Sammy Valentin Jr. trains at least three hours a day, sparring, running, doing situps and pushups and pullups by the hundreds. The 16-year-old boxing phenom calls himself Hurricane Sammy, and he has spent more than half his life fighting his way to the top.
He was already gaining notice in the boxing world at age 9 when the St. Petersburg Times first profiled him in 2004. Now the junior at Wharton High School in Tampa is scooping up accolades — Silver Gloves, State Junior Olympics, Platinum Gloves — on a path he hopes will take him to the 2012 Olympics.
He is also reaching out to other kids engaged in a different kind of fight.
Sammy has started the Hurricane Sammy Foundation, a group that is collecting toys around the Tampa Bay area to donate to hospitalized children. He will deliver the first batch of stuffed animals at a "donate day" event next week to 30 to 40 children at University Community Hospital.
He came up with the idea last year, when one of his boxing sponsors, a doctor, couldn't attend a match because one of his cancer patients was dying. Sammy dedicated the match to that woman. He won and brought the belt to her at the hospital.
"I never knew anyone who had cancer or anything until I met this girl through my sponsor," Sammy said. "Here I was fighting for fun, and this girl was fighting for her life. It inspires me to want to give kids in that situation something, because they're fighting a much tougher battle than I face in the ring."
Sammy faced his own early battle: He was born prematurely at Tampa's University Community Hospital, beginning his life in critical condition, weighing in at 3 pounds. With time and nurturing, he grew strong. When he entered grade school and began having behavioral issues, his father Sammy Valentin Sr. — who had been a kickboxer in Puerto Rico — steered him toward boxing.
Sammy's amateur boxing career began at age 8. He is now a six-time national champion and has built a record of 102-13 on his way to capturing 14 belts. He will compete for another national title next month.
His trainers see him as more than just an amateur fighter, however. "As a boxer, Sammy's limits are up to him, he'll go as far as he wants," trainer Francisco Arreola said. "He's probably the only kid in this state that has won everything in the United States. I think he's going to be a great professional, and doing events like the donate day is part of being a professional athlete, and he's handling it well."
Arreola is a former champion himself, and along with his brother Luis, trains Sammy regularly at Ramos Boxing. The brothers agree that Sammy has the potential to become a great role model for other aspiring boxers.
"He's incredibly dedicated," Luis Arreola said. "The kid doesn't stop, he just keeps going no matter what he is doing. He's a wonderful kid who gets a lot of compliments on his personality wherever he goes. It's been a joy teaching him. I think his picture is going to be on some kid's wall in the future."
Gym patrons are all familiar with Sammy. Martin Lagunas is usually at the gym with his son and has seen Sammy grow up boxing. Lagunas said he sees Sammy becoming a bright young star.
"He's going places," Lagunas said. "I remember when he was real little. He's always had a lot of spirit, and he's one of those real tough fighters that is just born to do this. His technique is great. Everybody around here knows Sammy."
David Rice can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.