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The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline



Most writers are drawn at one time or another to write about boxing.  There’s just so much atmosphere around the sport and so many characters in it.  I’ve done my share of stories on boxers over the years.  Every now and then I get the hankering to do another. I’m overdue for one now. This was my first and still one of my favorites.  I believe it was the very first assignment I did for an Omaha news weekly called The Reader (www.thereader.com).  It was 1996 and I’ve been contributing articles to that paper ever since.  The story concerns a classic urban boxing gym and its denizens.  A sidebar or companion piece to this feature follows below.


The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)


The Powers Building at 24th and Farnam holds a dingy little dive called the 308 Bar, whose sodden patrons belly up in pursuit of oblivion.  Directly above the bar, yet a world apart, lies an athletic retreat where sturdy, modern-day spartans engage in a punishing physical regimen offering personal renewal and redemption.  The first is a public house of pain.  The second, a private house of discipline.

As dusk falls over downtown on a raw, windy day in February, a short but well-chiseled uniformed cop with dark, brooding good looks – Vince Perez – glides with cocksure grace towards the bar, which he bypasses to step inside a glass-fronted entrance next door.  A shabby carpeted staircase – enclosed by water-stained and paint-peeled walls – takes him one flight up to a dim landing poised between empty offices.  He follows a hallway to a bare, unvarnished pine door, behind which the rhythmic sounds of leather-lashed discipline reverberate.





Vince has once again arrived at 24th Street’s House of Discipline, otherwise known as the Downtown Boxing Club, where once inside he’s transformed from peace officer into fighting warrior. He says a warrior’s mentality is vital for entering a 20’ by 20’ ring to test yourself – one-on-one – against another man:  “I think that’s the attitude you have to have to even get in the ring. Because that’s the way it is – you and him.  The other guy wants to hurt you and it’s a challenge to see if your body is in good enough shape to try and withstand that.”

If your only boxing references are Hollywood-based, then the club will surprise you.  The gym doesn’t ooze a moody “Raging Bull” atmosphere.  The utilitarian brick-walled space is a non-profit center for amateur boxing – a closely regulated sport featuring many safeguards, such as mandatory headgear, that are worlds away from the anything-goes excesses of the pro fight game. Knockouts and serious injuries are rare here.  No punch-drunk pugs hang around the gym.  It doesn’t reek of stale sweat, urine and blood.

The gym lays out on one level, comprised of tidy work stations – the largest of which is a makeshift ring.  Two medicine balls sit against a ring post.  Outside the ropes four heavy bags hang in a row – like sides of beef – from chains fastened to the ceiling’s metal crossbeam.  Speed bags stand at opposite ends of the room.

Banks of tall windows filter in natural light, which blends with the fluorescent tube lighting overhead to cast a vague yellowish tint over the place.  Rusted radiators and exposed pipes run along one wall.  Plastered to another wall are posters of famous pugilists and snapshots of club fighters – all silently bearing witness to the men at work there.

On any given night fighters train under the scrutiny of three men:  Club founder, president, head coach and chief guru Ken Wingo, 64, wields a commanding authority befitting his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit; resident ring historian and assistant coach Dutch Gladfelter, who hopped freight trains to fight on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression, offers priceless pointers on feints, footwork and kill shots; and swarthy assistant coach John Glatgakos, a martial arts aficionado turned boxing buff, barks instructions in his thick Boston accent.

Wingo, who never fought a round in his life, describes himself as the ultimate frustrated athlete. He started coaching out of sheer love for the sport.  He credits much of his boxing acumen to Dutch, a ramrod at 76 whose arms hang like thick lengths of lead pipe from his sloped shoulders.

Through mid-February the coaches paid special attention to Vince, Steve Ray, Andy Schrader and Craig Price, who were all preparing for the Midwest Golden Gloves Tournament (Feb. 16-17).  Vince, who usually trains at Offutt Air Force Base under former world-class amateur boxer Kenny Friday, and the others fought gamely in the Midwest competition.  But this story isn’t about wins or losses.  It’s about how and why the men of the House of Discipline dedicate themselves to the rituals of the ring.





Wingo himself says, “Winning isn’t everything with me.  Fellowship is.”  Indeed, everyone at the club is treated the same. There’s a fraternal, democratic spirit that keeps many members coming back for years.  A boxing brotherhood borne from grueling workouts and sparring sessions as well as long road trips to smokers and tourneys.  For example, after sparring combatants touch gloves as a sign of sportsmanship, telling each other, “Good work.”  There’s no animosity because it’s all about being pushed to your limits through clean hard work and competition.  The sport breeds mutual respect because it takes courage to do what boxers do.

Club members can’t be pigeonholed.  Most are men in their late teens or early 20s, although many boys compete in the junior ranks and an occasional woman works out there.  There are family men like Vince, whose wife Heather is expecting the couple’s first child.  A fireman named John.  Blue-collar types like Steve and Craig.  College students.  Some members come purely for the exercise.  All share a passion for boxing so intense they sacrifice long hours training for a chance at not so much winning a title or trophy as a measure of honor and comradeship not found anywhere else.

“I love coming down to the gym just for the camaraderie with the guys,” says Steve, who’s trained there since 1991.  “We work out together and try to push each other and help each other out as much as we can.”

Rafael Valdez, 33, started training under Wingo as a 10-year-old junior amateur and a quarter-century later still spars with Wingo’s stable of fighters, who now include Rafael’s two small sons, Justin and Tony.  He fondly recalls Wingo driving him and other youngsters to regional competitions, something Wingo still does today.  After 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts, Rafael, an electrician, remains loyal to his friend and mentor.

The club is proving ground, training facility and sporting haven for boxers like Rafael.  The physical and mental discipline learned there is all fighters have to fall back on when, as Craig says, you’re alone in the ring and wild with adrenalin and “somebody’s tryin’ to take your head off.”

Steve describes “the rush you get at the beginning,  when you’re almost so scared you want to back out and you’ve got to push yourself to go on.  It’s not fear of being hurt.  It’s fear of losing and not doing well.”  Of losing face among the brotherhood.

“Boxing’s the only sport in the world where the intent is to hurt the other guy, so there’s that little bit of trepidation there,” notes Wingo.  “But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance.  You try to teach fighters to be confident.  You say, “You can go with this guy, otherwise I wouldn’t have put you in there.’  You have to be a bit of a psychologist.  You have to know when to build them up and when to settle them down.”

Rafael says “the nerves” usually fade after the first blows are struck, although doubts sometimes creep in, making you wonder, “‘What the hell am I doin’ in here?’”  The answer is you’re trying to prove something.  Not your manhood or prowess exactly, but more your heart, your skill, your determination – to meet the challenge and go the distance.

“For me, the sport of amateur boxing isn’t so much about who’s tougher, but more about how far I can take my body,” says Vince, who despite being 29 is a relative newcomer to the sport.  “I’m more concerned about getting hurt on my job than in the ring.   Boxing’s more a test of whether my style, my skills, my training are better than yours.  For me, life is just a series of goals and this is just a goal I have.”

The eight-year Omaha Police Department veteran is a superb athlete who’s competed in baseball, basketball and bodybuilding.  He started boxing in 1994 – drawn by the keen fitness it develops and the steep athletic challenges it poses:  “It’s such a demanding sport.  Unless you’ve tried it, you have no idea what it entails.  You’re always on your feet, moving around.  There’s a lot of hand-eye coordination.   It truly is an art.  And if you’re out of shape, two or three minutes can be an eternity.”

Wingo says, “It takes more hard work to go three two-minute rounds than it does for a football player to play a whole game because boxing’s non-stop action.  Three things make a good boxer – conditioning, brains and confidence. You’ve got to pay the price to be a good boxer by training hard – getting up in the morning to go running when you’d much rather lay in bed.  You’ve got to be smart and to be able to think on your feet.”

Although boxing’s macho ethic is what first appealed to Steve, a husband and father two, he’s grown to love the competition and the self-reliance required to compete. “You’ve got to do a lot of stuff, like running and dieting, when nobody’s around.  If you’re not disciplined, you’ll never do it.”  The 24-year-old drywall construction foreman says boxing’s’ given him a new resolve that’s carried over into other aspects of his life.  “I’ve learned discipline from the gym.  I didn’t do well in school.  I was lazy.  But how well I dedicated myself to boxing and how fast I learned boxing made me feel confident.  Now I know if I set my mind to something I can accomplish it.  It’s extended even to my work.  I’ve excelled at work.”

Wingo admires the tenacity displayed by fighters like Steve and Vince – family men with demanding full-time jobs – who “have to pay a steep price” in order to box.  “Anytime you love something like they love boxing, you’re going to be good at it,” he says.

Vince pays the price every day by juggling his patrolman’s schedule with classes at Bellevue University – where he pursues a dual major in sociology and psychology – with a workout that includes a 2-mile run, 40 minutes at the gym (usually on his lunch break) and 500 sit-ups.  “It’s tough.  I really have to prioritize my time.”

At the gym the fighters follow a routine that hardly varies from night to night.  All arrive with a business-like attitude that’s relaxed enough for them to trade jibes with Wingo and company. Inside a cramped locker room they change from street clothes into assorted shorts, sweats, T-shirts  and tank-tops.  They wrap their hands with rolls of cloth.  In the gym they stretch out on the scuffed wood floor and variously jump rope, work the Stairmaster or treadmill, ride the stationary bike and do push-ups or sit-ups.

They lace on gloves to hit the heavy bags – throwing furious combinations of straight lefts and rights, hooks, uppercuts and jabs – and drum away at the speed bags.  When all the bags are going at once, the pounding, pulsing noise cascades around the room, pierced every few minutes by a ringing bell that calls time.   The fighters climb in the ring to shadowbox  – glancing at large mirrors propped against the windows – fighting their reflected images.  And each takes turns punching bang pads (overstuffed mitts) worn by John, who exhorts them to “double up.”

Andy, a 132-pounder, is a sawed-off Andre Agassi-lookalike whose scrappiness covers limited boxing skills.  Craig, a 6’4” 200-pounder, is an impulsive fighter and powerful puncher.  His wicked shots rock the heavy bags and send shudders through John’s arms and shoulders.  Steve, who has a model’s rakish body and classic face, and Vince, who always looks just right or as Wingo puts it – “slick” – even in sweats, are the smoothest, most stylish boxers.  A blur of bobbing, weaving motion – shifting weight from hip to hip, blocking and throwing punches from different positions.  What Steve (147 pounds) and Vince (125 pounds) lack in power, they make up for with quickness, precision, smarts.

On sparring nights, the guys grow tense – pacing the room, unable to keep still – just like before a fight.  Wearing headgear and mouthpieces, they spar three two-minute rounds.  The action’s fierce but lacks the no-holds bar fury of the real thing.  Guys hold back just a little.  This, after all, is “only” training.  During each session a harsh rhythm and momentum builds as arms flail, gloves thump, heads butt, and feet shuffle in a muscular dance around the ring – the partners variously swinging, clinching and bounding at each other at the most unexpected angles.

Wingo, Dutch and John clamber onto the ring apron and, leaning against the frayed ropes, cajole and challenge them:  “Go ahead, throw the jab…jab, jab, jab.  There you go.  Snap it off, that’s it.  Stick with ‘em now.  You need to relax – you’re stiff as a wedding cake.  Think.  Are you thinkin’?”

The object is to teach fighters basic boxing skills and refine these through repetition.  If fighters learn their lessons well, they respond swiftly, instinctively in the ring to opponents’ tactics and coaches’ advice.  It all gets back to the discipline that a taskmaster like Wingo imparts.

“Boxing teaches discipline,” Wingo explains.  “A coach is like a sergeant in combat.  When the sergeant hollers ‘Charge!’ everybody’s got to move.  If someone hangs back, then that messes up the whole works.  They’ve (fighters) got to do what you tell them without even thinking.  They’ve got to have that respect for you.  It takes a little more discipline than most kids have these days. When you find kids who want to do that, than you’ve got something special.  If it helps the kids (outside boxing), that’s a bonus.  If we win championships, that’s a bigger bonus.”

Sergeant Wingo drills his soldiers in the finer points of competition – both in and out of the ring – at his very own House of Discipline, where everyone marches to the same regimented beat.  Call it the boxing rag.


The House of Discipline Boys at the Golden Gloves

©by Leo Adam Biga

You arrive opening night at the Midwest Golden Gloves and find the site is not some grimy, smoke-filled, boxing noir pit.  Instead, the Mancuso Convention Center is a clean air-filtered, too-bright, flat, open expanse of institutional tile and plastic-chrome chairs.

A creaking wooden ring stands on risers near the back.  Even when empty the severe, boundaried square seems an incongruous, slightly menacing presence in a space where trade shows and sales meetings normally unfold.  And even though you know the tamer, safer brand of amateur boxing will be fought there, you can’t help but feel queasy thinking blood might splatter you at ringside.

The meager, subdued crowd is an insider’s, sportsman’s audience made up of coaches and fighters, die-hard fans and friends and relatives of competitors.  The mood is expectant and convivial, with much handshaking and playful sparring.  The small turnout is typical of local boxing events now, but a far cry from the days when the Gloves packed the Civic Auditorium.

Just behind the arena is a hall (complete with stage) turned assembly area, where fighters, coaches and officials mill before bouts with nervous, pent-up energy.  Ken Wingo and his Downtown Boxing Club crew (save Vince Perez, who’s received a bye into the finals) hold down a corner of the stage to wait.  Fighters deal differently with the waiting:  Andy Schrader sits on a chair, pumping his legs to music on his Walkman’s headphones – getting “in the zone”; Steve Ray stays loose stretching; Craig Price sits and stands and paces with quiet intensity.   All say they feel confident going in.

Wingo’s boys have a rough night of it.  First,Schrader is retired (TKO’d) in round two after taking the second of two standing eight counts.  Then the usually fluid Ray looks sloppy versus a rare left-handed foe and drops the decision.  Wingo reminds both “there’s no disgrace in losing.”  Finally, Price out-slugs a much shorter man to win a spirited bout that proves the crowd’s favorite.  Later, Price’s red, puffy left eye is the only evidence he and the others have fought.

At ringside the fights flash by as bursts of pouncing torsos, thrashing arms and fast moving feet bouncing off the taut, worn tarp covering the floor.  Many blows miss their mark, but with every solid impact a fighter’s face winces from the sting and his head whips back from the jolt – sending sweat, but thankfully not much blood, spraying over you.  More than anything, each fighter tries imposing his will on his opponent inside that terribly small ring and is left spent from the effort.  At the final bell – just like after sparring – men tap gloves, embrace and say “Good fight.”

Night two features the finals.  The pre-fight rituals are the same.  Perez and coach Kenny Friday arrive early since Perez’s 125-pound match tops the card.  Even out of his policeman’s dress blues Perez carries himself with a certain aplomb.  He looks every inch the fighting warrior with his grim face, swaggering walk and resplendent boxing garb – a black top and white trunks with blue trim showcasing his hard brown body.

He’s drawn the much younger, yet more experienced Rudy Mata.  With Friday and Wingo in his corner and wife Heather in the crowd, Perez appears supremely confident despite this being only his fifth sanctioned fight.  From the start Mata presses the action – boring in on Perez to pepper him with punches.  Perez rebounds, using his mobility to escape serious trouble and his hand speed to bloody Mata’s nose, the crimson staining Perez’s white gloves.  Entering the final two-minutes, it’s anybody’s fight.

Things turn quickly that last round when Mata comes out firing and traps Perez against the ropes.  By the time Perez can counterattack, it’s too late.  The bell sounds, ending the fight and the cop’s chance at victory.   The two men fall into each other’s arms as the crowd sounds its approval.  The decision, as expected, goes to Mata and the two warriors leave the ring proudly – knowing they’ve given a good effort.

Afterwards, Perez analyzes the fight:  “After the first round I told Kenny (Friday), ‘I can beat this guy.’  Going into that last round I was real comfortable, but then I forgot my whole game plan.  He stepped up the pressure and I stopped jabbing.  I’m disappointed I lost, but I’m pretty happy I did this well.”

Later that evening Price loses the heavyweight championship to Emerson Chasing Bear who, true to his Native American name, nimbly pursues Price around the ring, slipping punches and assaulting him with jabs and crosses.  It’s not even close.  Afterwards, a dejected Price picks his performance apart:  “My form wasn’t there.  I wasn’t snapping my punches enough.  I felt slow and clumsy.  My head just wasn’t in it.”

Perez says his bout was probably his last, although he’ll still hit the bags and spar.  He’s eying new athletic challenges now – like a triathlon (once he learns to swim).  Schrader, Ray and Price plan on fighting a little while yet.  Each echoes Price’s vow to get “back at the gym” and “work on what I did wrong.”  None have ambitions of turning pro.

While boxing remains an avocation for these men, it’s also a way of life – just as the House of Discipline is not merely a gym, but a place for growth and self-discovery.

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