Off the streets and into the ring

Young boxers, families say there's always someone in their corner at renovated city gym

October 08, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

West Baltimore's Gervonta "Tank" Davis took three fierce jabs to the face in the second round, but the 2006 Silver Gloves national champion managed to hold his own yesterday against cross-town upstart Mack Allison IV.

Of course, Tank has an unfair advantage: at age 11, he's got two years on Mack, who turned 9 last week.

The two baby-faced fighters traded rather adult blows yesterday in a three-round exhibition match at the ceremonial reopening of the city-run Upton Boxing Center, which recently completed a $400,000 renovation.

The former recreation center on Pennsylvania Avenue no longer resembles the inner-city boxing gym memorialized in countless film and television dramas - that dingy haven where youthful anger is channeled into a disciplined and balletic art, where characters are molded and lives are saved.

Far from dingy, the Upton complex now boasts gleaming locker rooms and showers, weight-training facilities, new offices and a computer lab for adult literacy classes and after-school youth programs.

But as the theme from Rocky played over loudspeakers, recreation department officials and politicians stressed the boxing-as-a-lifeline motif.

"This neighborhood is drug-infested, and this is a safe haven," said Garry Jackson, a manager with the parks and recreation department. "They come in through that madness, and they know they can get some wholesomeness. They can grow in here and just learn."

The sentiment resonated with coaches, boxers and families yesterday, many who testified to life-changing experiences.

"I don't get into no more trouble no more, and I'm focusing on my boxing career," said Angelo Ward, 18, while signing autographs for neighborhood kids. He grinned, flashing teeth with gold fronts. "I'm turning pro next year, so that's what it is, baby."

The 2006 Golden Gloves regional champion said he wandered into the city's old boxing gym about four years ago, thinking it would give him an edge in street fights. Instead, it has kept him off the streets. "When I'm in the gym," he said, "it keeps me out of a whole lot of trouble, for real, and it calms my life down. It stops me from being really untamed."

That's not uncommon, according to head boxing coach Calvin Ford, who said the macho allure of boxing is what gets kids through the door, but getting them to stay for the educational programming is the real prize. "The after-school program, the computers, that's the important thing," he said.

About 50 children and adults are enrolled in boxing programs at the gym, and 20 students are in an after-school homework-assistance program, said Portia Harris, the associate director of the city's recreation and parks department. Memberships are open to the public and cost $65 a year.

For Deborah Easter, the Upton Boxing Center is nothing less than a surrogate father to her grandchildren, Tank and Demetris Femwick, 16, both of whom were in foster care when she accepted custody of them five years ago.

"I love this Upton," said the neighborhood resident. "This is the most positive thing that we have. If I ever hit the lottery, I'm going to put all my money in here. That's how important it is to me."

Her elder grandson attributes the change in his behavior to the attention Upton's coaches have taken in his life outside the boxing ring. He said Ford and coach Mack Allison III are like fathers. "They come to my school and check on me and stuff," he said.

Allison, the father of 9-year-old Mack, started coaching at his wife's urging several years ago, when his own career as a judo fighter was flagging and he was looking for some self-direction.

More than title belts or even the praise of grandmothers, Allison said his greatest coaching satisfaction is when kids coming in off Baltimore's streets finally feel safe enough to smile. "A lot of kids, when they first come in here, they don't smile," the Northeast Baltimore resident said. "They have that low self-esteem.

"I like to teach them how to say, `I'm special. I'm here for a reason. I'm not just a statistic.'"

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