One month before he defends his world championship belt against a boxer many think he can't beat again, Andrew Cancio steadies a jackhammer on a quiet residential street in California, trying to fix a gas leak. He grips the handles and squeezes the trigger, his forearms shaking as the bit punches through black asphalt. "It's gotta be a cap leak," he says to his coworker as the ground splits beneath his feet.
Passing cars pay him no attention, and why would they? He's a 5'6" crew technician for the Southern California Gas Company, wearing blue coveralls, an orange traffic vest, work gloves and safety goggles. They don't know he's the current World Boxing Association (WBA) super featherweight champion of the world.
Back in February, he won the belt in dramatic fashion: against the undefeated Alberto Machado, as a 14-to-1 underdog in front of a sold-out crowd at a casino 100 miles from his hometown, less than a year since he returned from retirement.
On this Tuesday morning in May, he wipes the sweat from his forehead and reaches for the clay spade to break up the dirt, then grabs the shovel, digging until he's hip-high in a hole three feet wide. It's a great workout, but he doesn't need it. His quads are already sore from climbing up and down the bleachers at a local high school. His arms ache from punching the bags in the gym, and his whole body is tired from running five miles around his neighborhood in a nylon sweat suit before sunrise.
He does need this job, however; it provides security while he pursues a dream in a sport that offers little.
"Most elite fighters can just get up, go running, come home, eat breakfast, then take a nap and relax. I don't," he says. "Boxing is my overtime."
This blue-collar sensibility is what made Cancio one of the most improbable stories in the sport. He believes he is a world-class fighter, but the boxing world is skeptical. Some say his upset win is nothing more than a feel-good story. Some say it was a fluke. After the loss, Machado said he felt weak in the ring, claiming his 5'10" frame struggled to make the 130-pound weight class. He said Cancio should enjoy the belt before he returns with "bad intentions" on June 21, when the two face off again at the same location.
Cancio can smell the rotten air—the rematch is always on his mind—though now, after 30 minutes of digging, the stench is more literal. Gas is seeping through a cracked lid, so he and his coworker ready a repair kit, securing a new, sturdier cap in its place. The process takes an hour, and after a quick power nap over lunch, Cancio shovels the dirt back into the hole and then spreads temporary asphalt before sweeping the area clean.
It pisses him off that some in the boxing world aren't taking him seriously—maybe because of this full-time job, maybe because they believe Machado had an off night. One more win will quiet them all, getting him closer and closer to the life-changing payday he needs and the recognition he seeks.
"I worked hard to get here," Cancio says. "It wasn't a fucking fluke. And that's what I'm here to prove."
He hates when people look at his career and call him a journeyman boxer, even though he understands why. He started in his hometown of Blythe, California, a desert town with 20,000 people, which is where he earned the nickname "El Chango," the monkey, because by age 14, he already had a beard.
Cancio went pro three years later in Mexico and then returned to the U.S. He was aggressive in the ring, known as a hard, combination puncher who loved attacking his opponent's body, but like most boxers starting out, he didn't earn much, getting $1,000 here, $1,500 there. The constant grind led him to leave the sport at age 20 with a record of 10-1-2.
Two years later, in 2011, he returned because he missed the sport. He won his next four fights, each one at Fantasy Springs Casino in Indio, California, 100 miles from Blythe. But with two young children, Cancio's older brother, Robert, urged him to plan for a life beyond boxing.
Robert lived 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles near Oxnard, a place some call "Boxnard" because it's a hotbed for elite trainers and coaches in the sport. He also worked for the Southern California Gas Company and told his brother that if he moved, he could train with the best and get a part-time job reading gas meters.
Cancio did just that. He and his girlfriend, Kellie, and their toddler son, Ethan, got a one-bedroom apartment in nearby Ventura. He spent his mornings checking gas meters, sometimes in the foothills near homes with a view of the Pacific Ocean, and later in the day would cut hair at a local barbershop before training in the gym.
It wasn't a fucking fluke. And that's what I'm here to prove—Andrew Cancio
But he fought only three times in the next three years, losing two of those fights, and gained a reputation as an opponent—a steppingstone or tune-up for whomever he faced. Meanwhile, Ventura proved to be too expensive. Cancio was only making $8,000 to $10,000 per fight, so he increased his hours at the gas company.
"You can't box and work full-time," Robert said. But Cancio was adamant that he could.
Things started to change in December 2015 after he knocked out Rene Alvarado at Fantasy Springs in impressive fashion in front of a hometown crowd, earning him a contract with Golden Boy Promotions, Oscar De La Hoya's company. Three months later, Cancio won again to improve to 17-3-2.
He could feel the momentum. Then, he accepted an offer for his first title fight, for the North American Boxing Federation featherweight belt against Joseph Diaz, the 21-0 heavily-favored champion. It was at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, on pay-per-view, on the undercard of Saúl "Canelo" Álvarez's title bout against Liam Smith. Cancio would be paid $50,000.
It didn't end well. That day, he just wasn't himself in the ring, and with his white shorts covered in his own blood, the referee stopped the fight in the ninth round. Days after the loss, Golden Boy dropped him, citing problems with his manager.
So he quit—again.
Two years later, in 2018, Cancio was sitting at a brewery with his kids, drinking a beer, when he called a former trainer in the area, Joseph "HOSS" Janik, and told him to meet at the brewery to talk about a comeback. Cancio missed boxing. He weighed 175 pounds and still worked at the gas company. His kids wanted him to box again, too. Soon after the meeting, Cancio found a new manager, Ray Chaparro, who reached out to Golden Boy Promotions to see if they could help Cancio find a fight.
An undefeated Kazakhstani boxer, Aidar Sharibayev, was looking for an opponent. The fight would be in six weeks, at 130 pounds, a main event at Fantasy Springs for a vacant regional belt, the WBA Intercontinental super featherweight title. Cancio couldn't believe the opportunity.
He trained and dropped the weight. But he didn't tell anyone the fight was for a belt—he didn't want any extra pressure—so his parents, friends and coworkers learned it was a title match only when it was announced in the ring.
He won in the 10th round via technical knockout, and when he returned to the gas company the following week, one of his coworkers asked in disbelief: "Do you really get to keep that belt?" Days later, Cancio brought it in.
The title earned him a top-15 rank in his weight class and a new contract with Golden Boy. Four months later, he won again at Fantasy Springs, via unanimous decision before a sold-out crowd, and for the first time in his boxing career, things just clicked. His new manager was getting him fights. His new coach, Janik, was training him well. And the gas company, where Kellie also worked, paid them every other Friday.
At the end of 2018, just after Cancio's 30th birthday, world champion Alberto Machado, 21-0, a Puerto Rican knockout artist and rising star within the sport, was looking for an opponent to fight at Fantasy Springs in February. The 5'10" southpaw is also promoted by Golden Boy, and this bout would be a tune-up before a planned title fight at Madison Square Garden in June, the same weekend as the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
The fight paid $75,000, and if Cancio somehow defeated the odds, he'd be the WBA regular super featherweight world champion.
Chaparro called Cancio with the offer.
"You sitting down or standing up?"
An hour before the fight, Cancio couldn't stop shaking in the dressing room. His legs, his shoulders, his arms. Everything shook.
"I don't know what's wrong with me Coach," he said to Janik. "I'm not scared."
In his 40 years in boxing, Janik had never seen shakes this bad. He tried to calm Cancio by telling him to close his eyes and take deep breaths.
The arena was packed, a hometown crowd eager to see Cancio's first world title fight. But even with the support, very few thought he'd win. Cancio's family members and coworkers were nervous, and everyone at Golden Boy, De La Hoya included, figured it would be a good fight, but one that would end with Machado on top.
Cancio felt the pressure as he walked into the ring and still had the jitters when the bell rung. A minute-and-a-half into the first round, Machado caught him squarely with a left uppercut. Cancio fell to the canvas and stayed there as a referee counted to nine. But when he stood, he no longer had the shakes.
He held his ground and fought back, and by the fourth round, the crew technician dug into Machado's body, breaking him down until the undefeated champion was doubled-over and the fight was called.
Cancio cried blood-streaked tears in the ring, his kids at his side, as a wave of shock swept over the arena. Fans tossed their beers in the air. De La Hoya climbed through the ropes, wide-eyed, hugging Cancio and whispering, "This is just the beginning," even though he knew the big, moneymaking plans Golden Boy had for Machado at Madison Square Garden had ended.
Cancio celebrated the win by drinking IPAs—his favorite kind of beer—in his hotel room with Janik, who confidently bet on the fight and made more money on his gamble than his cut of the $75,000 purse.
Three days later, at 6:20 a.m., Cancio returned to work at the gas company, walking into the office wearing street clothes and stitches on his left eye. In the locker room, as he changed into his blue coveralls, his coworkers showered him with applause and "world champ!" chants.
Tim Antonio, who's worked with him for years, knows his friend isn't a fan of the spotlight. So he waited for the cheers to die down before adding his take.
"You ain't shit!" he yelled. "Shut up and put on your coveralls and boots!"
The guys busted out in laughter. That workday turned into a 24-hour shift, thanks to a "Code 1" gas leak in the suburbs. Cancio finished jackhammering the pavement in the early morning hours, sweaty, sore and tired, and then caught a long, quiet smirk from Antonio.
"I know, I know," Cancio said. "I ain't shit."
Two months later, De La Hoya presented Cancio his personalized belt during a key to the city event in Blythe. After the ceremony, a booth was set up for the two to sign autographs. An extensive line had formed. De La Hoya, looking at the never-ending queue, thought to himself, Jesus, this is going to take like five hours! But as time ticked by, he glanced at a grinning Cancio, who was having a blast. Unlike De La Hoya, he'd never signed this many boxing gloves before—not to mention a kid's shoe—and here he was, scribbling his name on one after another, next to one of his childhood idols.
"Welcome to the big leagues, brother," De La Hoya said, and the two signed autographs until there was no one left.
When Cancio's work shift is done, he drives away from the office, past the Simi Valley mountains, stopping by his apartment to grab his gym bag, and then heads to the YMCA to pick up Ethan before he'll train at the gym. After a long day, working out is the last thing he feels like doing.
"I wish I could just have a lot of money and be able to train full-time," he says, yawning on the drive. It's a lot to juggle, but he knows he must approach boxing the same way he works at the gas company—digging deep, day after day.
There are some perks, of course. He likes the camaraderie of the guys and feels good about himself after a hard dig, knowing he fixed something. The gas company is a secure job that allows him to box stress-free—he knows that one injury, one punch, could end his career, and at age 30, he only has a few more good years left. Plus, he achieved his dream of becoming a world champ by balancing full-time work. Why change now?
His next goal is to win enough money so he can afford a house in Ventura, the same area where he once checked gas meters—a $1 million home with a backyard where his kids can play.
"If I work for the gas company for the rest of my life, I'm happy with that," he says. "As long as I can buy my house and live comfortably and have something to show for my career aside from the belt."
He and Ethan walk into the gym just before 5 p.m., a small space with cinderblock walls called KnuckleHeadz Boxing, owned by Janik. Speakers blast tunes from a hip-hop Pandora station. Punching bags hang from the ceiling. A weathered ring sits in the middle, lightly coated in spit, sweat and snot.
If I work for the gas company for the rest of my life, I'm happy with that. ...As long as I can buy my house and live comfortably and have something to show for my career aside from the belt—Andrew Cancio
"How was work?" Janik asks, so he knows how hard he should push.
"It was average," Cancio says. "I dug. Fucking jackhammer hurt today, though."
Cancio puts on a nylon sweat suit and then wraps his hands before getting in the ring. He warms up with steps on a wooden block of stairs and then works his triceps and abs, groaning as his muscles burn.
"Ten more seconds!" Janik yells during one painful set. "Feel it! Love it! Welcome it!"
By the time he's ready to box, Cancio's shirt looks like it's been dipped in the Pacific. He punches like he's not tired, though. As he works through several combinations, the loudness of the THWACKs makes everyone in the gym blink.
Two hours later, Cancio and Ethan head back to the apartment. He's exhausted, but his mind is still racing. Machado likes to shoot straight to the left, he thinks, which means he'll have to dip his head. If Machado really was weight-drained, he'll likely come back stronger and more aggressive on the 21st.
It'll be a good fight, he thinks. But he knows his win wasn't a fluke.
"I always felt I belonged there but was never sure," he says as he takes Ethan's spaghetti out of the microwave. "That night I passed the test for myself, and this time around, I'm more confident."
The rematch will pay him $125,000—before taxes and everyone else's cut—an amount of money Cancio still can't wrap his head around. He knows another win will lead to even bigger purses, and maybe, to the million dollars he seeks, to pay-per-view fights and bigger stages, like Las Vegas or Madison Square Garden, to even more recognition and a rematch against Joseph Diaz, the guy who beat him in Dallas years ago.
But now it's 8:15 p.m. on a Tuesday, one month before the rematch. He glances at his world championship belt, spread on a countertop near the kitchen table, etched with a picture of him on one of the plates, and heads upstairs.
It's time for bed. He has work in the morning.
Brendan Meyer is a writer based in Dallas. He's written for the Dallas Morning News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Casper Star-Tribune (Wyo.). His work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, and in 2018, he received the Michael Brick Storytelling Award. Follow him on Twitter: @Brendan_Meyer13.