PORTLAND — Tonight is fight night in the cramped and hot room that is the Portland Boxing Club. The semifinals of the USA Boxing New England championships begin at 8 p.m. and Juan Lopez will be ready.

He is a high school senior and his experience as an amateur is limited to eight fights. He’s had his hand raised in victory seven times and that never gets old.

Neither does the anxiety of waiting to test an opponent he knows nothing about.

“Everybody is nervous before they fight. I like to engage my opponent quickly. I like the contact. I think I have a good right hand.”

The words come out of Lopez’s mouth without attitude. In fact he is soft-spoken, polite and in the context of personality, quietly engaging. One more among the dozens of fighters who have walked through the door of this former lumber yard to defy the old stereotype.

Lopez, and his good friend and sparring partner, Christian Castaneda, are young lightweights who represent new blood at the Portland Boxing Club. Lopez played football and discovered he wasn’t in love with the game. He tried basketball and baseball but the rewards didn’t seem to measure up to the effort.

He didn’t want to rely on his teammates and he was OK with placing the blame on himself when things went wrong. And when things went right, the credit was his for the taking.

His cousin is Jorge Abiague, the Cuban expatriate who settled in Portland and trained with Bobby Russo, eventually winning a national amateur championship. Abiague won his third fight as a professional this week in Florida. He hasn’t lost.

Lopez’s father, Valentin, fought in Cuba at 106 pounds. Don’t confuse him with another fighter named Valentin Lopez who was Mexican. Juan has watched video of his cousin fighting but has only heard stories from his father, who did have some international fights.

Castaneda’s father played soccer in his native El Salvador. Christian played as well but boxing became a more powerful lure. They asked Russo to add their names to that never-ending list he keeps of boys and girls, men and women, who want to become fighters. Here were two more who want to prove something. If not to others, then certainly to themselves.

To Russo, the story never gets old. Some say boxing is a dying sport overtaken by mixed martial arts, video games and kids who don’t understand work ethic. When Russo hears that he refers back to his list of those who want to join the Portland Boxing Club, where dues are paid sometimes in sweat.

“I can’t take them all,” says Russo, the owner, trainer, father figure and chief inspiration behind this group of mostly amateur fighters. He tells them to wait. “Christian (a high school sophomore) kept after me until I finally told them to come on in.”

Thursday night, Lopez was late. He lives in Old Orchard Beach with a parent and had car troubles. Castaneda recently moved with his family to Winthrop, Mass., and spends more time in a new fight club opened by John Ruiz, the former heavyweight champion.

Castaneda doesn’t have his driver’s license yet but finds ways to return to the PBC off Allen Avenue. He won all four of his previous fights and is on tonight’s card.

“I can’t stay away,” said Castaneda. “They are all my family. I go into the ring alone but I know they are all behind me. They are my big brothers and big sisters.”

Both teenagers are like sponges, says Todd Bacon, a former PBC fighter, a Portland policeman and a trainer assisting Russo. “They both have that X-factor, that inate ability and tenacity to throw a punch and take a punch. They had to overcome four or five hurdles just to get a fight and they have.

“It’s easy to have a bent ego in this sport but they see the respect they can build by stepping into the ring. It’s a good place to meet the demons.”

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: SteveSolloway