As people walk into Sweet Science gym they hear the pounding of gloves being hit onto heavy bags and boxing mitts which creates a loud “boom!” It’s like a mini-explosion that’s accompanied by the yelling and grunting noises each fighter makes when they throw punches.
Once inside the gym the smell of sweat hangs in the air. Everyone is working at an intense pace. There’s always a handful of fighters hitting the heavy bags to the right followed by others doing strength and conditioning. Next to the ring is Marco Trejo, the owner of the gym, with one of his best fighters, getting ready to spar.
Marco, now in his early 40’s, founded Sweet Science Boxing & MMA gym in Hawthorne in 2009 at the age of 29. In a room full of chiseled physiques, honed through training, Marco stands all but 5 feet, 8 inches, compactly built with broad shoulders and little potbelly that seems to protrude a little more each time he’s seen.
In 1999, Marco was a fresh-faced El Camino College student. What makes the connection all the more interesting is he’s still an El Camino college student, just one class shy (Math 80) of getting his associate degree.
Life has taken him in and out of school, while struggling to find his place in the world. He’s managed to carve out a niche for himself through boxing, all while keeping an optimistic outlook and still hoping to one day graduate from El Camino and finish what he started. This is his journey.
Marco has been a boxing fan for as long as he can remember. He has fond memories of watching Mike Tyson and Julio Cesar Chavez fights on pay-per-view in the early ’80s. His father loved boxing. That love was passed down to a son who had no idea how much he would impact the sport in his future.
Boxing is in Marco’s blood. His father never boxed himself and Marco was more of a baseball player, but Marco’s grandfather, Francisco Trejo, was a professional boxer in the late ’20s and early ’30s. The legend says Francisco would find his way to San Francisco a few times a year to fight under the name “Frankie Night”.
He had over a dozen professional matches, but there’s no known history on his success or failures. What is known, is that his grandfather never acknowledged Marco’s father as his son and abandoned the family to raise another family, but this was in Mexico during the early ’50s and that is a story for another time.
At twelve years old, Marco saw his first professional boxing match at Cesar’s Palace in Las Vegas. It was Oscar De La Hoya fighting for his first title against Rafael Ruelas. That same night Jimmy Garcia was killed in an earlier boxing match. It was traumatic and historic.
“That moment, I’ll never forget. I learned that boxing is not a game to be played, it is serious business,” Marco says.
While attending Hawthorne High School, Marco played football and baseball. Marco was not the best athlete in the country, but he was good enough to grab the attention of a few colleges that were scouting him at the time. He even yearned to get into boxing, but his parents were reluctant to get him into a boxing gym for obvious reasons.
“I could have gone a lot further with sports, maybe even pro, but I was too busy partying, smoking weed, drinking and just being an idiot,” Marco says.
It was a time of grunge music, gangster rap, baggy pants and youthful rebellion, and Marco was in full participation.
After graduating from Hawthorne High, Marco attended El Camino College. He decided not to play baseball or football because, quite frankly, he was “high all the time.”
“I had no focus, no direction, not a care in the world to better myself, to learn anything. I was lost, but I did like illegal street racing, way before “Fast and Furious” was even a thing,” Marco says.
Marco started to find some direction, while still smoking marijuana. Marco and his friend, who’s anEl Camino student, came up with a wild idea to create a car magazine, documenting the illegal street racing scene in Southern California.
Thus “Street Racing Magazine” was born. Since Marco and his friend were both street racers and students at El Camino, what better way to learn the ins and outs of magazine writing then to major in journalism?
“The magazine only lasted 3 issues and I spent a lot of money totally chasing a pipe dream,” Marco says.
Back then, credit card companies had promotional tents in the quad at El Camino and offered students their first credit cards. Somehow Marco was approved for an amount large enough to fund his wild magazine idea.
“I was getting high, street racing and someone gave me money. The idea to start a magazine when I had no idea what I was doing was the perfect storm of stupidity and fun. Let’s just say I spent a lot of money and never paid it back,” Marco says laughing.“But I learned more in creating this idea from thin air than I ever did sitting in any journalism class. Now it might be just me, but I tend to leap before I look. Also, I was just never the classroom type of guy,” Marco says.
At this point Marco had failed his journalism class and was flunking in everything else. The magazine was dead and higher education was not in the cards. Two years later, at age 23, Marco was able to take his experience from starting his magazine as he was hired by another magazine start-up based in Atlanta, Georgia.
“I may have failed at being a publishing mogul, but I learned enough about starting a business and creating content that I impressed the owners of this publishing company, so they hired me. The job included a lot of travel,” Marco says.
It was an opportunity for Marco to continue following his passions in the automotive world and to see other parts of the country. While working in Atlanta, and living in Covington, a small city just outside of Atlanta, Marco would drive by a gym with the sign USA Boxing. Being the former athlete that he was and loving boxing, it made sense to take a look.
With few activities outside of work, it was the perfect opportunity to do something different.Walking into the gym he was greeted by Reggie Toussaint, the owner of the gym. Reggie claimed he was on the USA Karate team a few years back.
“I had no reason to question him, he was a great guy. I think he was in a few karate movies back in the day, too. Either way, he was teaching boxing and his gym was down the street from work, so I signed up,” Marco says.
Immediately, Marco took to boxing like a fish to water. In less then 3 months of being in the boxing gym, Marco had his first official amateur competition.
“I didn’t win, but it was a close fight. We boxed at 170 lbs, which when I think about it now, is huge. The guys at my gym that are 170 are absolute monsters. I was young enough and dumb enough at the time to survive and surprisingly did well in my fight,” Marco says. “I remember being so excited about my match, I emailed my family back to tell them I was on my way to being the next Oscar De La Hoya.”
Obviously, Marco never became the next Oscar, but this experience awoke his passion for boxing and sports like nothing ever before.
“I caught the boxing bug. A lot of people do, but it’s in my blood, so it makes sense to me now. I never knew my grandfather was a pro boxer until I was in my early 30s, after we had started meeting his side of the family. The movements, the competition, the challenge and routine were all natural and enjoyable to me. I’ve been in a boxing gym ever since,” Marco says.
Soon after his work experience in Atlanta had ended, Marco was back in Southern California and immediately got himself into a boxing gym. He went to a gym called Broadway Boxing Gym, known to carry an old school boxing environment and culture. Ken Norton, who fought Muhammad Ali, trained there. His trainer Bill Slayton founded the gym.
His next trainer at Broadway was a man by the name of Jesse Barnett. Jesse was janitor at UCLA for most of his adult life, but prior to that Jesse was a light heavyweight contender. He had fought for the world title 3 times, but lost each time. He had one of the best jabs in his division.
Jesse had fought on ABC Wide World of Sports in the late ’70s and early ’80s, with Howard Cosell commentating. Marco says he learned a lot from Jesse. They trained together almost everyday for 2 years.
Although Broadway Boxing was a great gym, the neighborhood was just too dangerous to be at every day and night, so Marco ventured to Torrance where a new gym had opened up called L.A. Boxing.
It was more of a commercial and franchise location. It didn’t have the grit and serious boxing environment of Broadway boxing gym, but the atmosphere was friendly and the trainers were fun.
He made friends with three other fighters and they would always ask Marco to train them along with countless others. Marco and the three other fighters all thought the gym wasn’t that good and came up with the idea of owning their own gym. One was a UFC fighter, the other was a trainer, another a firefighter.
“I don’t even think I was ever a real boxer, but people started asking me tips, to show them how to punch. I had never thought about training people, but here I was, doing just that. I guess that’s when the seed to become a trainer, and maybe one day open a gym, was planted,” Marco says.
While working a full-time job, Marco had been saving his money. When he came back to L.A. from Atlanta, he got in touch with his former magazine partner. They ended up started an online retail business selling car parts. A business still in operation to this day says Marco.
“We made a good bit of money and I did that for 5 years. While I was still boxing every day after work, I realized, I love boxing. So I sold my share of the company to my partner, and along with those funds and my savings I decided to start my own boxing gym,” Marco says.
Marco along with some of his friends he met at L.A. Boxing invested their money into getting a gym together. They would all be partners.
“The biggest mistake I made in doing so, was having partners. We all put in some cash, but it was really me leading the charge, to find a location, come up with a logo and build the gym,” Marco says. “That’s the thing about partners, someone always does more. It’s not fair and that’s when tension builds, but I saw this as an opportunity. I knew that each partner was busy with other projects or full-time jobs or family responsibility; that eventually (they) could not commit to being a full-time gym owner.”
It became apparent to Marco that he was doing more than anyone else to fund, operate and maintain the gym. Each partner had an excuse for spending less time in the newly founded Sweet Science Boxing & MMA. As Marco predicted and patiently awaited, each partner left.
“It wasn’t much money each person put in, so it wasn’t a huge loss to them, especially if they were chasing bigger money. I knew the potential of the gym. I knew it could grow, so I stuck it out. I kept putting money into it when it needed it and I put in the hours to teach classes and train people when we needed it,” Marco says.
Sweet Science Boxing & MMA was formed in 2009, with Marco taking over as sole owner around 2012. In hindsight, Marco believes the hardest part about owning the gym were his partners. He says they held him back from accomplishing everything he wanted for Sweet Science.
“When the time was right, all the partners were gone and it was just me and I was ready. I think if I had gone at it alone, I wouldn’t have learned so many lessons that prepared me to be in charge. The universe tends to know when you are ready,” Marco says.
Being the sole owner of a business may have been easier for Marco, but he was still dealing with some drug problems, alcoholism and overall immaturity. Marco had challenges he had to overcome and fight through in order to preserve his gym.
Marco also had to pay rent when there were some months when there wasn’t enough money to cover the rent. So, again, he reached into his pockets, worked during the day and did whatever was needed to keep his gym afloat.
Noticing their son’s passion, hard work and commitment toward fighting for his boxing gym, Marco’s parents, who were retired at the time, offered their help.Marco’s mom ran a kitchen at a private high school for 20 years and his father was an aerospace machinist with his own manufacturing shop that he ran for 30 years.
“My parents are some of the smartest people I knew, even though I was a total dick growing up, they always had my back and when they saw me struggling, they offered help. It was one of the best moments of my life. My mom was helping run the books, collecting payments from all the members, making sure they taught the student well. I would come in and teach, which is what I did best,” Marco says.
This period lasted for a few years, from around 2013-2015. In 2015 Marco’s father, Marco Sr. was diagnosed with colon cancer and died only 3 months after.
“Having my mom and dad in the gym with me, working together was the best. I’ll never forget how much fun we had. We worked well together. I even got to take my dad to many professional fights and we got to corner and train professional boxers together. He became my best friend. It was difficult losing him,” Marco says.
Since Marco’s parents were helping him to manage the gym while he was still working full time, after his father’s passing, he decided to get into the gym full time and devote all his efforts to running a successful gym.
“You have a tendency to take on more responsibility as you get older, and losing my dad really cemented that for me. My mom loved being at the gym, too. It became a family thing and I had to be there with her. After all, I started it. They just lifted me up when I needed it. I had to be there,” Marco says.
After Marco Sr. passed, Marco and his mother built the gym into a well-oiled machine. Students were learning and gym memberships were being paid.
“We made some more changes as time went on, but it really grew. My dad would secretly tell my mom the gym was a gold mine, and he was right. We still had issues with finding the right help, creating the right energy and positive atmosphere for training boxers, but that all came with time,” Marco says.
Everything was going great for a few years and then COVID-19 hit. The gym had to be shut down for 3 months, and when it did open it was at limited capacity.The fruits of labor had stopped coming in. But like many great business owners, Marco had to find a way to make money.
The pandemic continued and businesses were shut down, but the bills, rent and every other expense kept coming.
“As a small business owner, I have my opinion on the pandemic,” says Marco. “I had to cover the windows, keep the lights off and train people in secrecy and just be creative to keep our business going. I know a few other gyms that closed permanently ’cause of COVID. I wasn’t going to be one of them,” says Marco.
Having saved money during the profitable months, off the business, leading to the pandemic, Marco made two moves that helped generate revenue while his business was in limbo. One, he converted his parking space into an outdoor training area. He fenced off a large space, dropped some artificial turf on the asphalt and added a few pieces of training equipment.
“The city came to shut us down one day. They said the only way we could stay open is if we could train outside, so that’s what we did. I purchased chain-link fence and fence post from the old Sears at the Del Amo Mall that was closing and erected a fence within a week,” says Marco.
The second thing Marco did was liquidate equipment.
“I realized a lot of gyms, boxing gyms in particular, went out of business, so I went hunting for boxing equipment on the cheap. I found two boxing gyms that were in a bad position and were selling thousands of dollars of equipment for about a quarter the value. I bought as much as I could and then flipped it for double the profit. Everyone wanted to train at home, so it was a great time to sell equipment,” Marco says.
These decisions not only helped Marco and his gym to survive, but to thrive while others were failing. As the gym grew during the pandemic, Marco also noticed a number of buildings becoming vacant all throughout Hawthorne. With the idea of constantly growing, he scouted a few locations. The location at the time was in use from 2012 to 2021 and even with the parking lot converted, Sweet Science Boxing & MMA was out of space. There was no room to grow.
“I found a building that had been empty for over 15 years. It was rented just before COVID to be converted to a restaurant, but because of the lockdown all construction on it stopped. During the lockdown it was taken over by homeless and the tenant had terminated his lease. I knew I was going to get this building,” Marco says.
After a few months of negotiations, Marco found a new home for Sweet Science that took them from 3,000 square feet to approximately 9,500 square feet.
“I signed a 10-year lease and locked in a good rate, so I am not planning on going anywhere, and we can continue to grow in this building while knowing what to expect. At our other location, the landlord kept raising rent and we couldn’t expand the building, so it was time to move on,” Marco says.
One of the biggest things that steered Sweet Science into notoriety was Marco’s willingness to learn and be open. If he didn’t know anything, he’d ask or he always watched how people who were successful did things. He’s also always open to trying new and different things that would benefit the gym.
Coach Jamal Abdullah is a multi-time world champion coach and trainer at Sweet Science. He joined Sweet Science just a couple years ago and the reasons why he chose Sweet Science is that Marco wanted him to join, and he respects Marco as an owner, trainer and person.
“Marco is a guy who doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. Some coaches feel like other people and coaches are trying to step on their toes, but not him. He’s always trying to do what’s best for the gym,” Jamal says.
After COVID, Marco’s mom re-retired, but she still comes to the new location to clean or organize equipment and clothing in their store front. He also found a supportive partner Nikki Nunez, who was a manager at another gym. She trained at Sweet Science one day and they hit it off.
Nikki also shares Marco’s passion for martial arts, boxing and business. She helps run the front desk and teaches classes. They also have a 2-year-old son that is sometimes seen running through the gym, punching every bag he goes by.
Currently, Sweet Science Boxing Gym is one of the biggest boxing gyms in Los Angeles County, if not the biggest.
Raul Morales is the owner of a notarized boxing gym called C.M. Boxing Stables in Alhambra. Similar to Marco, he had to endure and fight through hardships owning a boxing gym entails.
“Our first year we were losing money, we had maybe 20 fighters at the time. It’s really hard being an owner because there’s no money in boxing. Our gym started getting more popular due to my brother being a professional fighter signed with Golden Boy and he marketed the gym a lot. Good coaches and being able to communicate with the fighters and parents is what makes a good boxing (gym),” Raul says.
It’s not easy creating a successful boxing gym. Jessica Rene Rico is the current owner of Grampa’s Boxing Gym in Westminster, a top boxing gym in California. She’s been the owner for 11 years and had to overcome the trials and tribulations of owning a boxing gym.
“It’s not easy work. It takes discipline and grit. You have to sacrifice other areas of your life and cater to running a successful gym. You need good judgement to make difficult decisions. Not a lot of people have the patience or the wisdom to run a boxing gym. Also, finding the right people for your team who add to the gym and not just take from it is very tough,” Jessica says.
Marco never thought he’d be in the position he’s in right now, if you asked him when he was younger. He made a lot of mistakes, but no matter what mistake he made he never gave up on his life. He always kept fighting. When life knocked him down, he’d get up, wipe the dust off and keep moving forward.
“At times, I wanted to quit, even sell the gym. I felt like taking off and starting over somewhere else. Los Angeles is so expensive, but my family is here and I just can’t quit. I have to finish what I started. When I was a teenager, or even my early 20s, I never finished anything. Once I found boxing and the opportunity to start the gym, I really found something that inspired me; that made it easy to get up in the morning. There was never enough time in the day to get work done. Even when I was partying, drinking or smoking too much, I just loved boxing, coaching, competing and everything else about it,” Marco says.
Boxing has taken Marco around the world. His fighters have competed in Israel, Russia, Pakistan and all over the United States. He says he still wants to finish El Camino and finally graduate. He’s since switched his major to anthropology.
“When I was in school, I thought I wanted to study business or journalism. I wanted neither. It’s just what was expected. I went back a few years ago in my late 30s and I switched my major to (anthropology) because I loved the class when I took it as an elective, and guess what? I aced every class because I was interested. Probably ’cause I didn’t smoke weed anymore and had a better attention span, too, but point is, got to do what you love. Find what you love and be great at it, especially if you can earn money. If you’re great at it and it doesn’t earn money, then get a job and do what you love on the side. Not every student is a great entrepreneur and vice versa. Every road is different, you just have to keep driving,” Marco says.