Archive

Posts Tagged ‘Downtown Boxing Club’

Heart and Soul: Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter Keep it Real at the Downtown Boxing Club

September 28, 2018 2 comments

Two of my favorite story projects from the past two decades brought me to the Downtown Boxing Club in Omaha, Neb., where I met some guys straight out of a fight movie or a film noir. The story shared here is about the two grizzled coaches, Kenny and Dutch, who ran the joint at the time I hung around it. This Mutt and Jeff pair were the heart and soul of the whole gritty endeavor.

 

Heart and Soul: Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter Keep it Real at the Downtown Boxing Club

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

 

The heart and soul of Omaha amateur boxing can be found one flight above the dingy 308 Bar at 24th & Farnam.   There, inside a cozy little joint of a gym, fighters snap punches at heavy bags, spar inside a makeshift ring, shadowbox and skip rope.

Welcome to the Downtown Boxing Club, a combination sweatshop and shrine dedicated to “the sweet science.”  A melting pot for young Latino, African-American and Anglo pugilists of every conceivable size, shape and starry-eyed dream.  They include die-hard competitors and fitness buffs.  Genuine prospects and hapless pugs.  Half-pint boys and burly men.  They come to test their courage, sacrifice their bodies and impose their wills.  For inspiration they need only glance at the walls covered with posters of boxing greats.

Whatever their age, ability or aspiration, the athletes all work out under the watchful eye of Kenny Wingo, 65, the club’s head coach, president and founder.  The retired masonry contractor keeps tempers and egos in check with his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit.  Longtime assistant Dutch Gladfelter, 76, is as ramrod lean as Wingo is barrel-wide.  The ex-prizefighter’s iron fists can still deliver a KO in a pinch, as when he decked a ringside heckler at a tournament a few years back.

Together 17 years now, these two grizzled men share a passion for the sport that helps keep them active year-round.  Wingo, who never fought a bout in his life, readily admits he’s learned the ropes from Gladfelter.

“He’s taught me more about this boxing business – about how to handle kids and how to run a gym – than anybody else I’ve been around,” Wingo said.  “I’ve got a lot of confidence in his opinion.  He’s a treasure.”

The lessons have paid dividends too, as the club’s produced scores of junior and adult amateur champions; it captured both the novice and open division team titles at the 1996 Omaha Golden Gloves tourney.

Ask Gladfelter what makes a good boxer and in his low, growling voice he’ll recite his school-of-hard-knocks philosophy:

Balance, poise, aggressiveness and a heart,” he said.  “Knowing when, where and how to hit.  Feinting with your eyes and body – that takes the opponent’s mind off what he’s doing and sometimes you can really crack ‘em.  I try to teach different points to hit, like the solar plexus and the jaw, and to stay on balance and be aggressive counterpunching.  You don’t go out there just throwin’ punches – you have to think a little bit too.”

Gladfelter’s own ring career included fighting on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression.  The Overton, Neb., native rode freight train boxcars for points bound west, taking fights at such division stops as Cheyenne, Wyo., Idaho Falls, Idaho and Elko, Nev. (where the sheriff staged matches).

“I fought all over the Rocky Mountain District.  You’d travel fifty miles on those boxcars for a fight.  Then you’d travel fifty more to another town and you were liable to run into the same guy you just fought back down the line.  They just changed their name a little,” recalls Gladfelter, who fought then as Sonny O’Dea.

He got to know the hobo camps along the way and usually avoided the railroad bulls who patrolled the freight yards.  It was a rough life, but it made him a buck in what “were hard times.  There wasn’t any work.  Fightin’ was the only way I knew to get any money.  I got my nose broke a couple times, but it was still better than workin’ at the WPA or PWA,” he said, referring to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration.

After hanging up his gloves he began coaching amateur fighters in the early 1950s.  He worked several years with Native American coach Big Fire.  Gladfelter, who is part Lakota, hooked up with Wingo in the late ‘70s when he brought a son who was fighting at the time to train at the Downtown Boxing Club.  Gladfelter and wife Violet have five children in all.

“After his boy quit, Dutch stayed on and started helping me with my kids,” said Wingo.

With Gladfelter at his side Wingo not only refined his coaching skills but gained a new appreciation for his own Native American heritage (He is part Cherokee.).

“He took me to several powwows,” said Wingo.  “He taught me what a dream catcher is and the difference between a grass dancer and a traditional dancer.  He’s given me maps where the Native Americans lived.  I ask him questions.  I do some reading.  It’s interesting to me.”

A self-described frustrated athlete, Wingo grew up a rabid baseball (Cardinals) and boxing (Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson) fan in Illinois.  He saw combat in Korea with the U.S. Army’s 7th Regiment, 3rd Division.  After the war he moved to Omaha, where a brother lived, and worked his way up from masonry blocklayer to contractor.

He got involved with boxing about 25 years ago when he took two young boys, whose mother he was dating, to the city Golden Gloves and they insisted they’d like to fight too.  Acting on the boys’ interest, he found a willing coach in Kenny Jackson.  Hanging around the gym to watch them train sparked a fire in Wingo for coaching boxers.

“And I’ve kind of been hooked on it ever since.  It gets in your blood,” he said.

Before long Wingo became Jackson’s cornerman, handling the spit bucket, water bottle, towel, et cetera, during sparring sessions and bouts.  He increased his knowledge by studying books and quizzing coaches.

When Wingo eventually broke with Jackson, several fighters followed him to the now defunct Foxhole Gym.  Soon in need of his own space, Wingo found the site of the present club in 1978 and converted empty offices into a well-equipped gym.  He underwrote much of the early venture himself, but has in recent years used proceeds from pickle card sales to fund its operation.  No membership fees are charged fighters, whose gloves, headgear and other essentials are provided free.  He annually racks up thousands of miles on the club van driving fighters to tournaments around the Midwest and other parts of the nation.  Except for fishing trips, he’s at the gym every weeknight and most Saturday mornings.

What keeps Wingo at it? “I like working with the kids, number one.  And when a kid does well it just makes you feel like all this is worthwhile.  That you did your job and you got the best from him,” Wingo explains.

He enjoys helping young men grow as boxers and persons.

“When kids first come into the gym, they want to fight but they’re scared to death – because it is physical contact.  But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance.  You try to teach them to be confident.  I tell them from day one, and I keep tellin’ ‘em, that there’s three things that make a good fighter – conditioning, brains and confidence.”

Wingo feels boxing’s gotten a bad rap in recent years due to the excesses of the pro fight game.  He maintains the amateur side of the sport, which is closely regulated, teaches positive values like sportsmanship and vital skills like self-discipline.

The lifelong bachelor has coached hundreds of athletes over the years – becoming a mentor to many.

“Growing up without a father figure, Kenny’s really kind of filled that role for me,” notes Tom McLeod of Omaha, a former boxer who under Wingo won four straight city and Midwest Golden Gloves titles at 156 pounds.  “We developed a real good friendship and a mutual trust and respect.  I think Kenny’s a great coach and a great tactician too.  He always told me what I needed to do to win the fight.  He gave me a lot of confidence in myself and in my abilities.  He took me to a level I definitely couldn’t of reached by myself.”

McLeod, 27, is one of several Downtown Boxing Club veterans who remain loyal to Wingo and regularly spar with his stable of fighters.  Another is Rafael Valdez, 33, who started training with Wingo at age 10 and later went on to fight some 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts.  Valdez’s two small sons, Justin and Tony, now fight for Wingo and company as junior amateurs.

“When my kids were old enough to start fighting,” said Valdez, “Kenny was the first one I called.  He treats the kids great. There aren’t many guys who are willing to put in the amount of time he does.”

This multi-generational boxing brotherhood is Wingo’s family.

“Winning isn’t everything with me.  Fellowship is,” Wingo said.  “It’s the fellowship you build up over the years with fighters and coaches and parents too.  I’ve got friends from everywhere and I got ‘em through boxing.”

A 1980 tragedy reminded Wingo of the hazards of growing too attached to his fighters.  He was coaching two rising young stars on the area boxing scene – brothers Art and Shawn Meehan of Omaha –  when he got a call one morning that both had been killed in a car wreck.

“I really cared about them.  Art was an outstanding kid and an outstanding fighter.  He was 16 when he won the city and the Midwest Golden Gloves.  And his little brother Shawn probably had more talent than him.  I’d worked with them three-four years.  I picked ‘em up and took ‘em to the gym and took ‘em home.  I took the little one on a fishing trip to Canada.”

Wingo said the Meehans’ deaths marked “the lowest I’ve ever been.  I was going to quit (coaching).”  He’s stuck with it, but the pain remains.  “I still think about those kids and I still go visit their graves.  It taught me not to get too close to the kids, but it’s hard not to and I still do to a certain extent.”

Quitting isn’t his style anyway.  Besides, kids keep arriving at the gym every day with dreams of boxing glory.  So long as they keep coming, Wingo and Gladfelter are eager to share their experience with them.

“We’ve done it together for 17 years now and we’re gonna continue to do it together for another 17 years.  We both love boxing.  What would we do if we quit?”

Advertisements

Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

June 4, 2010 1 comment

 

 

This is another of my favorite boxing stories. I wrote it for the New Horizons.  It profiles the same downtown Omaha boxing gym as featured in the House of Discipline story also recently posted here, only this time I concentrate more on the two old men who ran the gym, Kenny Wingo and Dutch Gladfelter, both of whom are now gone.  I suppose my approach to this story and all the boxing stories I’ve done reveals influences of the boxing movies and documentaries and magazine articles I’ve been exposed to in a lifetime of being both thrilled and sickened by the sport.  You’ll find on this blog site a handful of boxing articles I’ve written over the years, and there will be more to come.

Heart and Soul, A Mutt and Jeff Boxing Story

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

The heart and soul of Omaha amateur boxing can be found one flight above the dingy 308 Bar at 24th & Farnam.   There, inside a cozy little joint of a gym, fighters snap punches at heavy bags, spar inside a makeshift ring, shadowbox and skip rope.

Welcome to the Downtown Boxing Club, a combination sweatshop and shrine dedicated to “the sweet science.”  A melting pot for young Latino, African-American and Anglo pugilists of every conceivable size, shape and starry-eyed dream.  They include die-hard competitors and fitness buffs. Genuine prospects and hapless pugs.  Half-pint boys and burly men.  They come to test their courage, sacrifice their bodies and impose their wills.  For inspiration they need only glance at the walls covered with posters of boxing greats.

 

 

 

 

Whatever their age, ability or aspiration, the athletes all work out under the watchful eye of Kenny Wingo, 65, the club’s head coach, president and founder. The retired masonry contractor keeps tempers and egos in check with his Burl Ives-as-Big Daddy girth and grit.  Longtime assistant Dutch Gladfelter, 76, is as ramrod lean as Wingo is barrel-wide. The ex-prizefighter’s iron fists can still deliver a KO in a pinch, as when he decked a ringside heckler at a tournament a few years back.

Together 17 years now, these two grizzled men share a passion for the sport that helps keep them active year-round.  Wingo, who never fought a bout in his life, readily admits he’s learned the ropes from Gladfelter.

“He’s taught me more about this boxing business – about how to handle kids and how to run a gym – than anybody else I’ve been around,” Wingo said.  “I’ve got a lot of confidence in his opinion.  He’s a treasure.”

The lessons have paid dividends too, as the club’s produced scores of junior and adult amateur champions; it captured both the novice and open division team titles at the 1996 Omaha Golden Gloves tourney.

Ask Gladfelter what makes a good boxer and in his low, growling voice he’ll recite his school-of-hard-knocks philosophy:  “Balance, poise, aggressiveness and a heart,” he said.  “Knowing when, where and how to hit.  Feinting with your eyes and body – that takes the opponent’s mind off what he’s doing and sometimes you can really crack ‘em.  I try to teach different points to hit, like the solar plexus and the jaw, and to stay on balance and be aggressive counterpunching. You don’t go out there just throwin’ punches – you have to think a little bit too.”

Gladfelter’s own ring career included fighting on the pro bootleg boxing circuit during the Depression. The Overton, Neb., native rode freight train boxcars for points bound west, taking fights at such division stops as Cheyenne, Wyo., Idaho Falls, Idaho and Elko, Nev. (where the sheriff staged matches).

“I fought all over the Rocky Mountain District.  You’d travel fifty miles on those boxcars for a fight.  Then you’d travel fifty more to another town and you were liable to run into the same guy you just fought back down the line.  They just changed their name a little,” recalls Gladfelter, who fought then as Sonny O’Dea.

He got to know the hobo camps along the way and usually avoided the railroad bulls who patrolled the freight yards.  It was a rough life, but it made him a buck in what “were hard times. There wasn’t any work.  Fightin’ was the only way I knew to get any money. I got my nose broke a couple times, but it was still better than workin’ at the WPA or PWA,” he said, referring to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Public Works Administration.

After hanging up his gloves he began coaching amateur fighters in the early 1950s.  He worked several years with Native American coach Big Fire.  Gladfelter, who is part Lakota, hooked up with Wingo in the late ‘70s when he brought a son who was fighting at the time to train at the Downtown Boxing Club.  Gladfelter and wife Violet have five children in all.

“After his boy quit, Dutch stayed on and started helping me with my kids,” said Wingo.With Gladfelter at his side Wingo not only refined his coaching skills but gained a new appreciation for his own Native American heritage (He is part Cherokee.).“He took me to several powwows,” said Wingo.  “He taught me what a dream catcher is and the difference between a grass dancer and a traditional dancer.  He’s given me maps where the Native Americans lived.  I ask him questions.  I do some reading.  It’s interesting to me.”

A self-described frustrated athlete, Wingo grew up a rabid baseball (Cardinals) and boxing (Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson) fan in Illinois.  He saw combat in Korea with the U.S. Army’s 7th Regiment, 3rd Division.  After the war he moved to Omaha, where a brother lived, and worked his way up from masonry blocklayer to contractor.

He got involved with boxing about 25 years ago when he took two young boys, whose mother he was dating, to the city Golden Gloves and they insisted they’d like to fight too.  Acting on the boys’ interest, he found a willing coach in Kenny Jackson.  Hanging around the gym to watch them train sparked a fire in Wingo for coaching boxers.

“And I’ve kind of been hooked on it ever since.  It gets in your blood,” he said.

Before long Wingo became Jackson’s cornerman, handling the spit bucket, water bottle, towel, et cetera, during sparring sessions and bouts.  He increased his knowledge by studying books and quizzing coaches.

When Wingo eventually broke with Jackson, several fighters followed him to the now defunct Foxhole Gym.  Soon in need of his own space, Wingo found the site of the present club in 1978 and converted empty offices into a well-equipped gym.  He underwrote much of the early venture himself, but has in recent years used proceeds from pickle card sales to fund its operation.  No membership fees are charged fighters, whose gloves, headgear and other essentials are provided free.  He annually racks up thousands of miles on the club van driving fighters to tournaments around the Midwest and other parts of the nation.  Except for fishing trips, he’s at the gym every weeknight and most Saturday mornings.

What keeps Wingo at it?

“I like working with the kids, number one.  And when a kid does well it just makes you feel like all this is worthwhile.  That you did your job and you got the best from him,” Wingo explains.

He enjoys helping young men grow as boxers and persons.

“When kids first come into the gym, they want to fight but they’re scared to death – because it is physical contact.  But if you’re intimidated, you’ve got no chance.  You try to teach them to be confident.  I tell them from day one, and I keep tellin’ ‘em, that there’s three things that make a good fighter – conditioning, brains and confidence.”

Wingo feels boxing’s gotten a bad rap in recent years due to the excesses of the pro fight game.

He maintains the amateur side of the sport, which is closely regulated, teaches positive values like sportsmanship and vital skills like self-discipline.

The lifelong bachelor has coached hundreds of athletes over the years – becoming a mentor to many.

“Growing up without a father figure, Kenny’s really kind of filled that role for me,” notes Tom McLeod of Omaha, a former boxer who under Wingo won four straight city and Midwest Golden Gloves titles at 156 pounds.  “We developed a real good friendship and a mutual trust and respect.  I think Kenny’s a great coach and a great tactician too.  He always told me what I needed to do to win the fight.  He gave me a lot of confidence in myself and in my abilities.  He took me to a level I definitely couldn’t of reached by myself.”

 

 

 

 

McLeod, 27, is one of several Downtown Boxing Club veterans who remain loyal to Wingo and regularly spar with his stable of fighters.  Another is Rafael Valdez, 33, who started training with Wingo at age 10 and later went on to fight some 150 amateur and 16 pro bouts.  Valdez’s two small sons, Justin and Tony, now fight for Wingo and company as junior amateurs.

“When my kids were old enough to start fighting,” said Valdez, “Kenny was the first one I called. He treats the kids great.  There aren’t many guys who are willing to put in the amount of time he does.”

This multi-generational boxing brotherhood is Wingo’s family.

“Winning isn’t everything with me.  Fellowship is,” Wingo said.  “It’s the fellowship you build up over the years with fighters and coaches and parents too.  I’ve got friends from everywhere and I got ‘em through boxing.”

A 1980 tragedy reminded Wingo of the hazards of growing too attached to his fighters.  He was coaching two rising young stars on the area boxing scene – brothers Art and Shawn Meehan of Omaha –  when he got a call one morning that both had been killed in a car wreck.

“I really cared about them.  Art was an outstanding kid and an outstanding fighter.  He was 16 when he won the city and the Midwest Golden Gloves.  And his little brother Shawn probably had more talent than him.  I’d worked with them three-four years.  I picked ‘em up and took ‘em to the gym and took ‘em home.  I took the little one on a fishing trip to Canada.”

Wingo said the Meehans’ deaths marked “the lowest I’ve ever been.  I was going to quit (coaching).”  He’s stuck with it, but the pain remains.  “I still think about those kids and I still go visit their graves.  It taught me not to get too close to the kids, but it’s hard not to and I still do to a certain extent.”

Quitting isn’t his style anyway.  Besides, kids keep arriving at the gym every day with dreams of boxing glory.  So long as they keep coming, Wingo and Gladfelter are eager to share their experience with them.

“We’ve done it together for 17 years now and we’re gonna continue to do it together for another 17 years.  We both love boxing.  What would we do if we quit?”

The Downtown Boxing Club’s House of Discipline

June 4, 2010 1 comment

 

 

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.

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.

%d bloggers like this: