.J. Trujillo, a stocky and experienced fighter out of Chavez Martial Arts Academy, stepped in as a replacement fighter.
The first three rounds are mediocre for Quintana. Trujillo attacks his legs with kicks, then retreats to the ropes and covers up, protecting his head with his arms. This strategy prevents Quintana from landing any clean punches.
In the fourth round, he rocks Quintana with a high kick to the head. With his opponent dazed, Trujillo delivers a left hook to his right cheek, knocking him out.
After the smoker, Quintana and crew go for dinner at a nearby Applebee’s. Fernie buys Quintana a Corona at the bar, and the fighter cringes as lime juice sears a cut lip. He seems unfazed and has a positive attitude despite being punched unconscious an hour earlier.
“He was setting me up with the leg kicks for a high kick, and he got me. Boom! Next thing I know, I’m looking at the ceiling,” he says.
“I was on the ground thinking, That one hurt. Should I try to get up? Uh oh, my leg ain’t moving,” he recalls, smiling.
Seated at a long table next to his wife Valerie, Quintana picks at a bowl of chips.
He shrugs off the night’s disappointment and eases into his second beer (he only drinks right after a fight).
“If I get beat up, I get beat up. That’s what I’m in there for. I’ll be back in the gym on Monday.”