Published Online: May 21, 1997

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Fighting for a Future

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On a quiet Thursday night in this desert town, the Brawley Boys' and Girls' Club gym is as active as a popcorn popper.Grunts and smacks echo through the cinder block building as members of the La Gente Boxing Club jab punching bags, skip rope, and shadowbox. Manuel Carillo, a school bus driver, eyes the ring, where his 8-year-old son, Anthony, is outdueling his 9-year-old brother, Julian.

The gym is well-stocked for this poor farming community of 23,000, just north of the Mexican border. Six heavybags hang from beams like slabs of beef. There are enough gloves and jump ropes to keep the sweat flowing for the two-hour workout.

And there is an urgency in the air because two of the youths have bouts Saturday in San Diego.

Arnold Valdez, a Brawley police officer, is watching the action. Some of the boxers have been in trouble with the law, but they are basically good kids, he says. "This gives them a more positive outlet than street and gang fights," he adds. "The thing is, there's nothing for them to do, and many don't have constructive guidance at home."

In a Southern California town, youth boxing brings together an unusual mix of people to teach young athletes more than just how to throw a punch.

The all-volunteer program is a mosaic of community support. A group of local car buffs sponsors the club, and law-enforcement officers and school officials raise money and recruit youngsters.

The local enthusiasm here, however, belies the hobbled popularity of youth boxing nationwide. Enthusiasts are still angry at NBC for snubbing boxing during the 1996 Summer Olympics, when not a single bout was televised during prime time.

For years, medical groups have deemed the sport unsafe, though potentially less dangerous than football or wrestling. And, fairly or not, its image has been tainted by the often seamy and brutal shadow cast by professional boxing.

But, backed by a nationwide marketing effort this summer, youth boxing is vying for a comeback. Fans of the sport say it's safer and better organized than ever. And, as Mr. Valdez says, it's a good way to smooth the rough edges of street-tough youths.

Nationwide, 13,300 boys and girls between 8 and 18 are registered to fight in youth bouts. And the long-stagnant number is slowly rising as more girls put on the gloves.

"I like to keep kids busy as a diversion from drugs, gangs, alcohol, and all the rest of the negative things we all see," says Howard "Sonny" Duncan, the president of Junior Olympics boxing, one of five national boxing programs for youths. "And it works. I have kids I coached 12 years ago who call and tell me so."

Survival of the Fittest

Boxing has some built-in obstacles, however. Just as boxers enter the ring alone, the sport itself is isolated from mainstream athletics. It is not a sanctioned scholastic sport at the K-12 level, and thus does not have the built-in support of salaried coaches and campus facilities.

And while about 30 colleges have boxing programs, the National Collegiate Athletic Association dropped the sport in 1960 because of insufficient activity.

Most of today's local programs are run by volunteers out of public gyms, churches, schools--anywhere they can find space.

While most programs raise their own money, some receive support from local recreation departments.

Some of the top clubs receive help from national umbrella groups, such as the Police Athletic League, which has thousands of young boxers in local programs.

Nationally, about 8,000 adults volunteer as fight officials, doctors, or other boxing helpers, according to officials at United States Amateur Boxing Inc., the sport's Colorado Springs, Colo.-based governing body.

Likewise, the Brawley club gets a patchwork of community aid.

Financial and logistical backing comes from the La Gente Car Club, a group of 40 car buffs. Its members spend at least $2,000 a year on boxing, and they built the portable ring that the young boxers here use.

"The emphasis is grades, school, and staying out of trouble," says the club's president, Antonio Camacho. "We want people to say, 'There's the boxers from La Gente, not the troublemakers from La Gente.'"

School officials, local judges, and other groups also find ways to help.

Norma Sierra, Brawley High School's attendance officer for 10 years, abhors violent sports. But, she says, youth boxing has a place in an imperfect world where juvenile delinquency is a fact.

Nationwide, 13,300 boys and girls between 8 and 18 are registered to fight in youth bouts.

"In essence, boxers are athletes, so they learn discipline, and that's wonderful," she says. "They're dealing with the physical benefits of being an athlete. They feel good about themselves, and when they feel good about themselves they have self-esteem. And when you have that, you don't get girls pregnant and beat people up."

And she likes that the sponsoring La Gente Car Club brings together working-class and professional people from various ethnic groups to work with the young people. La Gente is Spanish for 'the people'.

"They see the low-rider and the radio-station owner together. That's a good role model."

More Than a Coach

The Brawley program's linchpin is its unlikely coach.

Ruben Garcia leaves his job as a foreman at a farm-supply store at about 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday to make the workouts. He was never a boxer himself, but became a full-time coach when his 15-year-old son, Ruben, known as "Boonie," took up the sport three years ago.

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