I have never been an avid fan of the sport of boxing, but over the years, in drips and drabs, it has had a significant impact on my life. Baseball will always be the through line to my athletic heart, but as a kid, watching Cassius Clay bob and weave and dance defiantly around the ring, gave me permission to marvel over someone other than my heroic, home-run hitting, Willie Mays.
Growing up in Long Island NY, the last of five children, three of which were brothers, it came as no surprise that I would turn into a tough little tomboy. Dismissing dolls, and donning high top sneakers, before any girl dared to, I was the one most likely to inflict a bruise or black eye in defense of myself and my close posse’ of mostly male friends.
In junior high, my interest in boys began to broaden. Kicking and fighting made way for kissing and fondling, and movie matinee idols replaced the real athletic men I admired. Gary Cooper gave me goose bumps for his performance playing Lou Gehrig, but it was Paul Newman who I fell in love with over his portrayal of the plagued, legendary middleweight, Rocky Graziano.
Over the years the only time boxing found its way into my life was through films or a friend’s pay per view. Until four years ago, when I stumbled upon an 800 square foot space tucked away in the corner of a small strip mall on PCH in Long Beach called DG Boxing; owned and operated by an amiable former fighter of the same name, and his equally cool brother, Joe.
After spending tons of money paying dues to exercise in places I seldom used, I found a gym that provided an intense workout, where I was taught how to defend myself, and jump rope; something I never learned while I was too busy trying to be a boy.
Last week I had the privilege to attend one of DG’s sparring sessions. A monthly event held at his gym – sort of a tune-up to assess what his students need to improve on. It serves as more of a support group, giving each boxer a taste of what it’s like to be competitive, where there’s nothing at stake – not even bragging rights.
Ten rows of worn folding chairs filled the cramped, carpeted space, where sixty some odd spectators came to support their children, siblings and friends. It was a distinct departure from the few bouts that I have been to. Cigar smoking high rollers with fake-busted arm candy were replaced with kids eating candy, propped on their parents’ laps.
There were no scantily clad ring girls holding up cards – just a low budget bell signaling the beginning, and end of three, two-minute rounds. A burly referee, straight out of central casting, deliberately called the fighters into the ring, and after gloved fists pumped, without pomp, he gestured for the match to begin.
During each and every match, you could hear DG, crouched in the corner, firing off his training orders. “Keep busy. Bend the legs. Jab, jab, jab.” Over and over and over again.
And even though I was sitting in a makeshift arena with a ring half the size of regulation, these amateur fighters were as compelling as the pros I had paid to see. In the two minute, three rounds allotted; they were hooking, upper cutting, and shoe shining the body just like Mayweather, Jr.
Most of the fighters were twenty somethings – most of them male, except for a pair of very pretty women, who were packing a flurry of serious punches. One, Mindy C., was a mother of three, and the other, Savannah M., a martial artist, who found boxing through her boyfriend and empowerment through her boxing. She was undecided as to whether her fists would be the source of her financial future, but was good enough to attract the attention of a trainer who, during our interview, invited her to spar at another gym with one of his fighters.
Much to my surprise, only one of the students I spoke with had any aspirations to be a pro. Aptly named, Jared Jeter, the twenty year-old, 141-pound prodigy DG hopes will be his first Golden Gloves champ. Jeter’s inspiration to become a fighter is ripped out of the pages of a Japanese comic strip named, Hajimenoippo. The character, a shy kid, sick of being bullied, protects himself by learning how to fight, and becomes a professional boxer. Jared exhibits shades of his super hero. He’s soft spoken, with a reluctant smile, kind of resembling a younger John Legend. As it turns out, Mike Tyson is the legend he likens himself to be. And when you see him in the ring, it shows. A compact, aggressive, inside fighter, whose short reach, reached, repeatedly. In parting, he shared with me the mantra given to him by DG when facing every opponent, “You have to take their spirit.” Hopefully, that mantra will be his magic ticket to the top.
In the fifteen years that DG has owned his place, out of one thousand hopefuls that have come through the door, only one has walked out a professional fighter. And the beauty of it is – ninety percent of those don’t really care. People from all walks of life are drawn to his gym for an array of reasons. Yeah, they want to learn how to punch a bag properly and feel like a fighter, but mostly, as Carlos Crosswell, one of the young competitors who train here says, “I box to alleviate stress.” He looks at life as a boxing ring full of obstacles. “Life comes at you with left and right hooks, and you have to learn how to not let it beat you up. You have to have the mind of a champion, because life can only do to me what I allow it to do.” Wise words from a twenty year old, who along with many others, has learned a lot of life lessons in an 800 square foot gym in a small strip mall in Long Beach, owned by a great guy named, DG.