Mexico artisans handcraft gloves for boxing legends

MEXICO CITY - In a boxing world often dominated by promoters, self-promoters and glitz - exhibit A, Mayweather vs. McGregor - Alberto Reyes likes to do things the old-fashioned way: his company still makes gloves by hand, just as it did for Muhammad Ali.

The Mexican craftsman is the owner of Cleto Reyes boxing gloves, a family firm founded by his late father in the 1940s whose clients have included such legends as Ali, Manny Pacquiao and even the fictional Rocky Balboa.

Reyes likes to tell the story of the best publicity his company ever received, when it made the gloves for one of Ali's last fights: his 1978 match to reclaim his heavyweight title from Leon Spinks.

It was the kind of free advertising that is hard to imagine in this age of mega-bouts like next month's "Money Fight" between boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. and mixed martial artist Conor McGregor.

Alberto Reyes, son of Cleto Reyes founder of the iconic Mexican boxing gloves factory which bears his name, poses in front of a wall packed with autographed gloves at Reyes Industries headquarters in Mexico City, on July 06, 2017.​Photo: AFP

"They had a contract with a different company to supply the gloves, but Ali said, 'I don't fight if it's not with Cleto gloves,'" Reyes, 65, said in his Mexico City office.

The fight promoters agreed to let Ali use his favourite gloves, on one condition, Reyes said: he had to put tape over the label.

But once inside the ring, the fighter known as "The Greatest" asked his trainer, Angelo Dundee, to take off the tape.

The photo of a sweat-drenched Ali fending off a punishing swing from Spinks - the name "Cleto Reyes" visibly stamped on his glove - was published around the world after the former champ, then aged 36, seized back the heavyweight title belt from his 25-year-old opponent.

World Boxing Council belts made at Reyes Industries, are displayed at the company's headquarters in Mexico city.Photo: AFP

The hands behind the fists

That particular pair of gloves was made by longtime Cleto Reyes employee Ruben Albarran, today aged 64.

"It was one of the first pairs I made," he told AFP at one of the company's two factories on the outskirts of Mexico City.

"When I saw the fight, I was so excited for the company. Then I saw the picture in the newspaper."

Albarran grew up with dreams of becoming a boxer himself, but when he was 15 years old, his father told him he was crazy, he said.

Reyes Industries' staffers work at the company's headquarters in Mexico city​.Photo: AFP

So he went for the next best thing, in his eyes: a job making gloves at Cleto Reyes.

It is nearly the same story as that of Alberto Reyes's father, Cleto Reyes himself.

As a young man in the 1930s, he idolized Mexico's then-emerging boxers like Juan Zurita and Rodolfo Casanova.

In those days, amateurs were allowed to get in the ring and try their luck - and Reyes, whose day job was making baseball gear at a local factory, did just that.

A worker attaches adhesive labels to boxing gloves at Reyes Industries in Mexico City​.Photo: AFP

"He lasted three rounds," said his son. "The trainers told him, 'Go to the gym, learn how to hold your hands. You've got potential and you're brave.'"

Reyes was traumatized for life.

But he used his experience stitching baseball gear to patch up his damaged gloves after that fight.

Soon he was making his own gloves - and gained the notice of his idol Zurita, who used Cleto Reyes gloves in a 1945 championship bout against American boxer Ike Williams.

A worker shapes and tests boxing gloves at ReyesIndustries in Mexico City​.Photo: AFP

Word spread from one boxer to another that Cleto Reyes made an exceptional pair of gloves.

And the list of famous clients grew: Joe Louis, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Lennox Lewis, Oscar De La Hoya... even Sylvester Stallone as "Rocky." .

Pride and craft

Alberto Reyes says the company has never paid a fighter to wear its gloves.

"They use them because they feel safe, because they know they're going to score a knockout," he said.

A staffer of Reyes Industries works finishing protective training headgear​.Photo: AFP

The firm's artisans start by selecting the best-quality leather.

Then they painstakingly cut it, sew it and stuff it with foam and horsehair.

It is an old-school exercise in craft, using old-fashioned sewing machines.

A professional pair of Cleto Reyes gloves costs 1,380 pesos (S$107).

Protective training headgear and boxing gloves are pictured at Reyes Industries headquarters​.Photo: AFP

"They're comfortable on the hands, which take less damage," said top-tier trainer Ignacio Beristain, who has coached Mexican champions including Juan Manuel Marquez and Ricardo Lopez.

Cleto Reyes gloves are a source of pride in Mexico.

The factory walls are covered with pictures of presidents, celebrities and boxing legends wearing them.

Public health officials here recently unveiled a new campaign to fight breast cancer - donning bright pink pairs of Cleto Reyes gloves.

"It's a pleasure to work for a company that is internationally recognised," said Albarran, who now stitches one of the firm's other products: punching bags.