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Posted: Thursday March 25, 2010 5:37PM; Updated: Thursday March 25, 2010 5:59PM
Bryan Armen Graham
Bryan Armen Graham>INSIDE BOXING

As Golden Gloves loom, NYC boxing gyms in fight for life (cont.)

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The New York Daily News Golden Gloves is the world's largest and longest-running boxing tournament besides the Olympics.

Not long after Joseph Medill Patterson founded the New York Daily News in 1919, the paper began sponsoring a variety of sporting events over the next decade in an effort to boost its circulation. By far the most popular was the Silver Skates Derby. The annual speed-skating tournament -- conceived in 1922, early in the breakout decade for American sports -- captured the collective imagination of a sports-mad city and proved an unequivocal success for the infant tabloid. So when sports editor and amateur boxing enthusiast Paul Gallico pitched Patterson the idea of a city-wide boxing tournament, it was an easy sell. Gallico even had a tournament name picked out -- the Golden Gloves -- a nod to the event that inspired it.

"I am bugs enough about amateur boxers, their romance and their opportunities," wrote Gallico in the first of several columns promoting the inaugural event, "to think perhaps the tournament of the Golden Gloves will unearth some unknown with a bland and modest smile and a kick like a mule, who will blast through the national championships in Boston with Golden Gloves dangling from his belt. He will have beaten the best in the metro area, and with Golden Gloves as a talisman well, who can tell? The opportunity will be there."

Opportunity was the essence of the Golden Gloves, and still is. Before you're paid to fight as a professional, you learn the trade in the amateur ranks. If you can prove yourself there, you can make a living. But whether the lure is professional glory, that chain with 10-carat gold miniature gloves or those precious column inches in the Daily News, participants see a chance to turn their lives around.

Today, the Golden Gloves is the world's largest and longest-running boxing tournament besides the Olympics.

Almost as interesting as the matches themselves are the unique backstories fighters bring into the ring. Narjis Kabiri is a senior at West Point who'd never boxed a round in her life before her opening fight at this year's Gloves, when she wiped the floor with a girl from John's Gym. (Kibiri will deploy with the 82nd Airborne next year.) Kevin Rooney, Jr., son of the famous boxing trainer who helped guide the career of a young Mike Tyson, promised to enter the Gloves if his dad stopped drinking; Rooney, Sr., did, but Junior lost on points in the quarterfinals. Tiffany Chen grew up in martial arts -- her father is an instructor at a place near Manhattan's Mendez Boxing Club -- but recently turned to boxing and needed just one punch to beat her quarterfinal opponent from Gleason's.

You've got some of the most naturally gifted athletes you've ever seen who can't be bothered to hit the heavy bag or do the road work. And you've got modest-looking specimens who overachieve spectacularly thanks to effort and dedication. You've got guys who are using the Gloves as a stepping stone for the professional ranks -- they know they'll get their names in the Daily News and appear on the MSG network -- and they see the tournament as a platform to promote themselves. And you get other guys who call up the office and say, "I've never fought before. What do I have to go buy for tonight?"*

*This actually happened once this year; the fighter was subsequently taken to the hospital for a precautionary CAT scan.

* * *

From the outside, it doesn't appear so bad. The awning looks brand new, and the red, white and blue mural on the outer facade -- with MORRIS PARK BOXING CLUB in block letters -- appears as fresh as the day it was painted less than a year ago. Aside from the padlock on the door and the dumpster half-filled with debris, there's little to suggest the destruction within.

But inside, shafts of sunlight peeking through the punctured roof create a charcoal tableau. The two-room gym, once bustling with activity seven days a week, is empty save for the charred remains of scattered equipment -- a glove here, a training belt there. No sign of the handpainted message that once stared down on the space: IT'S BETTER TO SWEAT IN THE GYM THAN TO BLEED IN THE STREETS.

Cus D'Amato once described a knockout as a failure of communication between mind and body. A fighter with an authentic desire to win cannot be knocked out if he sees the punch coming, D'Amato insisted.

Davis didn't enjoy the luxury of foresight. He was asleep on the morning of Dec. 23 in his nearby apartment when the phone rang.

"I got a call and was told I needed to come right down to the gym immediately," Davis recalls. "I jumped into cab and couldn't believe what I saw when I got there."

The owners of the Morris Park gym had no time for anguish, not with the Golden Gloves less than a month away. Hours after the blaze swallowed their business, Davis made temporary plans with John's Gym -- a 10-minute drive away in Melrose, nine stops downtown on the 2 train. Known for training such accomplished West African fighters as Joshua Clottey and Joseph "King Kong" Agbeko, John's is a modest space on the second floor of an old post office. Owner Gjin Gjini lent a sympathetic ear and offered free one-month memberships to the 11 Morris Park fighters -- nine men and two women -- in training for the Golden Gloves.

Many of them -- like Rashid Wright, Mike Cardenas, Jose Robles and Donald Ngwang -- are students aged 17 to 25 according to their registration with the Daily News. Keith Brown, was a first-year entrant in the novice division, is a 34-year-old elementary school teacher of Albanian descent. Middleweight Rodney Carter Sr., 28, works as a personal trainer. Victor Morales, the heaviest team member at 201 pounds, is a U.S. Navy veteran. Frankie Garriga, a 21-year-old Bronx native preparing to fight in the Gloves for a fifth time, captured the 119-pound novice championship in 2008. Last year, Garriga was fired from his security-guard job just two weeks before the competition for missing work to train. He went all the way to the finals of the 125-pound open division before losing by decision in the final.

Members of John's Gym and the Morris Park club trained side by side -- a strange but necessary marriage, and an example of the boxing community coming together in a crisis. If there's been any animosity, it's been between the trainers. Fighters from both gyms have mentioned arguments boiling over due to the cramped space.

Jose Torres once said the machismo of boxing is a condition of poverty. And true, many of Morris Park Boxing Club's students come from lower-income neighborhoods in the Bronx. "It's hardly a secret that boxing does not get its enlistees from the debutante lines at the local country club; nor the law offices or accounting firms down on Wall Street," boxing historian Bert Sugar wrote. "Instead, it draws its recruits from the tenements, the ghettos, the projects, the barrios, the nabes, hardscrabble places offering little presence and even less of a future."

If anyone knows the redemptive value of the sweet science, it's Pat Russo. A retired narcotics officer who spent 22 years at the 72nd Precinct in Sunset Park, Russo got into the sport as a rookie in 1985, when he responded to a poster looking for officers to join the NYPD boxing team. At a basement gym in Starrett City, a lifelong passion was discovered.

"It taught me discipline and it taught me confidence," Russo said. "As a kid I was always shy and I hated to get up in front of a class and speak. It helped in that sense. It gave me the confidence that you can handle yourself if you can prepare. And that's what boxing is: Boxing teaches kids work ethic."

The NYPD deemed Sunset Park the model precinct for community policing during Russo's first several years in the neighborhood, and officers were encouraged to think of outside-the-box ways to solve local issues. For Russo, the solution was obvious.

"Some of the main problems that were affecting the community were drugs, gangs and a lack of things for the kids to do. I said I wanted to start a boxing program," Russo said. "We could give kids an alternative to the street."

Russo learned about a ring in an abandoned building on Snyder Avenue that was going to be torn down with the ring still in it. He got permission from the Department of Parks and Recreation to start up a free program in the actual parkhouse building in Sunset Park.

For 22 years, Russo's Sunset Park Boxing Club kept at-risk kids off the street and taught them to exert their aggression in a positive way -- and it didn't cost the city a nickel. ("They gave us our own space," he allows, "but it was an empty space!") Russo says the sport was seen not just as an alternative to gangs, but as a police recruiting tool.

"You think it's cliche," Russo says, "but the competition for these kids between the Bloods, the Crips, the Latin Kings, it's out there. And if we can get a kid walking down the street wearing a Sunset Park Boxing Club sweatshirt, make him feel like he's part of something that he's going to be able to use, they can walk the streets. They can be proud in a positive way. They're doing something good. They're eating right. They're not doing drugs. If you look at the Golden Gloves -- less than 1 percent of the kids test positive for drugs. 'Cause you can't. You can't drink alcohol and you can't do drugs if you want to be successful at this sport."

But when the city received a $500,000 grant from the Department of Education in 2007 to start an after-school workshop in the space that Russo's program called home, the Sunset Park Boxing Club was forced off the premises -- and nearly 60 youngsters found themselves without a place to train.

Within months, a benefactor in nearby Red Hook offered an empty space if Russo wanted to move one neighborhood over. Just like that, the Sunset Park Boxing Club was rebranded the Red Hook Boxing Club. But it wasn't long before a lease conflict forced Russo's charges to the street again.

"There's an obvious bias against boxing by the elitists that see it as a brutal, barbaric sport," Russo says. "They've never done it before. They have no idea the whole concept of it. They just don't get it."

What might have been a fatal blow came when Police Athletic League executive director Felix Urrutia, citing a "paradigm change," chose to terminate the long-running PAL boxing program on the eve of the 2009 Golden Gloves. Urrutia's initial compromise was a fitness program with no competitive boxing -- no physical contact -- but Russo knew "that wasn't going to attract that kids that we needed to attract."

Instead, Russo and friends held fundraisers and registered about 50 kids for the tournament, paying the admissions and club fees for the fighters and certification fees for the coaches. They switched everyone's affiliations to NYC Cops & Kids, an umbrella team for all the kids whose PAL programs went under, so they wouldn't need to enter the Gloves "unattached."

The response of Russo's refugees was impressive: At last year's Golden Gloves, NYC Cops & Kids captured the prestigious team trophy -- an honor they hope to defend Thursday and Friday at Madison Square Garden.

"Boxing attracts those at-risk kids that are on the borderline, who can go either way into gangs or drugs or other criminal activity," Russo says. "PAL boxing has been around since 1935. It has a longstanding history in New York as far as providing kids a place to go. It was established by police officers that were just looking for a positive outlet for kids. I couldn't let one person's opinion of boxing just destroy all that history."

* * *

It's opening night of the 83rd annual tournament at B.B. King Blues Club in Times Square and the packed house is abuzz. Officials in black T-shirts make final adjustments to the ring, set in a two-tiered, horseshoe-shaped seating area. Sports luminaries like Giants running back Brandon Jacobs and former Knicks guard John Starks occupy VIP booths near ringside. Yuri Foreman and Paulie Malignaggi, two of the city's finest professional fighters, hold court with their entourages and snap photos with any admirer who works up the nerve to approach.

Tonight is only the first of 33 different cards over the next eight weeks, leading to the finals at Madison Square Garden in March -- but it's certainly the most glamorous fixture on the docket. Other preliminary rounds often take place before crowds of various sizes at high schools, church halls, rec centers, Masonic temples and American Legion posts across the five boroughs.

Six fights in the 141-pound open division comprise tonight's card, but there's only one fighter everyone in the house wants to see: four-time Golden Gloves champion Shemuel Pagan. He's passed on the opportunity to turn pro, and the chance to collect a paycheck for his sacrifice, for a shot at history. Pagan, who's 21, wants to match the all-time record of five consecutive Golden Gloves titles set by Mark Breland, the Brooklyn native who went 21-0 with 14 knockouts in the competition between 1980 and '84 -- and capped that run with a gold medal at the Los Angeles Olympics. (Breland, not incidentally, is ringside tonight.)

Fights in the open division consist of three 3-minute rounds -- except for three 2-minute rounds for the novice division and four 2-minute rounds for women -- and the boxers wear padded headgear. Amateur rules place a premium on scoring points based on the volume of clean punches landed, as opposed to sheer physical force.

An eerie quiet falls when the bell rings for the first fight, enhancing the sound of footsteps and leather against flesh. The wiry teenager in the blue corner is Carlos Teron from Russo's NYC Cops & Kids, younger brother of Jorge "The Truth" Teron, a three-time Golden Gloves champion and one of the tournament's recent success stories.

Three more fights and it's time for the main attraction: Pagan. Those who've spent most of the night watching by the bar come to life and stake whatever spaces with clear sightlines remain. The veteran is easily recognized from afar, thanks to the long frizzy ponytail hanging from the rear of his gold headgear. A Hebrew Israelite, Pagan has long associated his signature hairstyle with strength, in keeping with the Old Testament hero Samson.

A lifelong resident of Brooklyn's Borough Park, Pagan goes by the nickname "The Problem" -- and that's exactly what he presents for tonight's opponent, Tyrell White from John's Gym. Pagan's devastating combination of power, speed and accuracy sends White to the canvas within the first minute of the first round, with a quick, pulverizing right hook that seems to appear from the ether. The second knockdown comes just moments later, after another devastating combination of body shots. The ref stops the action just 87 seconds into the first round.

* * *

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