From wheel to ring
Splitting time between bus driving and MMA, Ron DeLeon makes an impact
In the center of a dimly-lit hotel ballroom in West Lansing, a chain-link octagon loomed over rows of seated onlookers. Two fighters circled each other in the cage, peppered by advice and jeers from the audience surrounding the ring. Stepping lightly, they swung fists in tentative arcs, like swimmers thrashing feet in uncertain waters.
In the ballroom’s corner, an open doorway cast a ray of light midway across the room. Just inside, bathed in the harsh fluorescent glare, Ron DeLeon looked on worriedly.
As a fight promoter, DeLeon loves energizing an audience with a good fight. He had arranged for 15 bouts that night, but four fighters never showed, and the schedule lost some hometown favorites. The audience grew lethargic.
Suddenly, a fighter caught the other’s foot mid-kick. With a sweep of his leg, he brought his opponent crashing to the mat and rained down a flurry of punches. The intensity of the action breathed life into the spectators, who erupted in cheers as the fighters grappled on the floor. DeLeon seemed relieved.
He’s been in the promotion business for a long time. He holds events in ballrooms and conference centers every few months, originally in boxing, but now mostly MMA. DeLeon doesn’t just promote the fights — he serves as ring announcer to crowds of thousands, introducing fighters in a suit and immaculately shined shoes.
Two days later, DeLeon is wearing the same unscuffed shoes, pressing the gas pedal on CATA route 25.
“It’s just another day,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for 16 years, so it’s kind of old hat now. At first you think you’re cool, you’re wearing a suit, and the next day you’re a bus driver.”
A family affair
For DeLeon, driving buses for the Capital Area Transportation Authority isn’t just a job. He’s gotten to know countless students during the past 16 years, referring to them as “my students.”
“I love my job because I meet so many different and interesting people, and when you open yourself up to them … I feel that they’re willing to respond and open up to me as well,” DeLeon said. “They’re telling me about their families, their lives, their goals, their dreams. That’s what I enjoy.”
But DeLeon doesn’t describe himself primarily as a bus driver or promoter.
“I’d say I’m a very good dad who’s a bus driver that occasionally wants to put on some exciting fights in the Greater Lansing area,” DeLeon said.
DeLeon is father to three children: 19-year-old Selena Montoya; Bryana, a senior at Waverly High School in Lansing, and Thiago, who is 4. He’s an attentive parent — when Bryana tells him about the latest high school gossip, he seems to know all the names his daughter references.
He said his family is his passion. It’s reflected in his business, Ron DeLeon Promotions, a family affair that includes his siblings, nieces and nephews.
When he looks through footage from fights he’s promoted, he can see his daughters grow up ringside.
They began by singing the national anthem before fights. As they grew older, they wanted to take on more responsibility. Bryana DeLeon acts as timekeeper, while Selena usually cues the music.
Soon, DeLeon will have another tie to the MSU community.
As children, his daughters would sometimes accompany him to work.
After a while, these trips steered Bryana toward a major life decision.
“We would go on the campus (routes) and I would see all the college students and all the green, and I was like ‘Oh, that’s going to be me one day,’” Bryana DeLeon said.
This fall, she’ll be entering the university as a civil engineering major.
Beyond the bus
To many members of the MSU community, DeLeon is more than a bus driver. He’s a friend.
MSU Board of Trustees Chairperson Joel Ferguson described DeLeon as “one of the most giving people I know.”
DeLeon has promoted a charity tennis tournament the first week of August each year since Brian Ferguson, Joel Ferguson’s brother and a close friend of DeLeon’s, died of cancer nine years ago. DeLeon estimated the tournament raises about $2,000 toward cancer research each year.
After a late night at the library last year, graduate student Sydney Terenzi felt uncomfortable walking back from her stop. DeLeon let her off in front of her apartment.
“It just shows how caring he is,” Terenzi said. “He would go out of his way to help anyone.”
Terenzi said she now stands at the front of the bus every time she rides to talk with him.
“He has an awesome sense of humor,” Terenzi said. “He’s such a character, I guess he’s probably one of my favorite people in the East Lansing (and) MSU community.”
DeLeon’s job gives him ample time to get to know his riders.
“I’m driving in a circle for nine hours a day. It makes the time go by and it makes for interesting conversation,” DeLeon said. “I just talk to everybody.”
Friendships often extend beyond the bus. DeLeon said his first MMA fight included four members of MSU’s Jiu-Jitsu club. Wrestlers also have competed. MSU students can be found carrying cards that signify the round.
DeLeon said a former student once introduced their younger sibling to him when they started at MSU, instructing him to show them the ropes. The advent of social media has allowed him to stay in touch with students through Facebook posts he titles “Diary of a Short Mexican Bus Driver.”
“He’s just the best bus driver,” Spanish and second language studies professor Bill VanPatten said. “He smiles, he greets you. … He makes you feel when you get on the bus like it’s really just going to be a nice ride.”
DeLeon sees MSU students grow up during their time on campus.
“I see the scared, worried-looking, apprehensive-looking freshmen walking in here and then the seniors as they’re about to leave, progressed and evolved and looking like they’re ready to conquer the world,” DeLeon said. “I love to see that transformation.”
In the fall, his daughter will be taking that place.
“I’ve talked to so many kids in the past, and now my kid will be one of them,” DeLeon said. “It’s a really proud moment for me.
“I better see her on my bus.”