Youth center, boxing club help kids become winners

April 15, 2001|By Gregory Kane

THE BOXER stood in the middle of the ring, snapping out left jabs. Occasionally, he would cross with his right hand, pivoting on his right foot as he did so to get extra power in the punch. Then he would fire off a left hook and uppercut.

He shadow-boxed in a ring on the second floor of a building in the 1500 block of N. Fulton St., deep in the heart of West Baltimore. He presented a stark contrast to what was happening on the first floor, where a cluster of youngsters, elementary- and middle school-aged, hovered around 19 computers, studying, researching and being tutored in reading or math. The one thing the boxer did have in common with the others was age: He, too, was just a boy.

All had gathered at the Umar Youth Development Center, a program now in its fifth year. Approximately 250 students are enrolled. Most are from the neighborhoods near the center, including Reservoir Hill, Coppin Heights and Poppleton Heights, but some travel from as far away as Randallstown. Students attend one day a week, so that the cramped quarters don't get overrun. They bring in their homework. A teacher works with them on the computers.

Tyrone Sol, who directs the youth center, said he and staffers monitor the enrollees by tracking their school performance, talking to their parents and providing mentors. About 95 percent of them, Sol said, have improved their grades enough to become honor roll students.

As an example, he held up the report card of one of the students. It had one 95, four 90s and an 88.

"We find out the children here really, really want to learn," Sol said.

That seems to be especially true of the 50 boys enrolled in the Umar Boxing Club, run by Marvin McDowell. The motto for the boxing club is "No hooks before books," which means that before youngsters can lace on the gloves, they have to study and get good grades.

One boy of 7 who just started boxing proudly showed McDowell his report card. It had all 1s and 2s, which, in Baltimore's elementary system means the lad either met or exceeded standards in all his subjects. He positively beamed as he showed the report card to "Mr. Marvin." A few minutes later, the boy's dad, who hadn't witnessed the scene, came up and showed the report card to McDowell a second time.

McDowell's young boxers travel across the country taking on foes. A boy who wins his first trophy donates it to the center. Dozens of such trophies decorate a case in the far corner of the second-floor boxing room. The boys have been to Kansas, North Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, Alabama and Ohio.

"And we win," McDowell said. "That's the beautiful part. We have one of the greatest boxing programs ever in Baltimore. A lot of these kids, the first time they ever put on gloves was when they came here."

McDowell said several of his boxers are ranked nationally. Six made it to the finals of the Golden Gloves championships. Umar's young pugilists may be so good because they're being trained by the best. McDowell is in the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame. He was once one of the top amateur boxers in the country. He's a former two-time Maryland welterweight champ and won the South Atlantic amateur championship seven times.

Sol, whose son Tavon is in the boxing program, is a former middleweight boxer. Max Taylor won several military titles and placed fourth at the U.S. 1980 Olympic boxing trials. Louis Butler is a former professional light heavyweight boxer who lost two split decisions to former light-heavyweight champion Dwight Braxton. William "T.C." Chavis is a former national Golden Gloves champ. All give McDowell a hand in training the young fighters. The youngsters are doing better in school, McDowell said, since they took up boxing. Their concentration is better.

If they want to be boxers, it had better be.

McDowell briefly addressed the safety issue. Boxing is considered a dangerous and brutal enterprise. Some don't even consider it a sport. Isn't it risky for boys so young, some of whom start at 7 or 8?

"Boxing ranks 23rd among amateur sports in terms of number of injuries," McDowell said. "Football, volleyball and gymnastics all rank higher."

The boys wear heavy headgear and 16-ounce gloves. They box three three-minute rounds in practice and three one-minute rounds in competition.

"I wanted to develop something that worked for me," McDowell said of his reason for starting the Umar Boxing Club. The word Umar is Arabic for "life" or "lifetime."

"Our goal is to put life back in this community," McDowell said. "It's our responsibility to take back our community. No one can do it for us."

McDowell started the center with $10,000 he had saved. He, Sol and others raise money for the place themselves. They receive no city funds, but Mayor Martin O'Malley and the City Council might be well advised that McDowell and friends won't turn down any donations from local government, either.

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