Young area boxers fight to bring back the glory daysPhotos by Jim Walker Just past the ring, a small figure bobs and weaves, throwing quick combinations in the air, her head covered with a white bandana. She is the only female in this testosterone-infused gym. Behind her, a young man wearing a red jersey taps away at the speed bag. Another fighter dressed in a gray sweat suit pounds a black heavy bag. Each punch pops like a small pistol shot. The smell of sweat and leather, like the sense of dreams and determination, hangs in the gym. Beyond the makeshift boxing area known as Sarge Johnson’s Boxing Club, a basketball game is in progress. The second-floor gym looks out over the court. “I was always small. But one day when I was about 15, some girl came and pushed me. I went off. I beat her up pretty bad. And someone suggested that I should get into boxing.” —LaToya Andrews Between the sounds of pounding basketballs, banging bags and the shouting of instructions, the words of coach Bob Chambers can hardly be heard. He has coached Indianapolis fighters for the past 20 years, from the glory days of the early ’70s and ’80s when two world champions, Marvin Johnson and J.B. Williamson, fought, to the less-than-stellar present. Several top contenders also fought out of the Indianapolis area: Stormin’ Norman Goins, Slammin’ Sammy NeSmith and Gary Guiden, among others. George DeFabis, president of the Indiana Golden Gloves and the past chair of both AAU Boxing and the Indiana State Boxing Commission, says that during the ’70s and ’80s as many as 250 fighters would enter the Golden Gloves Tournament. The tournament lasted six weeks, with some of the weekly sessions running past midnight. Today, that number is closer to anywhere between 120 and 150. The tournament is now only five weeks, with most of the sessions ending around 10 p.m. And there’s another difference: Seldom do today’s Indiana fighters win a National Golden Gloves Championship, as did Johnson, Goins and NeSmith. In fact, in 1971 (the year NeSmith and Johnson won), Indiana’s team came in second in the nation. Reaching for the championship LaToya Andrews, 19, knows what she wants and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there. Andrews’ hands are as quick as her smile or the spark in her eyes. She smiles an impish grin while, on tiptoes, noting everything I write in my notebook. A San Diego native, she learned that she had “the stuff” of a fighter when she was in high school. “I was always small. But one day when I was about 15, some girl came and pushed me. I went off. I beat her up pretty bad. And someone suggested that I should get into boxing.” Several years passed before she moved to Indianapolis and began boxing. In 2003, she became the Indiana Golden Gloves Champion in the 125-pound female division. She plans to fight in this year’s tournament and then turn pro. She nods to the ring: “In there, I can release everything.” If Indianapolis has fewer boxers than it had 20 years ago, it has even fewer female fighters. “I’ll fight here or wherever the money is good. It don’t matter to me.” She adds, “I’ll be a world champion.” And maybe she will. The fight outside the ring Coach Chambers’ thin mustache drops below his chin. His eyes show the weariness of a man who has watched many dreams rise and fall, some reached and some broken on the rock of bad luck and hard times. “I’m mad and disgusted with the way boxing is handled locally,” says Chambers, whose two sons, Archie and Ronnie, had successful amateur and professional careers. Obstacles, such as the lack of local coverage by the media and the city’s reduced funding for boxing programs, have caused young people to seek other athletic outlets. The days of watching a major championship in prime time on network television have passed. In fact, until last spring, NBC had not aired a boxing match in 11 years. Whatever the obstacles, young people don’t seek boxing gyms as a refuge anymore. “It’s harder to keep kids off the street these days. We have some come in, train for a while and then disappear. The commitment isn’t there,” Chambers reflects. He has watched too many end up in correctional facilities. One of those fighters is Clarence White. “He was one of the best,” Chambers says. After a successful amateur career, White turned pro and then turned heads, but he couldn’t resist the streets. “He could’ve gone someplace.” And indeed he did. That someplace was Pendleton Reformatory. Instead of being scheduled for a 12-round championship bout, he’s scheduled to serve 80 years. “Seems like a lot for drugs,” Chambers says. “But he’d been in trouble before, and, I guess, they wanted to send a message.” Fred Berns, longtime local professional boxing promoter, believes that part of the problem lies in the lack of funding from Indy Parks. He points out that money is no longer allocated for boxing. “If you take a city of similar size to Indianapolis, like Cincinnati, you find more gyms and more amateur shows. Without an active amateur program, you can’t expect to turn out good boxers.” Here in Indianapolis, the Parks Department has only one gym that offers boxing, Sarge Johnson’s, which is based out of Riverside Community Center. One of the strongest clubs during the ’70s and ’80s was the Indianapolis Police Athletic League (PAL) club. When its trainer, Colin “Champ” Cheney (Marvin Johnson’s coach), retired, the club shut down. Another mainstay was Christamore House. When Bill Brown, the longtime trainer, retired, it struggled for a few years and closed its doors. Berns adds, “Brown bought most of the equipment himself. So, now, the owners or coaches are paying for the few places that are around, with no government help. I guess we can complain all we want about the lack of public gyms, but remember, we aren’t taxed like a lot of other cities. And, I kinda like that,” Berns laughs. Indiana Golden Gloves President DeFabis notes, “Boxing has always appealed to the poorer kids. Most of the parks’ money is being funneled into sports for suburban kids with money — sports like soccer and swimming.” Recently, the Indy PAL club resurrected the program at Christamore House, providing one more opportunity for young people to train. Unfortunately, the PAL club has limited its fighters to age 17 and under. DeFabis questions this decision. “So are they going to work with a 16-year-old for two years and then tell him to leave when he’s 18? That doesn’t make sense.” Boxers spar in the makeshift ring while receiving some veteran advice from outside the ropes. Achieving the dream Former WBC (World Boxing Council) Light-Heavyweight Champion J.B. Williamson dwarfs a young boy who looks to be no more than 9 or 10. Williamson’s mitted hands absorb the boy’s lefts and rights. He holds a mitt face down and shouts, “Uppercut!” The boy obliges. Williamson, 47, volunteers at the gym. The scar tissue and the slight swelling above his eyes show the signs of many battles. But Williamson’s voice is soft, his smile contagious. “You have to want it,” he says. He, too, knows the difference between the local fight scene today and the one in which he fought. “We used to have more coaches that cared and knew the game; they knew what it took.” But the fighters must be determined. Williamson stresses that running is a big part of the discipline needed to be a fighter. “The key is the road — road work. I tell ’em that they gotta treat the road like their wife,” he laughs. “They gotta love her, spend time with her. They gotta marry the road.” Like many successful fighters, Williamson was, in his words, a “veteran” fighter before ever entering the ring at age 12. “I fought all of the time, sometimes two times a day. But the first day I walked into the gym, I knew I was going to be a champion. It took 16 years, but I did it.” The speed bag, the heavy bag, the running, the punches, the sweat and the blood paid off. Williamson heard what few fighters ever get to hear. “Then I heard him say, ‘And the new light-heavyweight champion of the world.’” Williamson gives a wide grin and raises his arms in victory, recapturing that moment from over 15 years ago. But holding the pads for a young fighter is far removed from having your arms raised in victory. “Yeah, I miss it. It’s in my blood. It’s what I’m all about, but you know, when you win a world title, you’re on the peak. When you’re on the peak, there’s no where to go but down.” Putting the mitts back on his hands, he quickly moves toward another young fighter. Keeping the dream alive Maybe the local talent is sparse today; maybe the champions and future champions have faded from the local scene, but the goal remains the same — to be a world champion. Perhaps Anthony Shuler is the exception, the one who can rise above mediocrity and achieve his dream. Born in New York City, Shuler, 26, moved to Indianapolis in 1993 to get away from the bad influences of the big city. He began boxing in 1994. Unlike most young fighters who, as they grow and mature, move up in weight-class, Shuler dropped weight each year. “I won the state Golden Gloves Championship in 1996 at 165 pounds. In ’98, I won at 147 and in ’99 at 139,” he says with a smile. As a professional he fights at 154 and is the reigning state light-middleweight champion, with a record of 14-2-1 (11 KOs). In his last fight, he showed that he could compete at the top level, losing a close 12-round decision to one-time contender Alex Bunema (24-3-2). But many of Shuler’s Midwest opponents are mediocre at best. His victories include wins over the much-publicized, perpetual journeyman Reggie Strickland, who, at the time of their fight, had an unbelievable record of 59-243-15. He also has a victory over Nelson Hernandez, who has an even worse record of 2-46-1. Do these records mean that Shuler has no chance in the bigger world of boxing? No, but it may mean that in order to achieve his potential, he might have to go elsewhere. Shuler’s polite, soft-spoken speech belies the ferocity that, moments before, he inflicted on the heavy bag. “Boxing is my main priority. My goal is to be a world champion.” In the meantime, Shuler remodels houses during the day and trains in the evening. He says that he likes the strategy more than anything else. “Being in the ring is like being in a chess match. You always have to be thinking what you’re going to do next and predicting what he’s going to do next.” Shuler observes that Indianapolis is no mecca for boxing. “I see these fights [local fights] as stepping stones. Like I said, no matter where I have to go, my goal is to be a champion.” DeFabis knows that as long as young men and women enter the few gyms that remain, a champion can emerge. “We need a marquee fighter, a poster boy, that will inspire kids to go to the gyms.” Some strive and fight for that chance — to be the next marquee fighter. And maybe Anthony Shuler or LaToya Andrews will be that person. The final bell has yet to ring in Indianapolis. David Beck is a lecturer for the English Department at IUPUI. Previous articles for NUVO include the cover stories “Welcome to Fight Club” and “The World’s Strongest Man.” 2004 Indiana Golden Gloves Keith Nash, 17, a junior at Ben Davis High School, just wants to learn the “art of fighting.” “What I like is the discipline, the focus boxing gives me.” He wakes up each morning and goes to school. After school he goes home and then straight to the gym. But does he dream of being a professional, an eventual world champion? He smiles and, hesitantly, without much conviction, says, “Maybe one day.” For now, he focuses on the upcoming Golden Gloves tournament. The 2004 Indiana Golden Gloves begin March 25 and will continue for five consecutive Thursday nights: March 25, April 1, 8 and 15. The championship night is April 22. All sessions will be held at Tyndall Armory, 711 N. Pennsylvania St., Indianapolis, beginning at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are available at the Fairgrounds box office (927-1482) or through Jason Spears (317-523-0359 or 317-271-2840). For the first three nights, general admission is $7 and ringside is $9, and for the final two weeks, the tickets are $8 and $10

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