Bravado and showmanship can make a professional boxing career. Carefully curated spectacles can fuel ticket sales while, behind the scenes, a manager picks and chooses which fights to take, grabbing easy wins, avoiding guaranteed embarrassments.
Dominating boxing's amateur level is another matter all together. You either have it or you don't. Put up or shut up, period. At this level of pugilism, Golden Gloves bouts sort the walk from the talk, the trained technicians from undisciplined street fighters.
"You ain't nothin', 'til you win the Gloves," Evander Holyfield once told boxing writer Michael Rivest.
The annual winnowing process begins at the regional level — 30 regions throughout the country. Hoosier fighters are now in the midst of it.
Indiana's annual Golden Gloves tournament — which began March 21 — continues each Thursday night for six weeks, at 7:30 p.m. Downtown at the Tyndall Armory at 711 N. Pennsylvania St. The finals begin April 18; the championships are April 25.
The state champions from each weight class will advance to the national Golden Gloves championship, which began as a Chicago-versus-New York showdown in 1928 and grew into a national institution. Indianapolis hosted the national championships in 2011.
Before he became the heavyweight champion of the world and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, Louisville's Cassius Clay won two national Golden Gloves titles. Other pros who first earned national Golden Gloves titles include Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Leonard, "Marvelous" Marvin Hagler, Michael Spinks, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Oscar De La Hoya. Indy's own three-time world champion and World Boxing Hall of Famer Marvin "Pops" Johnson won two national Golden Gloves championships, in 1971 and 1972, before going to the Olympic Games in Munich to earn a bronze metal.
Indiana has produced 20 national Golden Gloves champions since the tournament began 85 years ago. Indiana boxers were among the first to challenge Chicago's dominance in the tournament's early days. But 2013 marks 20 years since the last Indiana fighter earned a national title.
The 2013 Golden Gloves roster is packed with fighters who dream of being the next great fighter — the next champion. For at least one of these fighters, Cortez "Doonie" Hill of Team Achieve Boxing, the dream is literal.
"I told coach before this fight, I had a dream that I beat the dude this week and that I'll beat the guy in the championship," Hill said. After winning two fights in preliminary rounds on March 28 and April 4, Hill will, indeed, proceed to the finals.
"The person I fight in the finals is the very person I dreamed — it happened," he said. "So be it: I won and I already knew I was fighting in the finals. Coach asked, 'Do you see yourself winning the whole tournament?' I said, 'Yes!' "
Beyond Golden Gloves, Hill said he hopes to make good on the prediction in his yearbooks at Broad Ripple High School: "Most Likely To Be Famous."
The language of bored males
Hill's coach, James Curles, has dreams of his own. Like any competitive coach, some of those dreams involve producing top-notch boxers, but Curles is even more interested in getting kids "out of gangs, off the streets and back in school."
Curles grew up "really poor," first in Stark, Fla., then in Evansville, Ind. He recalls being told again and again, "You'll be dead or in prison before you are 18."
His own life began to turn in a more promising direction when Steve Ryman, an electrician with whom he was apprenticing, challenged Curles to try a college class on Ryman's dime. Curles went on to study music at the University of Evansville, earning a degree in sociology, followed by a master's in the subject from the University of Southern Indiana and a master's of divinity from Fuller University in California.
But the initial transition was not easy.
"You have this rage," Curles said, referencing a feeling of being undervalued by society. He sees it all the time in kids he mentors, kids who are surrounded by dropouts, drugs and violence, who all seem to be related to, or at least know, people who have been shot or are in prison.
Hill can relate to the rage. When asked what he sees as the biggest change in his life since joining Team Achieve in late 2011, he cites his mentality and temper.
"I used to be ready to fight on the street," he said. "I've matured a lot being in the guidance of coach; it's the little things, but the little things add up.
"If a dude used to say something to me out of the way, I'd be ready to beat them up.You can't let things people say steer you off on the wrong path. I try to keep that in mind in my everyday life."
Guided by the notion laid out in Psalm 23:7, "So a man thinketh in his heart, so he is," Curles will often asks kids new to his gym to define themselves.
Responses such as "I'm not a punk" or "I'm not a bitch" are not uncommon.
"They don't say what they are," Curles said.
His goal then is to the channel the rage and lack of self-awareness he sees and transform it into a desire to achieve in the ring and beyond — to recognize, confront and defeat "the ghetto in our minds."
This approach came, in part, from Joe Marshall of the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco, which is known for its cutting-edge work confronting the culture of violence among inner-city youth.
To deprogram the kids from "the lies the streets have taught them," Marshall once told Curles, "you have to be deprogrammed yourself."
At Team Achieve, boxing is the incentive to bring kids in, but anger management classes, tutoring and vocational guidance are part of the package.
"Violence is a social disease," Curles said. But, he adds, it is also "the language of bored males."
Deprogramming involves, among other things, learning the difference between "friendships and fearships."
Team Achieve'sAhmonta "TeyTey" Washington, 14, who has earned state championships in Junior Olympics and Silver Gloves, defined fearship as someone who "is with you, but gets you to do bad things."
The best plan, Washington said, is to try to avoid such people. If that is not possible, then ignore them, "even if they call you soft."
Disconnecting from local gang culture that materializes around various neighborhoods of "sets" and "cliques" is a bit more subtle. It involves substituting a positive influence for a negative one. "Our community replaces their community," Curles said, noting his bottom line: Members of Team Achieve "can't be throwing gang signs or committing crimes."
Defying the odds
Curles attributes much of his own deprogramming to a spiritual awakening.
"God whooped me — he snatched me up with such brutal force," he recalled.
But while Curles is happy to share his faith, his work is not about counting conversions. "I do it not so they'll become Christian, but because I am Christian," he explained.
The selflessness of a life turned over to a higher calling does not go unnoticed by his team members.
"He's pretty positive," boxer Doonie Hill said. "He runs that program without charging anyone anything because he likes to see people succeed in life. Coach is trying to get me back to school. A tutor's done an assessment – I'm missing about a semester's worth."
Curles also gave credit to Saint Jude, the patron of hopeless causes, for protecting him from his own poor decisions and for continued guidance his effort to reach kids who may seem at first to be beyond hope.
"That's kind of the kid we go after — the kids that no one else wants," Curles said. And, with Curles' encouragement and discipline, about half the kids who embrace the program improve their grades and change their attitudes enough to box for Team Achieve.
Achieve International earned its 501(c)3 nonprofit status in the fall of 2010. In two years, team members have earned 32 state titles in Golden Gloves, Silver Gloves, Junior Olympics and Kentucky Open programs.
"These kids keep defying the odds; they keep winning," Curles said. But he is just as quick to note their academic and social successes. In short, he said, "Kids that weren't in school are in school; kids that were prison-bound are college-bound." But it is more than rhetoric. He tracks the academic progress of the kids in his program and is happy to share his statistics.
TeyTey Washington is living proof of the returns an investment of attention and encouragement can generate.
"TeyTey is themost critical of thinkers, and my hardest working student," wrote Emily Gehr, his teacher at Emma Donnan Middle School, in an email to his coach. "I have watched him go from another face in the crowd, to leader amongst his peers, socially, and academically."
His test scores supported Gehr's assessment. On the NWEA reading assessment test, the average 8th grader scored below grade level. Washington scored 230 — a college-level equivalent.
Curles has applied for a grant to help buy more equipment, including a regulation ring, for the gym, which some days has 40 or more kids working out. Donors have already provided a computer room and a stocked kitchen. The gym's landlord is tearing out a wall to make room for additional gym space and is paying to install showers and a washer and dryer hook-up.
"We can't help everyone who needs help, but we can help everyone who wants help." Curles said, admitting that his job includes "a lot, a lot, a lot" of heartache.
"I do everything I can to push a kid to their full potential, but at the end of the day it's free will. If they don't want help, there's nothing I can do. ... When a kid drops out of our program, it's not a relief. It breaks my heart."
The tournament begins
On the first night of this year's Indiana Golden Gloves, coaches in opposing corners of the ring encourage the fighters throughout the night, which features 17 fights, each three, three-minute rounds.
"Work the body!"
"Throw a nice four-punch combo — now!"
"Thirty seconds! Leave it all in the ring!"
Some fighters look fully engaged in the effort of staying on their feet with their hands up; others step in the ring with clear focus and precise technique.
Golden Gloves President Keith Boggs is pleased with the turnout. Attendance and the number of fighters participating are up over last year, he said.
For Rex Scott, sitting in Tyndall Armory for the first time in 30 years was "a trip down memory lane."
Indiana Golden Gloves attracts him, he said, because the contestants are all amateurs — and they are local.
"We came every week, every fight," Scott said. "I remember this as a much bigger room when I was a kid."
Sitting ringside, the Indianapolis native looked at a set of bleachers in the corner of the upper balcony and remembered how his dad would always sit there during tournaments, using a rope to pull a cooler of beer up from the main floor.
The spectacle can pull "habit-forming or addictive," according to Dick Mercer, who began attending Golden Glovesabout 40 years ago with his friend Tom Lyday, sitting in the balcony with a bag of White Castle hamburgers and a six-pack of beer. A couple years later, both men offered to use their experience in marketing to help boost awareness and ticket sales.
Mercer is now a 35-year veteran of the Indiana Golden Gloves board of directors. When Lyday died in 2001, the organization established a scholarship program in his honor. He notes everyone in the organization is a volunteer, a testament to their passion for the sport.
He points out several people around the ring who have been fixtures for decades.
There is Jim Payton, the timekeeper. Payton's dad, Harold, 93, was the timekeeper before him. In fact, Mercer noted, Harold crafted the bell that signals the end of each round.
Then there is Ron Hick, who drives from Illinois every year to help with timekeeping, and retired sportswriter John Bansch, who remains ringside to help with statistics and publicity. There's announcer, Stu Goldner, who works at a printer and takes care of the bout sheets and programs. There's Vicki Elder of the boxing commission, who has helped keep the whole operation in line for decades.
And, of course, George DeFabis, 86, who began his own storied boxing career in 1944 and is a member of the National Golden Gloves Hall of Fame.
DeFabis wants to see more "marquee boxers" in the program, generating interest like Marvin Johnson, Sammy Nesmith or Norman Goins did in the '70s.
But cultivating respect and discipline, and presenting new opportunities to kids, some of whom have their first airline ride or overnight hotel stay as a Golden Gloves fighter, is the ultimate purpose of the program, he added.
"That's really what's this is about — making them better citizens."
Women in the ring
Women are not yet part of Indiana's official Golden Gloves program because, organizers say, there are not yet enough females to fill out a complete program. Their fights are a bonus to the ticket.
Kaitlyn Lovitt, 19, of the Integrated Fighting Club began boxing in January. During the March 28 round of fights, she stepped into the ring for a relentless pounding by Linda O'Bradovic of Mishawaka's St. James Boxing Club.
At least one seasoned veteran of the sport said the fight should have been stopped, or Lovitt's coach should have stepped in. Fighters don't tend to tap themselves out — it's something in their wiring.
Nonetheless, Lovitt absorbed O'Bradovic's onslaught, staying on her feet and, for the most part, keeping her hands up. Stepping out of the ring post-fight, Lovitt, who is in pre-nursing studies at IUPUI, kept her head up.
"I feel I worked like I've been trained," she said. "Even though I lost, I feel like I won because I got up in the ring."
In Lovitt's post-fight de-briefing, coach Kenny Walker said she did "a hell of a job." His critique focused on her need for cardio improvements and her lack of forward movement.
When fighting a bigger opponent with longer arms, like O'Bradovic, Walker advised fighting close up.
"Don't make the mistake of stepping back," he said. "You want to get to the right or the left. Circle and jab; it's the jab that dictates."
The three, three-minute rounds "got longer" as they ticked on, Lovitt said. "It's not as easy as it looks."
Despite the sport's male domination, females are gaining ground — on both sides of the ropes.
Curles calls Jamie Billings of Indy Boxing South "the best coach in the state," or, at least, "the most underrated," noting, "people overlook her because she's a woman."
In line with Curles' assessment, on April 4, Vincent Ventura, a Billings-trained fighter, just about knocked Team Achieve's Hill off his game.
Hill, who naturally weighs around 150 and added weight to fight in the 165-pound class, had devised a strategy to deal with the extra height and weight he knew Ventura would bring. He would keep moving forward, keeping close in to Ventura, making it harder for Ventura's long arms to connect.
Still, Hill said, Ventura came out ready to brawl, landing some heavy blows.
"Between rounds, coach kept telling me to use speed, and I went to power," Hill explained, frustrated that he was not able to stick to Curles' instruction. "(Ventura) wanted to brawl, so that's what we did the whole fight."
Still, Hill and Curles appreciated the challenge.
"At the end of the day, we want the best," Curles said. "We want the hardest competition, so bring it. We want to send our best fighters to nationals."
When this spring's Golden Gloves concludes, training will continue at gyms around the city.
Curles estimates spending $70-$140 a week on gas, driving all around the Eastside delivering kids to and from the gym.
As he finished drop-offs on a late March afternoon, his phone rang.
It was a new kid, calling to inquire about joining the team.
"I ain't gonna charge you anything, champ," Curles says. He finishes the call, then remarked: "Sweat equity is worth more than money. If you're in the program, you'll work 10 times harder than any other gym."
That should pay dividends, according to Mercer, the long-time observer. Whether it is in the ring or in life, he said, success boils down to one simple equation: "Effort equals results."
Curles and Billings, along with coaches from other storied clubs around town such as Sarge Johnson Boxing and Indy PAL, are doing their best to extract the effort it takes to produce a national champion.
"I believe the time when Indiana will produce another national champion will come with this next generation," Curles said. "I feel the competition among these guys getting stiffer."
Golden Gloves March 28, 2013 (Slideshow)