Editor's Note: Teo Medina’s family and friends have put together a benefit to help him and his family with medical bills. The benefit will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday in Pocatello at Grace Lutheran High School. There will be food, drinks, a live auction, a silent auction and games. Tickets are $10 a person, or $30 for 4. Everyone is welcome to participate.
POCATELLO – Teo Medina lurches his head forward and inches ahead, his body swaying like a leaf in the wind. His black socks press into the mat with every hulking stride until he settles near the corner.
He stares up with this gaze that feels strong enough to change the weather, his dark eyes peering forward with this odd sense of comfort. Every movement is a product of muscle memory and instinct. Teo looks at peace, which is never a welcome sight if you’re the soul on the receiving end of his stony gaze.
He’s got his target retreating to the corner. Teo's right arm locks in at 90 degrees as the padding of his red glove presses against his forehead and shades his right eye. Those deep, swinging strides turn to choppy shuffles. Teo coils up like a rattlesnake that has spotted dinner, seemingly ready to pounce.
Then his daughter unleashes a right uppercut to his chin.
The thuds ring out of Teo's gym, Southpaw Boxing Club, to the quiet part of North Second Avenue. The red bricks have dark streaks under the windows and the paint is chipping on the wooden boards used to cover the high glass. But the big store-front windows of Southpaw glisten at sunset, the former antique store still offering an enticing sneak peek.
As he's bouncing around the ring, Teo still has on his muggy green work pants with five pens neatly tucked into the pocket just beside his left knee. His dark hair is patted down with strands hanging over his forehead. He has a rugged black beard that wraps around his mouth and rises when Teo flashes a welcoming smile. Teo is a sturdy figure, well-built without being burly.
But he acts like a shape-shifter in the ring. One moment, he crouches down, turns his shoulder and transforms into this nimble target. The next, his shoulders broaden, his legs rise and he looks like Andre the Giant to whoever stands across the ring.
For a few minutes this night, it was his 14-year old daughter Gracie. People watch her box and can’t help but see Teo. She’s that good. So fleet-footed. So quick. So powerful. She’s about the same height as her dad and their ring mannerisms are almost uncanny. They bob with the same swagger. They attack with the same quick hands and vengeance. They seem like clones.
A few minutes into their impromptu sparring session, Teo has Gracie pressed to the pool-noodle covered ropes in the corner of the ring, throwing a few soft undercuts to her midsection. She slips under his left arm and backpedals to safety. Teo walks back at her with his powerful strides and throws a left jab over her forehead as a decoy. Gracie doesn’t fall for it. She braces for the right hook, pops up and tags her dad’s chin with a little jab.
Teo starts smiling. His neck is doused with sweat. His breaths are heavy. But Teo looks good, and feels fresh enough to let his 16-year-old son Teo Jr. strap on the black gloves and fire away.
Teo takes the damage and responds with missiles of his own. No one would have a clue his kidneys are functioning at 11%, that he is in stage 5 of chronic kidney disease, that less than 24 hours later he'd be receiving an emergency procedure to get a catheter in so he could begin dialysis.
No, the 38-year-old Teo Medina doesn’t look sick. He looks incredible. Fearless. Immaculate. But because Teo looks that way, a part of him feels the need to act that way, too. When his hands numb or his legs swell or he loses concentration or the constant exhaustion strains his ability, he relents. Teo tries to fight back to prove he can.
“I know my output,” he says, choking up. “I know Teo Medina’s output is better than this.”
To Teo, fighting kidney disease means showing up. If it alters his life, he figures, it wins.
Said Teo’s wife, Erica: “He just didn’t let himself be sick."
“Don’t let it happen,” Teo interjected. “Don’t let it beat you. You can’t let it beat you. When you convince yourself you’re beat, then you’re done. You’re beat.”
“And he wants the W,” Erica added.
Introductions with Teo Medina do not include much chit-chat or small talk about the weather. I waltzed through the Southpaw doors one night and spoke all of five words to Teo before he peered at my slight frame and busted my chops about my less-than-ripped upper body. But then he kept talking, asking about a workout regimen and explaining that a few weeks hitting the heavy bag would surely help.
It wasn’t patter to join his gym, but it could have been. Teo is a salesman, but his elevator speech is less of a spiel and more of a series of questions that has ignited curiosity since he opened the gym in February 2019.
Asked for the pitch, Teo’s eyes widen.
“Oh dude, I just talk to them,” Teo says before churning through lines. “What do you do? What do you do for fun? What brings you here? (They’ll say), ‘Oh, I wanna learn how to box.’ Well I can teach how to box. All right, let’s go. (Or they’ll say) ‘I don’t know, my mom just made me come.’ Well how do you know you don’t like it? Do you want to try it? Let’s just try it. How about tonight. Just try it. Just give it a shot. Give me all you got tonight and if you don’t like it, I’ll see you when I see you.”
Teo lets out a deep breath.
“That’s how I do it,” he adds. “A lot of them come back.”
There is often some level of anxiety for first-timers in boxing gyms. Hesitant kids stroll into the foreign domain and automatically feel intimidated, scared by all the equipment and all the bigger kids who throw punches that look like ballistic missiles. And even if the kids are gung-ho about either boxing or training, there are usually worried parents, trepid about putting their children in a sport where they’re hurting others or coming home with bloody noses and bruises.
That latter example was Debbie Inzurriaga. Her daughters were fascinated by boxing, keen to try out a unique hobby that looked exciting. So at a friend's recommendation she brought her 12-year old Frida and 14-year old Mia to Southpaw in January. She opened the glass doors and her body filled with worry. Even worse, because of COVID restrictions, Debbie wasn’t allowed to watch from inside.
So in the middle of the Pocatello winter, Debbie and her husband stood outside from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. and pressed their phones to the glass, snapping photos of their two daughters trying something new. That first week, Debbie couldn’t bring herself to up-and-leave. Sometimes, she’d park out front of the gym and watch through the windows. Other times, she’d pace around Second Avenue in the dark. Teo had given her confidence from onset Frida and Mia would be OK, but moms will never not be cautious.
“I think after that first week I was like, ‘OK, they’re fine,’” Debbie said. “I don’t even know how to describe this but just the way he opened up, it was just like a done deal … He gave me peace of mind.”
Teo did the same for Jordan Paz, a 16-year old who became one of the few to actually box for Southpaw. When newcomers start at the gym, Teo always asks if they’re there to box. Most shake their heads, intent on only using the gym for training and occasionally hopping in the ring to spar. Teo doesn’t care if a kid ever fights in a real match. The fact they walked in the door suffices. But when a kid shows interest in competing in bouts, Teo will tweak their training.
He’s done that with Gracie and he did the same with Paz.
“He was not worried about any of the fights,” Paz said of Teo. “He was just like, ‘You got this.’ He was very confident in what I could do but I was very nervous for my first one – and my second one.”
Paz lost his first match, but gave it another go – again with the upbeat Teo in his corner. During the match, the voice of his coach – and everyone else, for that matter – was drowned out as Paz focused on landing his connections and keeping his hands up.
He was used to Teo giving him advice and positive encouragement between rounds. But Paz can still see the grin plastered across Teo’s face when the first round bell rang.
“That’s when I knew like, ‘Maybe I can win this,’” Paz said.
He, of course, got the victory.
When the next Southpaw win comes remains unknown.
The gym closed indefinitely in June. It will open back up whenever Teo is better – and asking when that may be produces a series of guesses and hypotheticals. A young single mother whom Erica got to know earlier this year in an Eagle Gate College medical assistant class stepped up and volunteered to become Teo’s donor. But Erica is sure to preface that notion with the phrase “possible donor.” Even though the AB-blood type runs through Teo’s veins, making him a universal receiver, finding a compatible donor requires the kidney be the right size, that the tissues match, that the antibodies match, that everything be perfect.
“There’s a whole bunch more that goes into it than just the blood type,” Erica said. “The chances of the first person going in and being a match – I mean, you hope for it but you don’t expect it.”
They’ll know more in the coming weeks. Teo and Erica will meet with the transplant team on Sept. 1 and if everything goes perfectly – if the potential donor is a puzzle-piece match – the couple has heard the fastest a transplant procedure could occur is early December. Then, if everything goes perfect with the operation, recovery would last another three months after that.
So, there’s a chance Teo Medina could be back coaching boxing in the spring.
“It’s certainly not soon,” Teo said.
“It’s not soon,” responded Erica. “But, to me, I’m like that’s not that bad.”
Southpaw Boxing Club was always going to close in June. Kidney disease or not, the sixth month of the year is plant turnaround at Teo’s place of work, Orion Mechanical in Soda Springs, a scheduled stoppage of operations filled by tearing out tanks, replacing tanks, replacing steel, swapping out pipes, on and on and on.
“We describe it as hell,” said Mark Taylor, Orion’s owner and also Erica’s brother. “Thirty days of hell.”
A pipefitter by trade, Teo works at Orion as a project manager, which requires practically completing a marathon a day for all of June, running around the plant checking on a million different things for 14 hours a day. Unless he blew up an air mattress and slept in the ring, Teo wouldn’t have had any time to visit the gym.
So Teo and Erica let their boxers know that Southpaw would shut its doors for the summer months. What they didn’t do was divulge the extent of Teo’s kidney failure, or allude to the reality that the need for a kidney transplant had been looming for years.
“Three years ago,” Teo says.
“Ten years ago,” Erica corrects him. “He was diagnosed 10 years ago.”
Erica was in a Certified Nursing Assistant class at the time, learning about some of the big words her husband was soon going to be diagnosed with. The first warning sign came when Teo’s plasma donation was rejected because his urine contained too much protein. At the onset of kidney disease, kidneys will stop filtering protein. But there were no outward issues, no physical indicators that something was seriously wrong.
Then Erica took Teo’s blood pressure one day, trying out the tools from her class. Her husband’s numbers: 240 over 170.
“I thought he was going to have a stroke and die,” Erica said.
Blood pressure medication temporarily quelled that worry, but more red flags arose. Out camping, Teo’s legs swelled to the size of rafts. The couple went to a nephrologist, who diagnosed Teo with stage 3 kidney disease but said he was just “fat.” So Teo shed 20 pounds, but the kidney disease didn’t vanish. It just got worse. In March, Teo’s kidneys were functioning at 21%, within a few percent of being eligible for a kidney transplant. Doctors, though, told him it would be a year until he crossed that threshold. Three months later the number had fallen to 12% and a transplant was urgent.
That news came on Sunday, June 13. The news that things were going downhill, that dialysis was imminent, that his long-term survival hinged on a transplant, which hinged on locating a donor who also needed to be a perfect match. And Teo Medina still was in Soda Springs at 6 a.m. the next morning running from the Itafos Plant to the Filter Plant, climbing flights of stairs then scaling them down then walking a quarter-mile across the campus then who knows what.
The effects of his kidney disease were as invisible as the air.
Teo is a human being racing down the road with his cruise control set at 100 mph. He can’t slow down. Doctors tell him to. His wife tells him to. His boss tells him to. But it seems Teo is scared the second he taps the brakes, the car will screech to a halt.
“I think he kind of feels that if he slows down or quits working that he’s been defeated,” Taylor said.
Which made July so tough for Teo. Southpaw’s month-long closing came and went, and there were still no kids learning to twist their wrist as they threw jabs into the heavy bag and no kids celebrating jumping rope for three minutes straight and still no sparring sessions between Teo and Gracie.
The rent payments were still due. The medical bills were only going to balloon. Teo and Erica knew this. And, so, they had to discuss the gym’s viability moving forward. But one day, before any verdict was reached, Teo momentarily vanished. Erica had an inkling where he ran off to.
She arrived at Southpaw to her husband ripping posters off the back wall, stuffing things inside of boxes, and imagining a world where the gym was gone, where there was no more Teo Medina, the boxing coach.
“I just told him, ‘No,’” Erica recalled.
They sat down on the small bench of Southpaw’s entrance way. Emotional, Teo looked at his wife and told her, “The thought of losing this is just a lot. I can’t.”
“I think he needs that to heal. He just needs to know he has it, because it’s what he loves most,” Erica said of the gym. “It’s for the kids. He loves the kids. He needs to feel like he’s making a difference and if he didn’t have that, he wouldn't have a reason.”
The white walls of Southpaw look like the bedroom of some boxing-crazed youngster.
Black and white posters of old Idaho State University boxers are taped up alongside newer boxing posters that are still creased in the middle. There’s a white one advertising the 2009 Rocky Mountain Regional Golden Gloves Championship at the Westwood Mall and a yellow one from that December highlighting an amateur bout sponsored by the Gate City Boxing Club. A picture of Muhammed Ali hangs near a newspaper article highlighting ISU alum Ed Sanders, the late heavyweight who won a 1952 gold medal at the Olympics.
And near the door is a trophy case overflowing. It seems like enough to give every Pocatello citizen their own paperweight that includes mini metallic boxers with some athletic-looking stance. The glass case is set right across from three heavy bags.
There have to be days when weary kids wail on the bags and look up at what’s possible, at what their coach accomplished.
The boxing story of Teo Medina spans about a decade, starting in 1990. His boxing upbringing almost sounds mythical, like you could swap out Teo for Rocky and the seven-minute montage wouldn’t look much different.
When his classes ended for the day at Pocatello High School, 17-year Teo would head to his house on Main Street and change into running clothes. Young Teo would jog down the busy streets of town, running up the face of the East Bench to his maintenance job on the top of the hill at Portneuf Valley Rehabilitation.
When his shift ended, Teo flew down to Old Town and popped into the Gate City Boxing Club for a late-night solo workout. The Gate City coaches had been training Teo for years, taking him to tournaments and eventually offered him a key to the gym so he could drill after work until well past midnight.
“And it was all for that fight right there,” Teo says, pointing to the trophy case.
There are two newspaper articles leaning on the top shelf – one ahead of Teo’s appearance in the 2000 USA Boxing Western Trials and the one Teo’s pointing to. There’s a big picture of a 17-year old Teo with a snarled face and a “USA” facemask, throwing a ferocious right hook into the head of 27-year old Johnny Rodriguez.
“After a thrilling four-round slugfest Sunday at the Bannock County Fairgrounds, one thing was evidently clear,” the Idaho State Journal wrote after the fight. “Don’t taunt Teo Medina.”
Teo took the victory by a unanimous decision, claiming the 156-pound main event bout at the Gate City Invitational and improving his record to 16-7. All those nights running across Pocatello paid off. Teo joked he could have lasted 50 rounds with Rodriguez, adding that it was “probably the best fight I’ve been in.”
His voice softens when his fighting days are brought up. He tries to be humble, but the two dozen trophies stop that act. There’s not so much regret in his voice but rather longing. He wants to be the 17-year old Teo again. Not just that, he thinks he should be that 17-year old Teo. He still thinks his right hook could put someone on the ground. He still thinks he could run up to Portneuf every night. He still compares himself to that teenager.
So when the effects of kidney disease siphon his energy and blur his thoughts and keep him out of the ring, frustration billows within Teo. He’s a Ferrari with water in the gas tank – this awe-inspiring machine depleting from the inside.
To anyone watching from the side of the road, though, they only see the shiny Ferrari. Inzurriaga, the mother of two youth boxers, said she hadn’t even heard Teo had kidney disease until a friend mentioned it last week. Haleigh Honeycutt, whose 11-year old, Syrenity, trains at Southpaw, said her daughter cried when she heard the news.
“It’s almost like it’s someone who my kids need,” Honeycutt said of Teo. “I also have a little boy who's 4 and (Teo) would take time out of the (workout) to give my son just five minutes of practice and make him feel special and wanted … and he wouldn’t accept money because he didn’t want to take money for spending 5 or 10 minutes with a 4-year old.”
There’s no one better at connecting with an energetic kid than Teo. There’s also no one better at turning down money. He jokes that Southpaw is a non-profit, then corrects himself. “It’s for profit,” he says, “but we don’t make any money.” Many of the kids who train with Teo are paying customers, but to the handful who can’t afford payment, Teo doesn’t press the issue. He'd rather have their presence than their checkbook – and maybe he’s keeping them out of trouble or giving them something to look forward to or reigniting their confidence with every completed workout.
Back before Southpaw shut its doors, a young girl with down syndrome was a regular. She was the embodiment of positivity and optimism. She told everyone she was going to be a boxer, that she was going to be famous. Teo made sure she didn’t leave the gym without believing all those things.
He would turn his hands into blinders, extending them to the side of the girl’s face.“Right here. Right here,” he told her. “It’s just you and me. We’re boxing.”
It’s a little past 8:30 on this Monday night and Teo and Teo Jr. are only throwing punches at 50% – allegedly. That’s hard to believe. Father and son are not lightly tagging each other with jabs. They load up for shots to the head and undercuts to the stomach. They move around every inch of the red padding, barreling backwards into ropes that have a surprising amount of give.
Teo lets out a grunt with each punch. It’s his third and final sparring session in about 10 minutes and he’s more agile and shifty than he’s been all night. The sweat pours down his neck. His breaths are audible. And his kidneys are functioning at 11%. He steps out of the ring, onto the floor he laid down two years ago in the gym he owns. His family is giggling. His daughter is roaming by the heavy bags. His son is taking off his boxing gloves. His wife is beaming with pride.
And Teo Medina can’t stop grinning.
"When he tells you how much this place means to him,” Erica says, “he doesn’t tell you how much this place means to him.”