City boxer working to emerge from shadows

March 13, 2003|By MICHAEL OLESKER

MY LITERARY advisers, Mr. Clem Florio and Mr. Gus Hansen, informed me some months ago of a young boxer named John Adkins, who is about to go places. Where he comes from, I already know. He is one of 12 children, most of them still living on Chester Street with their parents, around the corner from Mr. Hansen's rowhouse on Collington Avenue.

In life, as in real estate, location is everything. One night last summer, Mr. Hansen steps out his front door to see Adkins, then a sprightly 20-year-old, hanging around a neighbor's front stoop. Adkins mentions that he is something of a fighter, having gone 12 and 0. This is an approximate count, as no official records are kept on spontaneous street-corner brawls.

"So you like to fight?" Mr. Hansen asks.

"Yes," young Adkins answers, in his shy way.

Mr. Hansen holds up one fist, quite large, somewhat the result of spending the last half-century working as a tile setter.

"You want guys throwing this at your nose and your eyes?" he inquires. "Is that what you want?"

"Yes," says Adkins. "My hero was Rocky Marciano. He retired 49 and 0, and I want to break his record."

"In that case," says Mr. Hansen, sensing genuine interest, "I'll take you to somebody and let you talk to him."

He brings young Adkins to see his friend Mr. Florio, the famous horse race handicapper (you can check his old clippings at the News American, or listen to his daily broadcasts on WLG radio). More to the point, Mr. Florio was a professional boxer in the 1940s and '50s, fighting about 85 times and winning most of them, and later training a few young pugilists. He is known in the trade as an exemplary teacher.

Mr. Hansen and Mr. Florio take Adkins to the Baltimore Boxing Club, 506 1/2 Broadway, picturesquely located directly above the Love Zone lingerie shop, and work him out for some time one brutally hot summer day.

"I think I see something," Mr. Florio declares.

Now, about eight months later, he thinks he sees a lot more. Tuesday night at the Steelworkers Assembly Hall, 6000 Erdman Ave., Adkins wins the Maryland State Novice Championship, middleweight division, by dominating a pretty good fighter named Keith Gross, who had won his previous five matches.

Adkins has now won all six of his amateur fights, four by knockout. Gross went the three-round distance with him Tuesday, but Adkins dominated him. He threw ferociously with both hands, and he slipped punches nimbly, and stalked Gross like a most persistent bill collector.

In a few weeks, they will take Adkins to Palmer Park, to Sugar Ray Leonard's gym, for the annual Golden Gloves tournament. Within a year, they believe, Adkins will commence a promising professional career.

No one knows how such endeavors work out. But there are a few lovely story lines here. Adkins, formerly of Patterson High School and subsequently scuffling and trying to find himself, is now pursuing his dream. He works out, under Mr. Florio's tutelage, five nights a week and runs three miles each morning at Patterson Park, while working as a floor man at Scratch and Dent Liquidators. It is a short walk from there to the gym on Broadway.

"I don't train this hard to lose," Adkins said one night after a strenuous workout.

Meanwhile, it is delightful to watch Mr. Florio and Mr. Hansen with a new project in which they believe so deeply.

"We're like two kids in a candy store," says Mr. Hansen. "John's a very nice boy, and he's got real potential. His heart is something. He'll stay in there and slug with anybody. He starts swinging and boop. He's young, he's still only 21. He's growing. When he gets his full strength ... oh, my."

"This kid's potential is unlimited," says Mr. Florio, who knows whereof he speaks. In his own fight days, he sparred with the likes of Rocky Graziano, Jake LaMotta and such. He is not making comparisons. He is only saying: Watch this kid.

I have watched him fight five times now. I am no expert in boxing matters, having lost my most famous street fight, some years ago, to a neighborhood bully named Nancy. (I was a third-grader, she was a fifth-grader, and I tell you she had a jab not to be believed.)

So I rely on Mr. Florio and Mr. Hansen in matters of professional insight. But, even for an amateur, to watch Adkins is to see something fascinating. He is currently 152 pounds, slightly under 6 feet, and so does not look brutish. When he punches, his opponents have seemed stunned by his power and have tended to hold back after a few flurries, wary of mixing it up again.

Adkins is just beginning to mix it up. It's nice to watch three fellows, all young at heart, follow a dream.

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