The highlight of 12-year-old David "Dynamite" Lopez’s life was becoming the country’s No. 1 boxer for his age and weight last year.
But a close second was sparring at his dad’s gym with undefeated super middleweight world champion Andre Ward one day this May. Ward threw a few fast punches. One or two landed on David’s headgear, throwing the boy back.
"It was uncomfortable," said the young boxer from Oakland, California. "But I didn’t cry."
Still, his nose smarted a bit and he got to play hooky from Westlake Middle School, where he is a sixth grader.
"It was awesome," he added, his green eyes twinkling.
Chance to be No. 1 Again
The scrappy pre-teen now has a chance to win No. 1 again. He qualified to attend the Junior Olympics National Championships in Dallas, Texas, next month. This round, he’s 85 pounds — a weight he begrudgingly achieves by following a "no hot chips" and no-soda diet. His father is now trying to raise enough funds to get there, as traveling the world to win boxing championships, especially for a working-class family, will be a feat.
David hasn’t read Malcom Gladwell’s "Outliers," which touts the idea that 10,000 hours of practice are required to excel at something.
But David intrinsically understands the book’s theory. He’s already put in about 7,000 of those hours, having started to box when he was just 5. That work led USA Boxing to dub him the top 70-pound boxer in the country in 2015. He also won the national title in Puerto Rico the same year.
"Practice," David said simply when asked why he’s so good. "Boxing is just what I do."
"Dedicated," chimed in Jasper McCargo, 29, who made the U.S. Olympic boxing team in 2014 and trains alongside David at his father’s gym in Oakland, Lightning’s Boxing Club. "And he has a great father."
Father and Son Box Together
David’s father, Kris "Lightning" Lopez, 39, was a two-time Golden Glove champion and now runs a respected youth boxing program. Father and son train together for two hours every day after school. They also have an unusually close bond, which is obvious to anyone, even when meeting them for the first time.
The elder Lopez echoed that "repetition" is why his son is so skilled. But Lopez also added: "It’s in our blood." Lopez’s great-grandfather was a bigtime fighter in the Philippines in the 1920s.
Half the week, David goes home with his mother, Wells Fargo corporate finance administrative assistant Denielle Allen, who can’t bear to watch her son fight in the ring.
"My mom will ask how a fight went, but she doesn’t want to come," David said. He added proudly he’s never suffered a concussion, and only broken his hand once.
He's close with his mom, too. She's the one who cooks him the rare feast of fried chicken and ice cream, no matter if he wins or not.
"I went to one fight," Allen said, "and I got sick for three days to my stomach." While David's boxing, she sits at home and prays with her Acts Full Gospel community for his safe return from the ring.
The other half of the week, he goes home with his father and his wife, who moved to Pittsburg, California, when they were priced out of Oakland.
Of Lopez’s four children, two are boxers, including his 20-year-old son, Daniel, who has also won national championships and now attends Laney College in Oakland.
Michael Jordan-Type Talent
Ever since he was in kindergarten, people could see David had something special. His jabs are blazing quick. His feet are light. When he jumps, the rope whizzes by too fast to see. He makes karate-like exhales when he jabs. He never backs down. He's confident but not a showoff.
"He’s got a talent that you see every 100 years," Lopez said. "Michael Jordan-type talent. He’s better than Andre Ward was at 11. At 5, you could see he was stronger and faster."
Ward met David two years ago at the 30th anniversary of King’s Boxing Gym in Oakland. Ward, who is Oakland born and now lives in Danville, noticed David’s quick feet and expert jabs.
"He said, 'You got skills,'" David recalled of the conversation, adding that the champion boxer then asked, "What’s your Instagram?"
The two have been sparring ever since. And last week, Ward stopped by the club unannounced to work out with David. That’s when Ward threw some fast ones at David’s headgear.
"He had never done that before," David said. It hurt. And tears sprang to his eyes. But David said, "I wasn’t going to back down."
Andre Ward Raves About 'Dynamite'
Colorado-based USA Boxing spokeswoman Julie Goldsticker knew David’s name with no prompting, mostly because she works with Ward, who "just raves about David." She said David walked Ward out for his last two fights.
As for finding sponsors to offset boxing costs for young people and families, Goldsticker acknowledged it’s a challenge. Mostly, she said, that’s because boxing is an individual sport and harder to find companies and wealthy entities to support one athlete, as opposed to a team. David’s father estimates it might cost $4,000 for the two of them to fly to the Junior Olympics June 26 to July 2 in Dallas, and stay at hotels for the week.
When David’s not boxing, he’s getting good grades in the hopes of attending Yale University one day. He still wants to box when he grows up, but said wisely: "I might study business as a fallback."
Hard to Remember He's a Kid
Family friend and mentor Jose Grace said he thinks David will accomplish anything he sets his mind to.
"He’s serious, he’s a scholar, he’s the full package," Grace said. "Sometimes I have to remember that he’s just a kid."