When Dex Montenegro began fighting, it wasn’t purely by choice.
After moving to Issaquah with his mother and younger brother at age 11, in part to escape a destructive home situation in his native Hawaii, Montenegro found himself out of place and a constant source of taunts for his new classmates. He could brush off most of it, but when the harassment turned racial, it wasn’t so easy.
“It was a bunch of things,” Montenegro said of the motivation for the fighting. “I tried to be hard.”
Without his father, who was incarcerated in Hawaii, and his older brother also still on the islands, Montenegro soon found himself in the unfamiliar role of father-figure. That responsibility was increased as his mother worked two and sometimes three jobs to make ends meet financially.
“She was trying to provide for us,” he said. “I had to take on that role, and I didn’t know how to do it.”
A vicious cycle soon developed, as Montenegro internalized the problems at home and used schoolyard insults as a reason to fight. That provided a temporary yet destructive outlet for his anger, and only widened the gap of mistrust between he and his mother. With suspensions no longer enough of a deterrent to his behavior, Montenegro soon found himself expelled not only from the Issaquah School District, but neighboring districts in Bellevue, Redmond and North Bend.
Without the buffer of the Eastside and it’s decidedly more sheltered lifestyle, Montenegro found himself going to school in Seattle, where his antics were no longer a measure of toughness, but a challenge met by nearly everyone he encountered.
“I fell in with the wrong crowd,” he said, adding that fighting and other comparatively petty matters soon turned into a full-fledged criminal lifestyle.
The lack of motivation and support took Montenegro down a dark road, frequently landing him in jail. Eventually, he knew he faced a crossroads.
“I needed an outlet,” he said. “I got into training and put my energy into that.”
So at age 18, already hardened by the streets and without a formal education, Montenegro went back to what he knew, fighting. Only this time, he was inside a ring.
Will Hammond has known Montenegro for more than four years and the two have trained together at Kirkland’s White Buffalo Warriors gym. Hammond said he has trained more than 100 fighters and worked with many more as a manager in the past decade. What stands out about Montenegro, according to Hammond, is outstanding discipline, the same thing he lacked during his youth.
“Dex is one of those guys that goes above and beyond in terms of making it a lifestyle,” Hammond said. “Many fighters need that constant steering in terms of diet, sleep habits, their training. Dex is a guy where you tell him and he does it.”
That round-the-clock dedication has been vital to his return to fighting, which Montenegro completed last week at the Emerald Queen Casino with an unanimous decision loss in a boxing bout. He will be return to the mixed martial arts ring in April, but is already planning far beyond his career as a fighter.
After struggling to find positive role models throughout his own youth, and getting a first-hand look at how quickly things can spiral out of control for a young man with too much anger and not enough support, Montenegro knows he can use his voice longer than his fists.
“When my time is up in the fight game, I want to go talk to troubled youth in detention centers,” he said. “I want to get into that stuff to give back.”
With two children of his own and a girlfriend who has seen him through his transformation, Montenegro is venturing on a far different course than he could have imagined when he was bouncing between youth detention centers and jail. The community has taken notice, as well, and Hammond said his humble personality and redemptive tale have given him a large following among fight enthusiasts.
Montenegro said of all his fans, there are a few who stand out.
“Some of the same cops who used to arrest me have come up to a couple of my fights,” he said. “I don’t recognize all of them, but they all say they came to see me and they are happy to see I’m out of trouble.”