The allures of gang life, especially for young adults and children with little else – no guidance, no job, no future – are similar to those of boxing: Power, respect, purpose. Boxing, though, offers those draws paired with a positive outcome, instead of violence.
“Everyday I’m here, I’m not on the streets,” said 17-year-old Delleon Brown, who trains three hours a day, six days a week. “It’s not just a sport. It’s, like, therapy.”
Brown will have an emphatic forum to express himself this Saturday, when the city of Richmond and Police Activities League present “Richmond’s Finest,” an amateur boxing exhibition. The event, being held at Richmond Memorial Auditorium, will draw boxers from around the Bay Area and as far away as Sacramento, with Richmond showcasing five of its own athletes.
Boxing has taught the Cuellar brothers – Freddy, 14, and Ernesto, 12 – that they have the power to walk away from fights at school. Brown, who has won seven of his ten career fights, has come to realize respect is a by-product of discipline and confidence. And 19-year-old Eric Warner felt his life was going nowhere until he found purpose and direction through PAL’s program.
“It’s about discipline, accountability and giving kids an outlet,” PAL Executive Director Larry Lewis said.
Through physical, mental and moral conditioning, boxing brings structure to the lives of these youths – structure they seek. When the boxing program was created in February 2010, 90 kids and young adults signed up in two months.
Students must keep up their grades to participate, a contingency PAL supports by providing tutoring. Furthermore, everyone is held accountable for taking care of the facilities and putting on events like this Saturday’s.
“This is their exhibition – not ours,” Lewis said. “It’s about ownership. If they don’t make it happen, it doesn’t happen.”
On a recent afternoon leading up to the show, about 15 boxers milled around the gym, which features a full-size regulation ring. With the constant pitter-patter of a speed bag in the background, men and boys took turns jumping rope, sparring or jogging on the treadmills. Freddy and Ernesto trained with their father in a corner. Coach John Island, a retired professional who once trained with Joe Frazier, periodically hollered across the room, “Keep that hand up!”
“This gives them a place to come everyday,” Island said. “It’s a place to rebuild their lives.”
This is the second exhibition Richmond has hosted. The first, held in March, raised more than $4,000 and attracted almost 1,000 people – a turnout Island is expecting to top this time around. And all of the money goes right back into the program, which has roughly 120 boxers.
Some, however, have raised concerns about the potential neurological effects of repeated blows to the body and head. The risk of injury has led the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a statement opposing the sport for children and adolescents. But the organization concedes that boxing is no more harmful than other high impact sports, such as football.
Lewis said that amateur boxing, which categorizes participants by age and weight, awards points for defense, rather than attacking, and contended, “The positives outweigh the risks.” For Brown and Warner, the choice may be between stepping into the ring or onto Richmond’s streets.
Although Brown aspires to compete in the Olympics one day, right now he is focused on the fight ahead. Winning at home, in front of friends and family, is a particularly special point of pride.
“I bottle everything up, and then when I’m in the ring I let it out,” Brown said. “Everything you know, you’ve learned, shows. Your true potential will come out.”