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.

There were adults with more experience at practices then, "but that's faded," he says. So, Mr. Garcia reads voraciously about boxing and watches any fight tape he can get. The 41-year-old father of three has even learned to dance spryly in the ring while young boxers pummel his padded hands.

"Somewhere down the road, it will pay off," he argues. "Boonie may not go pro, but he will not get in trouble at school or with gangs. He doesn't have time to get in trouble."

Boonie says his dad pulled him out of boxing last year for more than a month while he brought up failing grades in three classes: "I was being lazy. I had to go to tutorials at school at 8 a.m."

He shows that same concern on Friday, the eve of the San Diego fights. At 6:30 p.m. sharp, Boonie is at the club and ready to work out. His teammate, Luis Santoyo, is not.

The sport has always attracted young men from lower-income neighborhoods, and today is no different.

Acting on a hunch, Mr. Garcia drives over the railroad tracks to the east side of town, where most of the local farm laborers live. He finds Luis behind a single-story apartment building, talking to his girlfriend.

Mr. Garcia could walk away and spend this time with more reliable boxers. But he wants to keep the youngster away from gang life. Relaxed but dogged, Mr. Garcia knows the pitfalls of that lifestyle. "I have lots of friends from gangs who are in jail and who are hypes," he said, using a slang term for drug addicts.

At the very least, boxing is a distraction for Luis, who has been in juvenile hall before because of a gang-related fight.

The elusive but charming 15-year-old is short on details about those days. "I was a gang member for three to five years," he says. "I started hearing about boxing, and I came here."

Most of his head is shaved to an eighth of an inch, though he spared a 6-inch ponytail, which hangs over a "Santoyo" tattoo on his back. His mom likes the fact that boxing seems to keep him out of trouble, he says. But she hated the tattoo--even tried to remove it with an iron, he adds with a grin.

Luis' muscular 5-foot-5-inch, 127-pound body looks bigger in the ring, where he is a tireless mixture of fluid movement and jackhammer-like fists. Although he has an 8-4 record, he still needs to sharpen his footwork and technique. After all, amateurs win by punching for points, not knockouts.

"I know how to fight, and I don't have to show off," says the youth, who swears through two perfect rows of white teeth that he avoids fights outside the ring. "If people want to see me fight, they can pay."

Who Boxes?

Why do young, healthy people allow their bodies to be bloodied and bruised in the ring?

For Luis and for Boonie Garcia, pain is part of a sport. They insist, however, that the two-hour workouts, four days a week, also help keep them motivated in school and out of trouble. "I'm so tired by the end of a workout," Boonie says, "I just want to go home and go to bed."

Besides, boxing is fun.

The sport has always attracted young men from lower-income neighborhoods, and today is no different. In part, it's because they see fighters like Mike Tyson or the 1992 Olympic gold medalist, Oscar De La Hoya of Los Angeles, box their way from poor backgrounds to fortunes.

But some youngsters just want to learn how to defend themselves. Others want a change of pace.

"I've dealt with lots of young people in tough communities who are not playing basketball, but getting into confrontations," says John Carter, a retired police officer who runs a Police Athletic League program for 127 young boxers in Suffolk County, N.Y. "It's better that they come to a boxing program now and use their hands where they get coaching."

But youngsters from middle-class and well-off families also find their way into the ring. "A lot of times, the kids from affluent families are kind of soft, and parents want them in for self-defense," Mr. Carter says.

On the other hand, boxing is not for everyone. A boxer fires his 8- or 10-ounce gloves mercilessly into the face and body of his opponent as often and fast as he can. And it hurts. Especially if you're not used to it.

"Some middle-class kids come in and their knees are shaking, and we see that it's not their choice," Mr. Carter adds. "In these cases, we try to diplomatically weed them out."

Gene Fullmer, a former world-champion middleweight who is the Rocky Mountain region director for Golden Gloves, a national amateur boxing organization, notes that boxing can accommodate young people of all sizes. "Not everybody is tall enough to be a basketball player or big enough to play football," he says. "But no matter what your size, there's a weight group for you."

Increasingly, that includes females.

There are 360 girls between 8 and 18 registered with USA Boxing, and the number is growing. Officials are even considering a Junior Olympics national championship tournament for female fighters.

Brawley has no girls registered to fight. But Mr. Garcia's 8-year-old daughter, Ellyn, regularly shows up at the gym to train on punching bags for fun and for exercise.

In his Suffolk County gym on Long Island, Mr. Carter has 12 female boxers.

"At first I laughed when people said girls would box," he says in a telephone interview from the gym. "Now one of them is one of the best athletes I've ever dealt with."

Regardless of race, gender, or income level, the youths who stick with the sport tend to be passionate about it. And to be good, they must work hard, limit their eating, and, aided by good coaching and role models, avoid risky lifestyles.

"The ones who are successful have the discipline," says Mr. Fullmer, a lifelong Mormon and Utah resident. "This is a rigorous process."

Evolving Sport

Aside from the newfound interest among women, the biggest changes in youth boxing have come from the overhauled rules and regulations.

Ray Silvas, the chairman of the officials' committee for USA Boxing, recalls that he didn't wear headgear when he started boxing as a youth in 1967. Fights back then often pitted novices and experienced opponents, he says, and lasted longer.

There are 360 girls between 8 and 18 registered with USA Boxing, and the number is growing.

And gone are poorly regulated "smokers," or local fight nights in which often-inexperienced youths would climb into rings and slug it out.

These days, doctors give exams before and after every youth bout.

"The biggest complaint we get is that we stopped a fight too fast," says Mr. Silvas, who is also a regional trainer for Allstate Insurance Co. in Houston. "We consider that a compliment."

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."

Vol. 16, Issue 34, Page 23-26

Published in Print: May 21, 1997, as Fighting for a Future

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