Published Online: May 21, 1997


Fighting for a Future

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Youth bouts go three rounds, each lasting from one to three minutes. Only boxers age 15 or older vie for national titles.

Each amateur boxer receives a book that records his or her fights. The books are used to pair fighters of like experience. They also record injuries, especially head injuries, and make sure that doctor-ordered suspensions are enforced.

"It's a cruel fact, as those who will argue against boxing say, that the goal is to inflict a concussion against your opponent," says Dr. Alan Rosenthal, the chief of neurosurgery at Winthrop Hospital and Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park on Long Island, N.Y.

The longtime boxing fan adds that the risks of youth boxing can be reduced through long breaks after injuries, solid defensive techniques, and lots of proper physical conditioning--especially of necks.

'Many of the programs in the U.S. are being funded not just as alternatives for kids on the streets, but positive alternatives.'

David Lubs
acting executive director,
USA Boxing

He warns that boxing prodigies, or naturally gifted boxers who outclass their opponents, must be carefully matched. "People in charge of these programs must separate out the tremendously talented athletes," Dr. Rosenthal says.

How does youth boxing compare with the pros? "In one, the goal is to render the opponent unconscious," he says. "Amateur boxing is a point game, similar to fencing."

The American Medical Association takes a stronger stand. A 1984 AMA resolution sought a ban on amateur and professional boxing, "a sport in which the primary objective is to inflict injury."

But last June, after hearing from proponents of youth boxing, the group's House of Delegates defeated a stronger statement that asked the federal government to end the sport.

David Lubs, the acting executive director of USA Boxing, says that youth-boxing fans explained to the AMA that millions of dollars have been spent studying the sport's rules to improve safety. "We're not as vulnerable to their attacks as we were 10 years ago," he says.

But the resounding message that boxing's supporters tried to stress, Mr. Lubs says, was "that many of the programs in the U.S. are being funded not just as alternatives for kids on the streets, but positive alternatives."

Community of Believers

And that message has well-placed supporters in Brawley and around the neighboring Imperial Valley, where some 200 youngsters participate in six boxing programs throughout the year.

Jim Harmon, a county superior court judge, has climbed through the ropes to hand out trophies on more than one occasion.

"Within the last several years, the county has seen a major increase in gang activity, and crime that involves violence and young people," he points out. "Any long-range solution has got to involve intervention with young people through programs like this."

He sees boxing, and any other sport, as a healthier way to knock out aggression than street violence.

"My experience is that kids in sports, in a supervised fashion, are not the ones who later on will commit criminal acts," Judge Harmon says. "I think there's something to be said of them taking out aggression in a supervised, controlled program."

Fund-raising activities also reflect community backing for the programs.

The Sunrise Optimist Club in El Centro, nine miles south of Brawley, recently purchased and donated a boxing ring to the Boxing Against Drugs club in Westmorland, just east of here.

And in Brawley, police Officer Chris Eaton is organizing a charity boxing tournament this summer. The "Battle of the Badges" will pair off officers from state prisons, police departments, and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Brawley's Cattle Call Rodeo Arena.

Proceeds from the event will go to the La Gente Boxing Club.

Watching the team practice recently, Mr. Eaton, who was in his street clothes, was impressed by how hard the youths were working, especially some of the ones he has run into on the job.

That point isn't lost on the young boxers. ''I see the cops and they see me," Luis Santoyo says. "And they see that I'm not in trouble."

Brawley Goes to San Diego

But even if boxing is not a staple for most sports fans, the centuries-old sport seems as old-fashioned as apple pie or baseball when fight day finally arrives at the Del Mar Fair in San Diego.

The boxing ring is set up inside a huge pavilion, where it shares space with an exhibition of "extreme sports"--cutting-edge activities like riding motorized in-line skates through slalom courses, or dashing down sheer walls while performing stunts on skateboards and bicycles.

"I've never seen this stuff before," says Ernie Moreno, who brought two boxers from his Westmorland Boxing Against Drugs team. But the distractions are probably a good thing for his athletes, since neither of them will get to fight today.

One of the downsides to youth boxing is that it is unpredictable. Coaches often don't know until the last minute who will make weight requirements, show up on fight day, or match up in ability with their guy. And at the Del Mar Fair this particular day, there were no boxers from the other teams who were in the same weight class as Mr. Moreno's young men.

"That's how it goes," says the coach, who started the club in 1978. "We'll try to get them another one."

On the other hand, the two Brawley athletes, Boonie Garcia and Luis, have met their weight limits and are matched up for two of the first three bouts. As fight time nears, the youths are like prayerful monks compared to the high-speed, noisy high jinks elsewhere in the pavilion.

Luis draws the first bout of the day, which collects about 100 spectators by the time the opening bell sounds.

Immediately, he charges his opponent, a taller and slightly heavier boxer. The bigger athlete keeps Luis at bay with relentless, piston-like jabs.

'My experience is that kids in sports, in a supervised fashion, are not the ones who later on will commit criminal acts.'

Jim Harmon
superior court judge,
Brawley, Calif.

Luis, fearless but less nimble, absorbs a flurry of punishment before scoring points with sledgehammer blows from his right hand.

The next two rounds go much the same way. The fight ends with the two youths embracing in a congratulatory hug. The senior Ruben Garcia gives Luis' foe some water.

No one is bloodied, this time, though Luis' face is red--probably from the combination of stinging blows and exhaustion.

Back at center ring now, the combatants wait for the winner to be announced. By unanimous decision, Luis' opponent, who fought in the red corner, wins. Luis shakes his head in mild disappointment, and later predicts that the red corner will get all the fights today.

Boonie is in the third fight. He's not wearing the new turquoise shorts his mom made, with his name stylishly stitched onto them. He wants to wait until Luis also has such fancy trunks. Instead, a bland pair of light-blue shorts hangs to his knees.

Lankier and more polished than Luis, Boonie not only punches harder than his opponent in the first round, but is also faster, lands more blows, and is the aggressor throughout the fight.

The ring action is closely controlled by a rigid, serious young official.

By the end of the fight, the Brawley contingent is sure their guy will win. Then again, they're not fighting on home turf. Besides, Boonie is in the unlucky blue corner.

The ring announcer's voice breaks through the din. "The winner, by unanimous decision, the blue corner."

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