A fighting chance

At Umar Community Center, West Baltimore kids get lessons in boxing -- and life.

Cover Story

May 23, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff

Father and son spar happily in a ring that glows in the late afternoon sun like the dream of a title fight in Las Vegas.

Eight-year-old Tavon Sol, looking like a chunky spaceman in his protective headgear and midriff guard, whacks away at his dad, Tyrone, with more enthusiasm than skill. But he's learning. Tyrone Sol was an amateur middleweight when he was 20 years younger and 20 pounds lighter. He keeps up a constant chatter while brushing away Tavon's fat training gloves.

"Now you got to cut me off. Work! Work! Keep the hands up. Come on! When you're coming in, hold your gloves high. And keep your mouth closed. When I tell you to double hook I don't mean go straight to the head. That means come up. Bap! Bap!"

He throws two quick, hard punches over Tavon's head. At 40, he's still got lots of steam.

Sol and his friend Marvin McDowell, a former outstanding welterweight, built this ring in which he and his son spar out of second-hand parts, first-class grit and a boundless love of boxing.

Along with William "T.C." Chavis, a former bantamweight fighter, the men have transformed an old auto parts shop on Fulton Avenue in the heart of Sandtown into the Umar Community Center, where, for the past four months, they have offered mentoring, tutoring and lots of boxing. Boxing, they say, is great for kids.

"I love it," McDowell says. "You learn so much about yourself, your strengths, your weak-nesses. It could help you with anything that you try to accomplish in life. ... You either have to perform or get out."

McDowell's just come from a Mondawmin barbershop, where he's cut and shaped and fashioned hair since 8:30 a.m. He'll be at the Umar center till 9 p.m. or later.

McDowell was one of the finest amateur boxers Maryland's ever seen. Before a brief pro career, he was state welterweight champ twice and won seven South Atlantic Amateur titles. He's in the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame.

"Marvin was one of the fighters here in Baltimore that you had to pass through," says Sol, who calls McDowell a mentor. "If you didn't get past Marvin, you weren't going nowhere."

McDowell, who grew up on Baltimore's west side a half-dozen blocks from Umar at North Avenue and Monroe Street, started boxing when he was 12 or 13, on a dare. He also credits a mentor, a former featherweight named Jimmy McAllister.

"He inspired me," McDowell says. "He was like a father figure. He believed in me more than I believed in myself. He saw a lot in me. So I said: 'Why, hey, it helped me. Maybe I can do the same for these other kids.' "

The neighborhood was tough when he was a kid, says McDowell. It's maybe tougher now, a place where life is a struggle, even for children.

Sol says the kids who come to Umar already know how to fight. Boxing, though, provides discipline, perspective. "What we try to instill here," he says, "is, look, don't let your condition [determine] who you're going to be. That's a terrible thing. ... We want to leave them with a choice, a choice to go beyond."

As detention officer at John Eager Howard Elementary School in Reservoir Hill and coach of a half- dozen neighborhood baseball teams, Sol says he's learned that more than anything, children want to be respected. "They want that signal that they are somebody," he says.

That's what the men try to do at Umar (an Arabic word meaning "life" and "lifetime"), a place that Marvin and Tyrone and T.C. (for "Top Cat") pretty much put together by themselves, from laying the floor tiles to hanging the speed bags and body bags.

The idea of giving something back to the kids reverberates around the gym. You can hear it in the whir of jump ropes as T.C. warms up a half-dozen kids, in the shuffling of feet in the ring, in the slap of leather on flesh as a kid lands a punch. On most afternoons, from 15 to 30 kids show up.

"Whether they choose to box, whether they choose to be historians or choose to be doctors, coming to this program, they're going to get something to help them along," McDowell says.

Umar has assembled a bank of computers, upgraded by Sol. The center also turns into a classroom every Wednesday when Dave Schorr, an accountant who is comptroller for a construction company, comes in as a volunteer to tutor math. Jackie Ward, 27, a teacher at John Eager Howard, is putting together a GED program. But so far, boxing is Umar's focus.

Another volunteer, Ernie Curtis, a man who was three times All-Navy light-welterweight champion 40 years ago, comes in and starts some kids shadow-boxing in front of the big mirrors at the back of the room. Boxing, he agrees, is good for kids.

"Oh, yeah!" he says. "[It] teaches them how to be strong. How to be disciplined. How to protect themselves. And not to be a bully. ... You have a lot of bullies come here. But then after they get hit a few times," he says, laughing, "that bully go out the window.

"This is beautiful," he says of Umar. "This is something to give the kids a starting chance. ... This program is teaching them more than just boxing."

McDowell adds: "It's teaching them life skills."

It's pretty basic stuff, Curtis says: "How to survive in the world today as it is."

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