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In Texas, Amputees Get Their Shot At The 'Sweet Science' Of Boxing

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Recently, Texas became the first state to sanction amputee boxing. Now, a group of athletes who thought they could fight competitively are making their mark. From San Antonio, Texas Public Radio's David Martin Davies reports

DAVID MARTIN DAVIES: Three nights out of the week, you'll find Moses Sonera at the Randazzo Brothers boxing gym working the speed bag, driving combination punches into the heavy bags and getting ready for his next big fight. But look down and you'll notice that Sonera is missing a leg. He's boxing with a prosthetic limb. The 41-year-old lost his leg during a mortar attack in Iraq in 2004.

MOSES SONERA: To me it means everything, you know, like a second chance at life.

DAVIES: Sonera grew up boxing in Puerto Rico with his father training him. And he boxed some while in the Army. Sonera counts himself as lucky because he only lost his left leg.

SONERA: So every time that I throw, I’ve got my right leg to push off forward.

DAVIES: Moses is among the first fighters in the National Amputee Boxers Association. This group was founded almost two years ago by Shaman Owensby, a personal trainer, who was working with an amputee who wanted to box.

SHAMAN OWENSBY: He wanted to go out and have a match. In the state of Texas or any other state, amputees as an adaptive sport - it was not offered for them to be able to box competitively.

DAVIES: San Antonio is a logical place for amputee boxing to develop. The city has a high concentration of wounded vets since it’s the home of U.S. military medicine. Owensby's challenge wasn't finding boxers - it was getting sanctioned by the Texas Combative Sports Program. At first, the state didn’t understand what amputee boxing was and how it was even possible.

OWENSBY: The development of prosthetics over the past 10 years - it's been so good that it's just taken time for people to actually see it.

DAVIES: Once state officials saw video of the fighters, their concerns fell away. Two months ago, Texas became the first state to sanction amputee boxing. Soon after, the association held its first official fight.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOXING MATCH)

DAVIES: The 20 or so members here include fighters who've lost limbs in accidents, and to diseases like diabetes. But most are wounded veterans like 33-year-old Joey Banegas.

JOEY BANEGAS: I was, you know, an infantry guy in the Army, and being in the military, you’re always physical. You know, most of us are physical. So finding something I could do again as an amputee, it’s tough. Your options are limited when you’re a physical guy and you lose your leg.

DAVIES: The retired Army sergeant lost his leg in an IED roadside explosion in Afghanistan. When he came back, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. And as he talks, Banegas takes off his daily-use leg and carefully puts on his boxing prosthetic. It's a running leg modified for fighting.

BANEGAS: On my last fight, I did have some issues with the twisting and stuff like that. It's just kind of a live-and-learn type thing. You know, you got to trial and error and see what comes out of it and where you got to tweak it and how you got to fix it to get, you know, the best out of your fight.

SANTO RANDAZZO: And I told everyone of yous - these are not easy fights.

DAVIES: That's Santo Randazzo, owner of the gym.

RANDAZZO: Nobody even notices they’re any different until they look down maybe at the end of the night and they realize, wow, that dude's missing a leg or something, you know. But boxers are boxers, you know.

DAVIES: The next fight night is in May. Until then, the fighters keep training and word keeps spreading about amputee boxers. Their next goal is to be included in the Paralympics. For NPR News, I'm David Martin Davies in San Antonio. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.