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From couch potato to champion pugilist

November 22, 2017 Leave a comment

World champion Terence Crawford has put Omaha on the boxing map for the first time in decades and fellow hometown fighters are eager to follow in his footsteps. After winning several amateur titles, Steven Nelson is a rising talent as a light heavyweight professional. National Junior Olympics 152-pound champ Juan Vazquez is eying a spot on the USA boxing team and dreams of fighting in the 2020 Summer Olympics. Vazquez trains at Jackson’s Boxing Club, where his coaches Jose Campos and Christian Trinidad feel they have a special talent who could just be the next big name in boxing from Omaha. The Ralston High senior is still only 17 and he’s come incredibly far in a short time – from couch potato to champion pugilist. Read my El Perico story about Juan Vazquez here.

 

 

From couch potato to champion pugilist

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in a November 2017 issue of El Perico newspaper

No one expected nationally ranked amateur fighter Juan Vazquez, 17, to be the poster boy for how boxing can transform your life. Four years ago, the now Ralston High senior was an obese couch potato who preferred video games over physical activity.

Even after his mother practically dragged him to Jackson’s Boxing Club in south downtown, where his older brother trained, he cut up rather than worked out. Head coach Jose Campos expected Vazquez to quit when he pushed him hard in training. But Vazquez took everything Campos and assistant coach Christian Trinidad dished out and came back for more. He rapidly shed pounds and learned ring skills. Mere months after getting serious, he fought bouts – and won.

“I tend to pick things up quickly,” Vazquez said.

Campos knew he had someone special when Vazquez kept beating or nearly beating more experienced foes.

“It inspired him to get better because he knew that if he could compete with these high level kids with his little experience then he was going to be something, and he did. He started to work really hard.”

Vazquez won Silver Gloves regionals and twice won Ringside youth world championships. Then he became a national Junior Olympic champion at 152 pounds in West Virginia. He’s now a USA team hopeful eyeing the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

No one’s more surprised than Vazquez himself.

“I never thought I would compete like this nationally, but as the years went by I’ve shown I’m really good at it. What I love most about the sport is that it keeps me in shape and it makes me a better person. Every day I try my hardest in everything I do. It just gets me through my days when I’m stressed.

“It’s always there for me. It’s made me into the person I am today. I’m doing good at school. I’m healthy, I’m eating right. It teaches you things you can use in real life. It’s taught me a lot about discipline  When I train, I don’t cheat myself. If I don’t train hard, that’s going to end up turning into failure.”

Campos confirmed Vazquez is a quick study.

“He picks things up more and faster than other kids. When Juan goes into a fight, it takes him a round or half a round to feel out the other kid. He’s looking for mistakes they’re making, for flaws in their game, and once he sees it, he works off that.”

Reading opponent tendencies shows a cerebral side.

“I see everything,” Vazquez said. “I’m jabbing, feeling how hard they hit, what their favorite punch is, what are they throwing often, and how can I counter all that.”

Campos said Vazquez can adapt thanks to unusual versatility.

“If Juan notices he needs to go forward, he’s really good at going forward. If he notices he needs to box and move around, he’s really good with his footwork. If he needs to switch from right-handed to left-handed, he will do that, and be just as good, which is pretty impressive. You only see that from high level professional fighters.”

This complete package compels Campos to sing his prodigy’s praises.

“He’s smart, he’s calm and he’s super tough – physically and mentally. There is no quit in him. It’s rare. He’s one of those kids where if he sticks with it, he’s going to be a world champion for sure.”

Vazquez, who’s trained with world champion Terrence Crawford of Omaha, said, “I want to make this my career. I honestly want to pursue it for the rest of my life,

I’m willing to take it all the way – as far as I can.”

His family supports him right down the line.

“They tell me to pursue it. When they see me fighting, they see I have the potential to be one of the greatest in the sport. I see it, too. They see that boxing has really helped me with my life – with just everything.”

 

Even though he has his mom to thank for introducing him to the gym, he’s taken it far beyond her imagination.

“She never thought it’d be like this.”

She’s happy for his success but can’t bring herself to watch him fight,

“She’s scared to see me getting hit. She never wants me getting hurt. She’s really protective over me.”

Only his pride was hurt when he lost in the semi-finals of

a national tournament in Tennessee.

“I thought it was a really close fight, but you can’t really be mad at anybody but yourself. You just have to go back to the gym and start training again.”

Campos feels too much time off hurt his boxer.

“He didn’t get to fight in between the Junior Olympics (in July) and this tournament (in October) because we couldn’t find him any opponents, so he got rusty.

“This kid needs to be active.”

Vazquez is in training now for a December tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah that will decide the USA boxing team for upcoming international competitions.

“That’s where I really need to bring it because that’s the one that’s going to determine who’s going to take that spot,” Vazquez said.

With a fighter who’s come so far, so fast, it’s no wonder Campos uses Vazquez as an example to others.

“I love that he does it,” Vazquez said. “It shows kids there is a chance for you to be slimmer and to up your lifestyle. It’s not all about eating junk food and playing games. You have to work out to keep your body in shape to live a healthier and better life.”

The nonprofit Jackson’s Boxing Club, 2562 Leavenworth St., holds fundraisers and accepts donations to send kids like Juan to competitions.

For details, visit jacksonsboxingclub.com.

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Born Again Ex-Gang Banger and Pugilist, Now Minister, Servando Perales Makes Victory Boxing Club His Mission Church for Saving Youth from the Streets

December 19, 2011 6 comments

It’s doubtful that another amateur boxing club has received as much ink and video coverage in the short time Victory Boxing has since starting about a decade ago.  The magnet for the attraction is founder Servando Perales, whose personal story of transformation and redemption and unbridled passion for helping at-risk youth are the driving forces behind his boxing gym.  The gym is really his mission church and sanctuary for getting kids out of the gang life that consumed him and landed him in prison.  That’s where his own turnaround began.  If you’re a boxing fan, then check out the boxing category on the right — I have many stories there about pro and amateur fighting, past and present.

Servando Perales

 

 

Born Again Ex-Gang Banger and Pugilist, Now Minister, Servando Perales, Makes Victory Boxing Club His Mission Church for Saving Youth from the Streets

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

Rev. Servando Perales and his faith-based Victory Boxing Club at 3009 R Streets is a story of redemption laced with irony. He’s eager to share the story at its April 25 grand opening, when from 1 to 3 p.m. the public’s invited to experience the program USA Boxing magazine recently named national club of the month.

In terms of redemption, consider how this one-time boxer and gang-banger from south Omaha survived The Life of a drug dealer-abuser only to undergo a profound transformation in prison. Behind bars Perales found God with the help of fellow con Frankie Granados, an old friend he’d run with on the outside. Granados already had his own born again experience in the pen and he worked on Servando to take the plunge, too. It took time but Perales finally “surrendered.”

On the curious side, consider that Victory head coach John Determan is both a former corrections officer and cop. He donated Victory’s first ring. He appreciates the oddity of a gringo badge and a Latino fist teaming up.

“I knew him as a bad guy when I was a cop,” said Determan, a former Mills County (Iowa) deputy. “That’s what’s cool, you know — bad guy-cop coming together to do something like this,” said Determan, whose son Johnny, a nationally-rated 119-pound amateur, and daughter Jessica, a former amateur world champ, train there.

Beyond their lawman-outlaw roles, Determan and Perales knew one another from boxing circles. They even traded blows in the ring when the older Determan was a journeyman pro fighter and Perales a feisty young amateur. They dispute who got the better of each other in those long ago sparring sessions.

 Victory_Building_Closing12

Victory Boxing partnered with Jimmy John’s to purchase their gym at 3009 S. R. Street

 

Fighting’s not all they share in common. Both are devout Christians. Determan ran a faith-based boxing club in Glenwood, Iowa. The evangelists boldly fly their Christian colors at Victory, whose “t” is an oversized cross with a pair of boxing gloves hanging from it. A wooden cross adorns a wall inside, where Perales ends pep talks with, ‘You guys ready for the risen Lord? Alright, amen.’” The pair hold weekly Bible studies on Thursdays. All part of the signs and wonders that distinguish Victory from other gyms, where Christ is more apt to be an expletive than a prayer.

“The thing that separates us from all the other ones is that we’re Christ-centered,” said Perales. “We do not waver our faith, our values, and we stand firm on who can change a person’s life, and it’s Jesus Christ. That’s my strong belief and that’s what sets us apart. That’s why you see 30 kids in here. It’s not because we’re the best coaches or because we have the best fighters, it’s because they sense a presence of God in this place. I actually believe that.

“We acknowledge that God is the only one that can change circumstances and change people. If He did it for me he can do it for anybody.”

“It’s great when we have our Bible studies,” Determan said. “They’re really hot topics where we talk to the kids about things they might struggle with and they’re hearing it from two perspectives — the gang member and the cop. And that’s one of our testimonies to our kids — that it doesn’t matter who anybody is, skin color, background or any of that, you can come together.”

Perales, a father of five, said the fact he and Determan can speak with first-hand authority about both sides of the law, gives them an edge in dealing with kids who may have problems at home or school and be veering off track.

“They can’t pull a fast one over on either one of us,” said Perales, whose gym serves members ages 10 and up. The coaches field calls from kids at all hours.

The cop connection doesn’t end there. Retired Omaha deputy police chief Mark Martinez believes enough in what Perales does that he volunteers at the gym.

“Servando knows the challenges some young people face, having traveled that road himself, so he has an incredible ability to relate. His story is real and he has much credibility with youngsters. Consequently, he’s very effective, especially in helping troubled youth be positive and productive citizens,” said Martinez.

When storm damage made Victory’s previous site uninhabitable last summer, the gym was homeless. Martinez told a friend about it. Perales and the benefactor met and Victory soon had a spacious new home in the former Woodson Center.

 

 

 

 

“Actually, we wouldn’t be in this building had it not been for (ex) deputy chief Martinez. He’s the one who helped us get in this building by introducing us to a gentleman that actually put $65,000 up for this building,” said Perales.

A Weed and Seed grant purchased a new ring. The minister sees Victory as a partner with law enforcement to provide safe havens and activities. The gym hosts all-night lock-ins, takes kids camping and has them participate in community events, from parades to Easter egg hunts. Cops are frequent visitors. Some come to train, others just to kick it with kids. “We have a lot of cops that are friends,” Perales said. “Law enforcement is really deep out here. They’re strong. The gang unit, I know those guys personally. I grew up with them. We’re working, we’re doing everything in our power to keep the streets of south Omaha safe.”

It’s only logical the local Latino Peace Officers Association (LPOA) is a major backer of the gym, given its makeup and location in Hispanic-rich south Omaha and the club’s predominantly Hispanic members. But what you wouldn’t expect is that past LPOA president Virgil Patlan, the man who arrested Perales in ‘96 in a bust that sent Perales away for 18-months, ardently champions Victory. Once on opposite sides of the law, Patlan and Perales are friends and admirers today.

Perales attributes this turn of events to divine whimsy. “Yeah, God has a sense of humor, man — He put an ex-gangster and a cop together, and all for the glory of God,” said Perales, whose tats are remnants of the old life he left behind.

 

Patlan admits being dubious of Servando’s change of heart until hearing him preach and talking with him. “I was real skeptical at first because you hear this all the time about cons,” said Patlan. “It took a lot of ice-breaking but we became good friends. I knew he had a heart to help young people. I knew he didn’t want them to go through what he went through. I know if someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes — he’s not. He’s authentic, he’s genuine.”

An Omaha Police Department retiree, Patlan is an active community advocate and neighborhood association volunteer. He and Perales collaborate on projects.

“I think that’s where the trust and the respect came for each other,” said Patlan, “and we’ve just kept doing programs for the neighborhood.”

A program they formed called This is Your Neighborhood makes presentations to school-age kids about the evils of gang affiliation-activity and the importance of staying in school. By his late teens Perales was incorrigible and got expelled from South High. His troubles escalated after that. It’s why Victory requires members abide by a strict code of conduct that includes maintaining good grades and refraining from swearing, gang signs and any disrespectful behavior.

Since Victory’s inception Patlan’s helped with donations. He and his wife are planning a “fun run” to raise funds for the program’s operating expenses. Patlan and Perales share so many values they don’t dwell on the divergent paths that led them to the close bond they enjoy today.

“Now I don’t even think of it. It’s natural. We call each other brother,” said Patlan.

 Victory Boxing Club

Something more than fate led Perales back to his roots. Before he got mixed up in a gang, he trained under Kenny Wingo at the Downtown Boxing Club. The promising amateur soon wasted his potential, using his skills to protect turf and wreak havoc. After his conversion and ‘97 prison release Perales turned pro. “The Messenger” once fought on the undercard of a world heavyweight bout. He hung up the gloves with a 9-5 record. His heart wasn’t in it anymore.

Between matches he’d already begun missionary work with at-risk kids in his old South O stomping grounds — steering youths away from bad influences he’d succumbed to and bad choices he’d made. His regular job as a YMCA membership coordinator reflects the Christian outreach he’s felt drawn to. Unable to ignore the call to serve, he was ordained a minister in the Assemblies of God Church in 2005. He launched Victory in his garage that same year, using “the gift of boxing”  to coach/mentor/minister kids from the same streets he ran wild on.

“This is my church,” he said of Victory. “God called me to do this. It wasn’t by accident I boxed for 20 years. But with that comes responsibility, man.”

It’s no accident the Downtown club let an alum — Perales — train his kids there after the storm left Victory homeless. No accident he reunited with Determan, who took over Downtown after Wingo died. They’re family. It’s all come full circle for Perales. He sees in kids today the same hunger for love he craved at their age.

“Hopefully, God-willing, they learn and they feel valued here, because that’s the thing man — they’re all searching really for a sense of belonging,” said Perales, whose alcoholic father ditched the family. “For the most part they embrace our values and they love it here. 90 percent come to the Bible studies, and it’s optional. They want to be there. We tell ‘em, ‘You don’t have to join gangs to belong to something bigger than yourself. You don’t have to be a follower, man, you can be a leader.’ And that’s why were here — to provide that outlet.”

He said kids find escape at Victory from lives on the edge. “There’s maybe a couple I keep a close eye on and talk to one-on-one,” he said. Impressive prospect Luis Rodriguez, a gang member before Perales turned him onto Christ and boxing, “is one I think about a lot,” Perales said, “He’s been with me for about three years. I keep him very close to him. He and his little brother Ezekiel. They really respect our values.” Success stories include three Victory alums now in the military.

Peer pressure though is a constant worry. “I’m not going to lie, some kids have come and gone,” said Perales. “They didn’t embrace our values. They didn’t like the fact they couldn’t cuss, they couldn’t bag and sag, they couldn’t fight out on the streets. We’re not teaching them how to box so they can go out and hurt people. That’s what I did and I regret every minute of it.”

Victory’s road from humble beginnings to its envied new 10,000 square foot facility is the start of “a dream” Perales has to create a full-service “hope center.” A rec room’s set-up but computers are needed. The kitchen needs a new stove and fridge. The training area holds two rings and assorted bags and free weights but boxing equipment wears out fast. Hundreds of spectators can fit on the main level and balcony for boxing shows, which provide revenue for the nonprofit gym. But  Victory struggles making the $2,000 monthly rent. Overdue repairs await fixes.

Meanwhile, he said, grant monies have run out. More donations would secure Victory’s future as a community center. “It’s got so much potential, there’s so much room to grow. But one day at a time. It’s only been five months since we moved in,” he said. He’s counting on the grand opening adding new members and support. “I’ve personally invited all the organizations in this community and hopefully they’ll make it out.”

He worries but then he remembers to trust in his Higher Power. “We’ve been walking in faith the whole time. He hasn’t left us yet. He didn’t bring us here to leave us hanging. He opened this door for us. I know He’ll take care of us.” Amen.


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.

Sidebar

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.

 

 

Once the fight card begins, the crowd noise drifts into the staging area and the boxers steal peeks at the early action.  As their own fights draw near, the club’s boxers get their hands wrapped and gloves laced.  Each shadowboxes before following assistant coach John Glatgakos into a cement block hall to pummel the bang pads, Glatgakos urging them on:  “C’mon, left-right, explode!  Explode!”  Wingo interrupts to matter-of-factly announce, “Time to go.”  A short wait ensues in the wings before fighters and coaches walk the gauntlet – a stanchioned aisle – that passes through the crowd and leads to the ring.  Wingo, towel strewn over one shoulder, sits in the corner at ringside beside Glatgakos, who as cornerman handles the water bottle, spit bucket and stool for fighters.

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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