Luis Arias walks around Marquette University’s campus toting books, pens and other materials every day, dreaming about the opportunity to become a professional boxer.
The19-year-old Milwaukee native, who has won more than 100 amateur bouts, picking up five national titles, could have stepped into the ring as a professional months ago but he has repeatedly turned down offers from boxing promoters to fight professionally.
He chooses to continue his college education, keeping a promise he made as an adolescent to his mother. “It’s just something I have to do.”
“When I won my first national title and I kept winning and getting professional offers it got tough [to say ‘no’],” he said. “But I made a promise to my mother. I want to make her proud and be the first one with a college degree. When I graduate, my degree is going to her.
His Nicaragua-born mother, Blanca, worked long hours to pay for Arias’ private high school education. While Arias’ brother and Cuban-born father, Luis Arias Sr., a former Wisconsin Golden Gloves champion, earned high school diplomas, neither his mother nor his sister finished high school.
“That’s why education is a priority to my mother,” said Arias, a sophomore who is contemplating majoring in business or communications at Marquette. “She always preached about getting a good education.”
At age 7, Arias wondered into a gym at a local community center in Milwaukee and was quickly enamored by what he saw: Gloves popped against punching bags. Sweat dripped on the floor and in the ring. Coaches yelled instructions to up-and-coming boxers to “jab,” “bob-and-weave” and “upper-cut.”
“I was just too excited. I told my mom right then and there I wanted to box,” Arias said.
His boxing passion intensified after Arias saw his coach, Israel Acosta, on television as an assistant coach on the 2000 U.S. Olympic boxing team. He earned his first national title at age 15, “but my mother made sure I got an education.” In October, Arias won the 165-pound title at the National PAL Championship.
Arias’ preparation for college began in the ninth grade with one of Marquette’s Educational Opportunity Programs, the college-prep program for low-income and first-generation students called Upward Bound.
He takes advantages of student support services of the EOP program, such as meeting with a counselor twice a semester to discuss time management, tutoring sessions and set up a class schedule.
“He is a good student. He is very respectful and has a sense of humor. I tell him to keep his head down so he won’t get hit in his head,” said Sande Robinson, director of Marquette’s Educational Opportunity Program. “I don’t know much about boxing, but I am very confident he will earn his degree at Marquette University.”
While taking classes such as biology, music history and science and maintaining a grade-point average that Arias says is just below 3.0, he continues to train at a local gym between 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. The goal is to make the 2012 U.S. Olympic boxing team.
“I have had a steady schedule all my life … so I’m used to it,” he said. “I am commuting and live off campus with three roommates. Two of them are from high school and I met the other one in the [Upward Bound program], so these are people I trust. They also help keep my life straight.”
Alexander Peete, a sociology professor and Arias’ academic counselor, praises Arias’ actions after missing class to attend a boxing event in Great Britain. He said his diligence showed signs of character.
“He contacted all of his professors and told me he would be out for some classes. He came back and made up all his work,” Peete said. “When you see that kind of maturity in a person, you want to reach out and make sure he reaches his goals. I want him to get his degree so badly.”