Ukiah wrestler’s battle against all odds

Ukiah wrestling coach Gary Cavender, right, helped guide Pablo Gonzalez, left, on a path that would lead to an NCS wrestling championship.  (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)

Ukiah wrestling coach Gary Cavender, right, helped guide Pablo Gonzalez, left, on a path that would lead to an NCS wrestling championship. (CRISTA JEREMIASON / The Press Democrat)


UKIAH — Assuming he can raise the money for airfare and accommodations, Pablo Gonzalez will be competing at the prestigious NHSCA National High School Wrestling Championship in Virginia in a little more than a week. He didn’t sneak his way in.

The Ukiah senior earned his position at the CIF State Wrestling Championships a week ago, finishing fourth in the heavyweight division. Considering that just one other Redwood Empire wrestler — Cardinal Newman’s PJ Klee — medaled in Bakersfield this year, it’s an accomplishment to admire, no matter the circumstances.

But to understand just how remarkable Gonzalez’s emergence has been, you have to know where he came from, and how he got from there to here. You have to see how the fighter became a wrestler.

Round 1: The Gym

The first lesson was free.

That was the bait that lured Gonzalez and a friend to Mendo Combat Club, a Ukiah mixed martial arts gym run by former All-American wrestler, jiu-jitsu champion and all-around badass Nate Ducharme. Gonzalez believed Ducharme could help shape him into a professional MMA fighter.

In truth, Gonzalez had already taken steps toward that career by participating in videotaped backyard fights, the culmination of a childhood spent with raised fists. He didn’t use drugs at Pomolita Middle School, didn’t really break the law, but Gonzalez was trouble. He says he fought after school “almost every day,” largely managing to hide it from his parents.

Gonzalez weighed about 250 pounds in middle school, making him a natural target for boys trying to prove their toughness. And if they didn’t find him, he usually found them.

“If a guy looked at me wrong, I’d have to fight him, because I didn’t want anyone to question my manhood,” said Gonzalez, now 17. “… Even if he’d be like ‘oh, I don’t want to fight’ sometimes, I would provoke him to fight me.”

After one incident too many, Gonzalez found himself before the school board in Ukiah in the spring of his eighth-grade year. His reputation had preceded him. Ukiah High principal Dennis Willeford wanted to keep Gonzalez out of his school. It was assistant principal Jason Iverson who went to bat for the boy, arguing that he deserved another chance.

They settled on a compromise: Gonzalez would enter high school on a no-fighting contract. One scuffle and he was out.

That changed only the venue of Gonzalez’s brawling. He was careful not to fight anywhere near Ukiah High as a freshman. Away from the school, he was still ready to throw down at a moment’s notice.

Gonzalez’s family didn’t have the money to sign him up for MMA classes, so Ducharme put him to work. Gonzalez mopped the sweat and blood off mats and swept the gym in exchange for lessons. In the cage, he was a lion.

“Fear doesn’t make him cower. Fear makes him rise up,” said Gary Cavender, who would later coach Gonzalez in two sports. “If the meanest guy in the country were to come up to him, he’s not gonna back down. And it’s not always a good quality.”

Gonzalez became more disciplined at the gym, and more respectful toward adults after Ducharme knocked him around in sparring sessions. Part of the image Gonzalez cultivated in middle school was being the most obnoxious boy in the group. Ducharme taught him that toughness can be quiet.

“I was always the loudest kid, wanting to fight everyone,” Gonzalez said. “And I realistically wasn’t the toughest. I was just the biggest kid.”

Round 2: The Team

When Gary Cavender met him, Gonzalez was a sophomore. Cavender, long-time wrestling coach at Ukiah High, was helping some of Ducharme’s students hone their skills on the mat. Gonzalez wasn’t one of them. He had broken his leg practicing jiu-jitsu against a man at Combat Club, and was laid up.

Cavender, who was coaching defense for the Ukiah JV football team at the time, saw that Gonzalez showed up every day, despite his injury. He also couldn’t help but notice that the kid weighed more than 250 pounds. You should be playing football, Cavender told him.

Gonzalez explained why he couldn’t: His GPA, he told Cavender, was 1.9. He needed to carry a 2.0 to play sports. We can work on that, Cavender said. Let’s talk to your teachers.

In reality, the problem was deeper. Gonzalez invented the 1.9 because he was ashamed of the truth. His GPA was 0.8, hardly a GPA at all. He was 30 credits behind in his coursework by the end of the freshman year, and would fall 45 units behind as a sophomore.

Gonzalez had never cared about school because he never saw it as the means to any end he valued. Cavender gave him a goal: playing football. Against all odds, Gonzalez took him up on it. He didn’t have the credits or the GPA to play on Fridays, but he worked with the JV team all season, didn’t miss a practice.

Cavender immediately saw the talent. Part of practice in Ukiah was the King of the Hill drill, a series of one-one-one battles between linemen. You win the battle, you stay in. “He won every time,” Cavender said. “He always ended up at the top.”

Still, it was demoralizing to work so hard without the reward of playing time. Gonzalez considered walking away halfway through the season. He reminded himself of the work he had already invested, and worried about being labeled a quitter.

Gonzalez’s coaches would come to view this doggedness as an essential part of his makeup.

“I’ve never seen a kid with that much heart,” Ducharme said. “You could beat him up for an hour and a half and you couldn’t get him to stop.”

Remarkably, neither Ducharme nor Cavender ever sat Gonzalez down for a you’re-throwing-your-life-away lecture. They simply loved him, set standards for him, showed him how men are supposed to carry themselves and trusted him to follow.

Gonzalez finally made grades and played in the Wildcats’ final three games as a sophomore. He has been a stalwart on the Ukiah offensive and defensive lines ever since.

“What really helped me change was not hanging out with the kids I used to hang out with,” Gonzalez said. “From then to now, I see them still living the same life, still wearing like saggy pants, trying to live the life that they really aren’t about. I changed, and I’m living a life I’m proud of.”

Round 3: The Mat

Gonzalez still remembers meeting Cavender, a big-hearted man disguised by an outer layer of gruffness.

“I was just done with practice at the gym,” Gonzalez said. “I seen Cavender, and the first thought that came in my head was, wow, this guy looks like a Native American Santa Claus.”

Well, Cavender does offer gifts. He has taught math at Ukiah High since 1980 and, as witnessed on a recent visit, his classroom door is always open to students who need a little extra help on their homework. Cavender brings the same sort of passion to the wrestling room.

Ducharme found that out when his son was in eighth grade. Dominic Ducharme qualified for a state-level meet in Fresno, but wound up with no coach. Nate hadn’t filled out the paperwork to get his coach’s card in time. Without telling him, Cavender drove to Fresno to help Dominic for a week. Cavender slept in his truck each night.

“Kids are my drug of choice,” Cavender explained.

He wasn’t just talking about his wrestlers and math students. Cavender has taken in more than 60 foster children over the past 16 years or so, some of them short-term, some staying for years. He started as a single foster father after his biological children graduated and moved away, and continued after marrying his current wife, Kim.

Besides being a strong mentor, Cavender is regarded as an exceptional wrestling coach. His 1990 Ukiah team finished second in the state, matching Rancho Cotate (1979) for the best ranking ever by an Empire school. Cavender immediately sensed that Gonzalez’s work ethic — the 120-pounders have trouble keeping up with him during sprints at practice — and deceptive quickness could make him a great wrestler.

Gonzalez was a quick study. By his junior year, he finished sixth in the heavyweight division at the North Coast Section championships. This year he was the section champion at 285 pounds. Gonzalez finished the year 43-3, two of the losses coming at the state championships.

He has also become an easygoing, gregarious kid who cares deeply about how he represents his school at wrestling events.

In the classroom, Gonzalez has gradually cut into his credit deficit with almost-full loads in summer school at Ukiah High, a welding course at the local college, online classes through Cyber High and work packets through the Native American Club.

“Pablo, two years ago he was in my geometry essentials class,” says Cavender, who has taught at Ukiah High since 1980. “And here’s the amazing thing: With the proper motivation, the guy’s brilliant. He’s absolutely brilliant, but he’s a non-performer. Because he’s a kid. He’s not gonna perform for you unless he thinks you like him, and he likes you.”

Gonzalez is just a few units shy of baseline now, and should graduate on time. He still wants to be an MMA fighter, but he plans to go to college, too. He is lacking a few important classes, though, and will probably have to start with junior college. Gonzalez will wrestle, and play football, too, if they let him.

First, he’ll head east for the big tournament in Virginia, which will officially mark the end of Cavender’s career. He is retiring as Ukiah wrestling coach after the school year.

“That just adds to the sweetness of all of this, to send him off on a winning note,” Gonzalez said.

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