CRYSTAL LAKE – The lettering visible from Virginia Rd. is nondescript: “MMA & FITNESS.” Inside, there isn’t even a full-size boxing ring. They have one, it’s just not set up yet – it’s stored under the MMA octagon.

In its first year offering boxing, MMA Underground in Crystal Lake is sending five boxers to the Chicago Golden Gloves finals, which begin Thursday and run through Saturday.

“It’s unbelievable that from such a small gym in Crystal Lake, out of nowhere, we’re competing with some of the biggest schools of boxing in Chicago,” MMA Underground owner Oscar Olivares said.

Luis Rodarte, 26, Megan Rembold, 26, Charlene Raymundo, 31, Noah Carrillo, 16, and Vinson May, 20, will all compete this week at the Golden Gloves in Cicero.

Olivares started MMA Underground about 10 years ago in his basement (hence the name Underground). Four years ago, it moved to its current location at the corner of Virginia Road and Main Street.

Head boxing coach Dr. Anthony Gioia approached Olivares about starting a boxing program last year. Gioia is a chiropractor who has been practicing mixed martial arts his entire adult life. Many of Underground’s boxers already were training in MMA at the gym when the boxing program started.

Carrillo, a student at Jacobs, has been training at Underground for two years and picked up boxing last fall.

“The toughest thing is loving it,” Carrillo said. “I naturally loved it, but I see a lot of people come and go because it’s a hard-working sport. A lot of times it isn’t fun. You have to love the sport.”

Carrillo won his semifinal two weeks ago to qualify for this week’s finals. Like Carrillo, Rodarte was completely new to boxing until last fall.

Rodarte, who lives in Island Lake, said something about being alone in the ring with an opponent drew him to boxing.

“When I first did this, it was like I was free,” Rodarte said. “It was me, and me alone. Nobody else. I chose this, and it was all because of me. It felt liberating.”

Rodarte also made his boxing debut last month in a Golden Gloves semifinal. He said he hardly can remember the fight much because it happened so fast.

Gioia said Underground usually has anywhere from 10 to 15 boxers show up for each training session. Gioia sticks to an old-school boxing approach, with an emphasis on power punches.

He is impressed with how far some of his boxers have come.

“Boxing is very different from MMA and very different from kickboxing,” Gioia said. “Just because you can throw punches in the octagon doesn’t mean you can throw punches in the ring.”

Rembold grew up in Oswego but now lives in Crystal Lake. She boxed for six or seven years at a gym in Oswego. When her former coach moved to Florida, her boxing career came to a halt.

Then MMA Underground started its boxing program.

Rembold is a two-time Golden Gloves winner before her boxing hiatus. She returned to the sport this year after about four years off.

“When I stopped, I didn’t really want to stop,” Rembold said. “It was kind of out of my control. … I got a heavy bag hanging in my basement. I couldn’t not come back. It was just a matter of timing.”

For Rembold and MMA Underground, it appears the timing was just right.

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