Putting books before hooks

Program: The 3-year-old Umar boxing gym has become a bastion for academic growth and a factory for Silver Glove champions.

January 03, 2002|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The boys stalk each other around the sparring ring, looking for an opening in their opponents' defense, their gloves heavy and cumbersome, their headgear adding awkward weight to their small shoulders.

Outside the ring, coaches and trainers yell encouragement and advice: "Pop that jab! ... Move around. ... Keep your hands up. Keep your hands up, boy! ... Get out of there. Get out of there!"

Some in the cramped, West Baltimore boxing gym stop to watch the match. Others get on with training of their own. A 4-year-old boy waits to put on a pair of gloves. A 21-year-old heavyweight nicknamed "Beast" drops in to do some training. Three teen-age girls shuffle back and forth, shadow boxing and working on basic footwork. Another guy whips his jump rope.

This is the world of the Umar Boxing Program, run out of an old, converted rowhouse in the 1500 block of Fulton Ave. In three years, it has gone from a dream for its founder, Marvin McDowell, to a bastion for academic growth and a factory for state Silver Glove champions. Last night, McDowell took nine of his fighters - ages 10 to 15 - to Augusta, Ga., for the Eastern Regional Silver Glove Championship, the tournament for younger boxers.

More than 200 young men and women are enrolled in Umar's program, which stresses discipline, hard work and schoolwork. The club's motto is "No Hooks before Books." City officials are considering ways to copy the program's success.

"We should have more of these around, because these knucklehead kids need help," said McDowell, a former state amateur champion. "They need to know they're not as bad as they think they are."

McDowell was once one of those knuckleheads with a full share of street fights under his belt growing up six blocks from Umar at North Avenue and Monroe Street.

In the ring, he found an identity. He won all but 18 of his 160 amateur fights. During the 1970s, he took home six South Atlantic Amateur titles, five of them in successive years as he grew from a featherweight at age 15 to a 19-year-old welterweight. He is in the state's boxing Hall of Fame.

Now, he looks around for young talent that could benefit from time in the ring and extra time with the books. Rashad Dendy, 11, is one of those street-fighting kids who find their way to Umar - the Arabic word for life. Rashad, a champion in the 75-pound category, was on the Augusta-bound team.

"When I first got here, I didn't know what to do. I was just throwing my punches like crazy," said Rashad, a sixth-grader at Gilmor Elementary School. "When we're on the street fighting, we don't use techniques. But in here, we study a technique, so when you throw them, you know how to protect yourself."

He has become an economical fighter, using footwork to maneuver around the ring, leaning away from punches like a young Muhammad Ali. The coaches - retired amateurs and pros - have turned a wild-swinging street fighter into a boxer with stamina. Rashad has 27 wins and 10 losses.

More than 22,600 youngsters are involved in amateur boxing, according to USA Boxing Inc. Though boxing is often viewed as unsafe, it ranks lower than football, basketball, bicycling and in-line skating in terms of injuries.

McDowell, president of the South Atlantic Association for USA Boxing, makes sure Umar follows the rules. His place has a simple, unrefined quality to it. The ground floor study hall is filled with computers. Photocopies of report cards are stapled to the walls. Law books line the inexpensive shelves. Every now and then, someone comes in who needs help with a case, said Tyrone Sol Sr., Umar's education director.

The gym is at the top of a narrow flight of uneven stairs. Punching bags hang in another room. There, the grunting of fighters pounding gloved fists into a heavy bag and the machine-gun staccato of the speed bag fill the thick, sweaty air.

McDowell, a barber, said the program meets its annual budget of about $250,000 through donations, membership fees and support from foundations.

"The good thing is the champions that we have. Their grade level is outstanding," said Sol, who makes sure the youngsters bring schoolwork along if they're going out of town. "It's not just going down there, kicking back. ... It's no hooks before books, and you can bank on that."

Vivian Mack, principal at Harlem Park Middle School, said she has seen a major improvement in one of her students. James Berry, who also was on the Augusta squad, has made a complete turnaround in attitude, attendance and scholastics since joining Umar. He is on the school's honor roll.

"I commend the persons who are running the program, and certainly I would recommend the program," Mack said.

Sol said the program, which includes a girls' basketball team, offers youngsters such as his son, 10-year-old Silver Gloves lightweight champion Tavon Sol, a place to belong.

"Here in this center, he sees a lot of things," Sol said. "He sees love and affection, blood and guts. He sees the love of a family. And every kid wants what? A family."

Joining the family isn't hard. Getting into the ring for a sanctioned bout requires hard work and convincing McDowell that you're ready. Plenty of young men walk in off the street expecting to get a bout in their first week. Even if they've sparred, worked a heavy bag or gone a round or two without sucking wind, McDowell has to feel they're ready.

Rashad Dendy hopes when the championship ends this weekend, he can leave Augusta with a trophy he can keep. He has given his first trophy to Umar. That's part of the club's ritual. Your first trophy stays on Fulton Avenue. For Rashad, the trophies are another reason he'd rather be fighting for Umar than fighting on the street.

"I'm happy because after Georgia, I'm going to Kansas City and I'm going to win my belt," he said, his voice full of a champion's confidence. "I'm going to be ranked No. 1!"

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