Behind The Scenes At The 2010 Golden Gloves: A Boxing Tournament Without NYC-P.A.L .Contenders
By Beth Sarafraz Freelance Reporter/Photojournalist: Despite statements by the recently appointed New York City Police Athletic League Director Felix Urrutia that boxing is "barbaric" and despite the resultant closing of at least five city gyms (some of them operated by the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation officials who agreed with Urrutia's anti-boxing stance) and despite the sudden scarcity of places where young amateur boxers could afford to train [the P.A.L. was free; private gyms like Gleason's charge at least $85/per month], the esteemed NY Daily News 2010 Golden Gloves boxing tournament blasted off in January and continues through March with all the passion and excitement that it always had....
At Brooklyn's Tropical Paradise Ballroom, it's Golden Gloves fight night (week four) and the judges have just proclaimed Travis Peterkin of the Kingsway Boxing Club winner by decision, over Cops N Kids' contender, Rafael Chevalier. Chevalier, exiting the ring bruised and sweat soaked, faces the cameras and crowds dead on grim-faced but head held high. Young boxers like this one come back to fight another day, because boxing teaches "even when you lose, you win" if you prove to be a guy with "heart" -- which means getting up before the ten count unless you're really dead, not dying of embarrassment dead. Fight fans put great faith in the boxer who stands and faces defeat but vows to return and sting like a bee and Chevalier said all this and more with his eyes and body language.
No surprise there, because after all, Chevalier is a member of Pat Russo's Cops N Kids, a boxing program that Russo founded to rescue the young, desperate and stranded P.A.L. fighters who, he says, "were practicing in garages" by themselves, without benefit of coaches, trainers or equipment, after all the gym closings.. Russo, a retired 72 Precinct Sergeant and a former contender himself, had the necessary expertise from directing the P.A.L. Boxing Program and the heart of a lion to persevere on behalf of his young, suddenly vulnerable inner city teen and young adult fighters.
With Maria and Alfredo Castellanos on the edge of their seats, their son Luis, another contender from Russo's Cops N Kids, enters the ring for bout number five, determined to bring honor to his parents and himself. Because it is President's Day, Maria is off from work so this is the first time she will watch Luis fight from a seat in the audience. She talks about her own feelings after the three rounder ends, with Luis declared the winner. "I feel very proud to be here, to see my son fight and win. I was only a little scared." Luis describes his total commitment to the roadwork and physical tests of his strength, but slams the brakes on giving himself too much credit when he confides "I pray every day. I can't get nowhere without God."
Following the Castellanos victory, Dave Meloni of IMAA is called to the ring for bout number six, but when his opponent begins a psych-out strut up the aisle to the ring surrounded by an entourage calling out Baez! Baez! Baez! -- it's thunder breaking the sound barrier and everybody's eardrums with a decibel level approaching the gates of heaven, especially when Javier Baez, 17, of Bronx World Class Boxing, removes his robe and turns toward a tiny white-haired woman who comes to all his bouts with a level of religious devotion and love that most people cannot imagine. Grandma Margarita Fuente describes her mission to save Grandson Javier from the streets of the Bronx and credits P.A.L. boxing, its trainers, coaches and cops for saving a whole population of inner city kids by teaching boxing -- which translates into developing mental fortitude, resolve and an organized disciplined lifestyle.
"When my grandson Javier first started boxing [at the P.A.L.], everything about him got better, starting with school. -- South Bronx Prep. Thank God the P.A.L. was there, because by myself, I couldn't have taught him boxing and kept him off the streets. So tonight I am so proud to be here for him."
Referring to P.A.L. Director Felix Urrutia's statement that boxing is "barbaric," Grandma Margarita Fuente says, "Boxing is saving lives -- how could anyone call it barbaric?"
The tenth and final bout of the evening has Louis Cruz, of Cops N Kids, defeating Andres Garcia of New Legend Boxing Club. In an interview after the bout, Cruz says he hopes that becoming a champion will give him the stature to ask for, and receive, an appointment with Felix Urrutia and Parks Department officials as well, so he can tell them how boxing saves young men from bad influences in their neighborhoods.
"I ask you, Mr. Urrutia to meet with me and all my friends who had their lives changed by Pat Russo's P.A.L. Boxing Program, how it lifted us up and taught us a way to make our lives better," says Cruz, as if the PAL director was standing next to him, as if Director Urrutia might actually be interested in a young man's point of view, not to mention his hopes and dreams. Continuing this line of thought, Cruz says "I would tell him I was bored and I did stupid things, like fighting in the streets, before I started boxing. I would tell him that the Mayweather/De La Hoya fight inspired me to join P.A.L. when I turned 17 and it changed my life."
Whether Urrutia is listening or not [but probably not], Julian Sosa, a 14 year old who used to train at the now defunct boxing gym in his Sunset Park neighborhood, is paying attention to Cruz, a credible role model whose stature rose along with his grades. Boxing also improved Sosa's schoolwork and in order for it to stay that way, he travels to Park Hill in Staten Island to train, which entails a very long commute.
The Sunset Park Boxing Gym, it should be noted -- where Coach "Quiero" Bracero trained kids for at least twenty years -- presently offers basketball and a place to do homework after school, but its boxing gym has been turned into a Ping Pong Parlor. Mr. Urrutia has declined this reporter's requests for an interview to explain, among other things -- Can Ping Pong save kids from the streets? Has it ever been done before?
"I think it is a shame," Bracero says, about the sun setting on Sunset Park's P.A.L. boxing program. "When kids go to the gym, sometimes they become champions [Bracero trained at least 13 of them in Sunset Park's gym]. They see that hanging out on the street is no good, that they can do something with their lives. Not all the kids who train are going to box in the ring," says Bracero, a former boxer himself. "But the training is good for all of them."
Bracero's son Gabriel "Tito" Bracero, attending the evening's fights with his father, is a prime example. A former Golden Gloves champion, Gabriel Bracero is getting ready for a professional world title fight. Seated with the Braceros is a woman boxer named Dominga, who looks like a Victoria's Secret model. Coach Bracero is currently training her for a pro bout scheduled to take place in the Virgin Islands, a couple of months from now.
The Commanding Officer of the 67 Precinct, Deputy Inspector Cory Pegues, reportedly in attendance this night at the Tropical Paradise Ballroom and apparently in agreement about the sport's redeeming qualities, recently announced that his precinct was committed to starting a boxing program in the Flatbush Gardens housing development and that the indomitable Pat Russo was going to run it. [Russo, for his part, would donate proceeds from the Tropical Paradise Ballroom event to start up costs at the new gym. The rest of the money would come from Teddy Atlas and his foundation.]
Joe Higgins, former president of USA Boxing Metro and Boxing Director of the Freeport P.A.L. says "We are big supporters of P.A.L. Boxing and 100 percent behind Pat Russo. Luckily, we are beyond the reach of Felix Urrutia and his statement that 'boxing is barbaric.' If boxing is barbaric, why is it an Olympic sport? Why are our kids here nationally ranked? And then there's the FACT that boxing gets kids off the streets. I say to Urrutia: 'You are unfairly restricting boxing cause some kids don't evolve socially [the way you say they should].'"
In an interview conducted a week later, at the New Bed-Stuy Boxing Gym, NYPD Lieutenant Dave Siev, Captain of NYPD Fighting Finest, would say, unflinchingly and without hesitation, that "the Police Athletic League was originally created by the police department to give kids in the upper teen years a place to go and something athletic to do, especially at night. Boxing is a sport that teaches kids discipline, especially rougher kids on the cuff of going bad, getting in trouble. P.A.L. boxing offered the hope that kids would get involved with coaches and police officers who could show them a better direction to follow. Ask yourself how many crimes were not committed because boxing gave teens an alternative outlet, even a chance to become Golden Gloves champions? By taking out the boxing program, Felix Urrutia was supposedly opening time slots for other programs -- but there are none. After six o'clock p.m., the buildings which housed boxing gyms are empty. And why? Because Urrutia is an elitist and he doesn't like boxing."
Other NYPD officers training at Bed-Stuy would drive home the same point. According to Joel Allen, an IRT Taskforce officer who started boxing at the now defunct Sunset Park gym when he was 19: "It's a shame, what's happening in Sunset Park. You see the level of crime go up when there's no gym. Boxing teaches you confidence, willpower, focus and how to outrun your fear. Unlike other sports, it's one on one. I've seen more injuries in basketball and football. And the boxing gyms are warm, like family."
Nate Boyd, who has been running the Bed Stuy gym for "about 25-30 years" would echo Allen's point, about boxing gyms being a surrogate family: "A lot of kids don't have fathers. We fill in for that. I've seen boxing save lives, especially in kids who have a lot of anger in them. Hitting the heavy bag is a way to get it out. And it gets them off the streets."
Alexis Ayala, police officer and heavyweight boxer at Bed-Stuy would agree: "I see kids looking for somebody to look up to. Role models in the boxing gyms are the coaches. Kids who box aren't in the street fighting, they're in here fighting the other guy in the ring and, digging deep down inside, sometimes they're fighting themselves."
Another New Bed Stuy boxer/cop, who doesn't give his name, would sum it up neatly: "Is boxing barbaric? No, the streets are barbaric!"
But back in time at the President's Day fight night in Brooklyn, in spite of the ghost of Felix Urrutia being present all evening, the week number four Gloves event in a boxing tournament without NYC-P.A.L. participation, ends on a high note, as its newest crop of contenders exits the warmth of a Tropical Palace into a cold winter night's softly falling snow, exchanging boxing gloves for winter gloves, their young faces shining like angels lightly bruised, surrounded by smiling family and friends. Benefactor to some of them, role model to the others, Pat Russo, creator of the new Cops N Kids boxing program, slips out quietly and unnoticed and heads home to Staten Island.
[Beth Sarafraz has written for The New York Times, New Jersey Monthly Magazine, Boxing World, Courier-Life Publications, The Brooklyn View, and The Brooklyn Eagle.]
Article posted on 17.03.2010
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