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The Will to Win

City-funded boxing gym gives kids a place to go and turns them into true contenders

by David King on May 25, 2011

Tamar Williams

“Tss, tss, tss” is the sound echoing through the boxing gym at 91 Quail St. in Albany on a Monday afternoon in May. It gets louder: “Tss, tsss, tsaa.” More vowels are added, and the grunts grow louder, until they are straight out “yah, yaah, yaahh!” With each syllable uttered, a thud follows—a fist colliding with a heavy bag. Sweat sprays. It pools on the ground. The smell of perspiration, hard work, dedication is overwhelming. The sweet stench of success. A timer goes off. “Baaaaah!” A middle-aged man with taut, sinewy shoulders exhales as he stops and then inhales deeply, gasping for breath. Posters advertising classic fights hang overhead: Hagler vs. Hearns, Louis vs. Schmeling. Others feature legendary fighters Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Oscar De La Hoya.“Heh, heh, hyaah,” a new cadence starts. It is high pitched, the punches landing more softly and much lower on the bag. But they land. Alejandro Christopher, an 8-year-old in second grade, hits his big blue target, pauses, and looks over at his older counterpart. He tries to throw with as much aplomb, to throw as heavy, to torque his frame into the punch. Christopher has come here today from Gloversville; his parents, James and Pam, bring him here every weekday to take part in Albany’s boxing program for kids. “We drive down from Gloversville every day,” says James. “That is how much we value the program. You watch the kids come here and they change. They become the kind of neighbors you want to have.” The program, which runs from 3 to 6 PM on weekdays, has an enrollment of about 120 kids, according to Albany Parks and Recreation head John D’Antonio. On a day like today, 30 to 40 kids could show up to throw leather.

Most of the kids are from Albany, are between the ages of 7 and 14, and are minorities. Out here, only a block or so from the former corner hangout of King Jamal Modest and his friends—who pled guilty to their involvement in the attempted robbery and murder of University at Albany student Richard Bailey last year—it is easy to see why a sanctuary such as this is so valuable. It is a place to go, a chance to get off the streets after school. It offers structure to kids who may not find it at home or at school. James says what he values most in the program is the discipline it instills. He works as a principal at Gloversville Middle School. “When Alejandro first started going to boxing, he didn’t know anything about it. The guys took him under their wing, and so did the kids. They run a pretty tight ship, make sure they get their homework done.”

The program, which recives $200,000 in annual funding under the city budget, is the only fully municipally funded boxing gym in the nation, and it has not gone unnoticed. The Albany County district attorney’s office has been promoting the program to the department of probation as a good place for young kids who find themselves in trouble to come learn discipline and find a welcoming community.

But in a more immediate testament to the program’s success, the program has been turning out real boxing contenders for years. The May 3 issue of Ring Magazine featured a profile of the program, as well as a write-up of Amir Imam, an amateur up-and-comer. “The gym kept me off the streets and gave me lots of reasons to not get involved in other things,” Imam told Ring.

Imam began training at the gym when he was 12. Now 20, he won the New York State Golden Gloves Championship in Buffalo in April and is preparing to go to the Olympic trials in Alabama in July. Imam hits the pads today in the big ring in the center of the gym as the kids slowly stream in. His punches are crisp. He ducks a simulated hook from coach Jaamel Eaddy and follows up with what looks like a five-punch combination. “Snap, snap, snap” go the pads. Imam smiles, having got the combo right.

As more kids pour into the gym, Imam unwraps his hands. Once outside the ring, he is bursting with nervous energy, but he takes a seat on the side of the ring and watches calmly as the kids start to put on their gear. He lives with his coach so he can get in the “road time” before he goes to work. And he is excited about his future.

“This is definitely my career path. I’m gonna do it for as long as I can do it, like B Hop,” he says, referring to 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins, who recently became the oldest man to win a world title. For a few hours, though, Imam will take a break from working toward his dreams to watch and help others the way he was helped. “I learned all sorts of things here,” he recalls. “How to train, how diet, how to act right. I like to help the kids out.”

 

Coach Cory Landy takes a hit from a student athlete

Albany Parks and Recreation commissioner John D’Antonio gathers with the program’s co-directors, Jerrick Jones and Andy Faragon, to discuss the growth of their program. “We take kids in from streets no matter what the circumstances are,” says D’Antonio. “We don’t hold judgment against anyone. We have rules and regulations—no profanity, no insubordination. We make sure they do well in school. We want to make sure they are doing well. If we get a call from someone in school saying they aren’t doing well, we have to maybe take gym privileges away.”

Jones concurs. “It isn’t only about learning the sport but about learning discipline, and becoming better citizens. I hope when they leave here that they are someone better.”

For 11 years the gym has operated out of the current facility at 91 Quail Street, but it got its start on Swan Street around 1983. For years the program was overseen by Vladimir Koshnitsky, but over the last year and a half, Jones, who was an assistant to Koshnitsky for all 11 years, and Faragon, who owned his own local boxing and kickboxing gym, have taken over as co-directors. Jones has been able to implement things he wanted to try while working under Koshnitsky.

The job clearly means a lot to him. He keeps a book sent to him by a former Albany High student; he explains that she was so devoted to the program and that when her mother moved away to California she stayed with relatives and finished out her time at Albany High. Later the woman attended college and became an author. Jones keeps the book she sent to him in his desk. It is personally inscribed and thanks Jones for helping her learn the discipline and providing the family she needed to become a success.

Faragon brings the program the professional experience of being the trainer and father of Mike Faragon, a local professional boxing standout. Mike Faragon, who was the number-one amateur in 2007 and now sports a 15-0 record as a professional, has been around the Albany gym for years. “We have been in and out of here for a while, the father reports. Mike always trained and was welcome down here. He was always working out with the guys and stuff. But since he made this his full-time home, it just took him to a whole other spot.”

D’Antonio says he feels the gym has really hit its stride this year primarily because of Jones’ and Faragon’s work. “This year things have really taken off because of these guys right here,” he says. “ They are really clicking on all cylinders.”

Just as quickly as D’Antonio points to Faragon and Jones for the program’s success, they point to Cory Landy and Kimdo Bethel, who together are charged with overseeing the youth program. Landy’s voice snaps through the room like a drill instructor’s, but full of care and without spite. He towers over the others in the room, lanky and in charge. A timer blares. “First round. Got four more left!” he shouts as the kids pair off to spar.

Landy himself came up through the gym and had a promising start as an amateur, but decided to pursue a degree in physical therapy. His dedication to the kids is more than obvious as he attentively corrects the kids’ posture, hand placement and distance from their opponents. “If he was an accredited teacher I would hire him in a second,” says James Christopher.

But D’Antonio, Faragon and Jones all know Landy has another talent. “What a great right hand this kid had! He put some people to sleep!”says D’Antonio as Faragon and Jones nod and laugh. “Phew. That is for sure,” says Jones. The comment and reaction sound appropriate for Faragon and D’Antonio, who both come off as guys’ guys with fuggedaboutit attitude. Jones, on the other hand, is softspoken, and the way he concurs comes across as fatherly pride with a little bit of awe mixed in.

Bethel—an imposing figure at 6’ 2” and 200-something pounds with a thick beard—watches quietly as the kids start to bob and weave. “This is the best way to bring their energy out so they don’t get in trouble,” he quietly observes.

Bethel was born in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn, but his family moved to Albany when he was a teen.

“I started here also,” he says as he observes the kids as they spar. “It was great; it got me off the street, I had fun, something to do, people to look up to, and I always had something new to learn to keep my mind focused and challenged. I grew up on Clinton Avenue,”  Bethel says. He was challenged by a friend when he was 15. “Bet you’re scared of boxing,” his friends teased him. He quickly proved them wrong. “I started working out and found out I was sort of good. One day they put me in the ring with an adult. They told him to take it easy on me and I hit him and knocked him out, and I thought, “This is for me!”

The gym supported Bethel’s aspirations as a boxer. It covered travel expenses and brought him to tournaments and trials. Eventually, in 2008, he qualified as an Olympic alternate. Now Bethel is a professional boxer with multiple wins behind him. His power-punching style has earned him comparisons to Mike Tyson. He returns to the gym every day to train and to train kids who may one day walk in his footsteps.

Jones strolls over. “You’ve got to meet this kid,” he says and beckons towards a young man dressed in shorts, a white sleeveless shirt and hand wraps. “This is Tamar,” he says. Tamar Williams’ frame is roped with lean muscle. His sculpted, youthful features could just as easily place him at 12 years of age as at 20. He is, unmistakably, a boxer. It turns out he is 16 and preparing to compete in regionals in Lake Placid this coming weekend. Williams is the fourth in line of a family that has come to the boxing gym. Williams himself has been coming to the gym for five or six years.

Barely able to control his frenetic energy, he bounces back and forth away from Jones between questions. “You need to get back to training?” Jones asks. “How often do you come to the gym?” I ask before he darts back to the bag he was working over. “Every day,” he says matter-of-factly, and smiles.

“This is one of the most dedicated kids we have. This guy is like where Amir used to be. He is one of the quickest I’ve ever seen,” says Jones.

Another one of the gym’s standouts takes a minute away from training for a chat. After putting in about five years in the gym, working at Dunkin Donuts, attending Albany High and preparing to enter the Golden Gloves tournament, Abraham Nova had what he seems to think was a minor setback; to others it might seem a bit bigger. No, he didn’t fall in with the wrong crowd or start focusing too much on his boxing and lose sight of his schoolwork. He was struck by a drunk driver on his walk to school—three days before the Golden Gloves tournament. “He got hit from behind and flipped up and landed on the windshield,” as Jones explains. “I got the call that morning and he says, ‘I got hit by a car.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding?’ ”

He wasn’t, but the way Nova deals with the incident shows more maturity than some grown men would show. In fact, Nova reacts to the car accident the way most would if asked about a bug bite. He says he was hit “by an addict. . . . He was an older gentleman just drinking and driving,” he says as though he pities the man. “I got hit, yeah . . . It was shocking,” he says in a flat tone that indicates absolutely no shock. “I can get back into things.”

Prompted to describe his injuries, he points to his mouth. “My jaw, I got stitches in my mouth. . . . I mean it’s alright,” he says as if nothing at all had happened. Jones mentions his eye. “Yeah, my eye, and I had a fractured neck,” he says totally nonchalantly. Jones laughs. “No big deal!”

Nova clearly believes in perseverance. He plans to continue his routine—work and then go over to the gym after school. “I’m gonna get back in shape again. And start over again. I don’t think it will affect my career. I just have to get more experience in the ring.” The teen looks less like a boxer than his friends, perhaps because of his sweater and braces, and the time he has spent recovering.

He comes across as more pensive. Maybe, though, it’s because this is his first day back in the gym since the accident. The training bug hasn’t bitten him yet. He isn’t amped up and ready to spar. “It’s been good, real good,” says Nova, like someone who’s simply grateful. “A lot of people come here and there is a lot of opportunity to work out with them. It is a very good place.”

 

D’Antonio says he is aware that there is trouble on Albany’s streets. He knows that not every kid can be in a structured program. Family problems and other issues often prevent it, as do budget restrictions. Reality gets in the way. The stark reality of the culture of violence that is lived by some of Albany’s youth is very real to him. There’s the example of Tyler Rhodes, who was bullied and stabbed to death in Hoffman Park, right next to D’Antonio’s office, on April 30.

“Here is a tragedy that happened near my office on Hudson Avenue. That was a great kid, a really great kid. Of course that bothers us. We wouldn’t be in this profession if we didn’t love kids,” he says of himself and his fellow coaches. “If we could live in a perfect world we would get every kid involved in a structured program, but it doesn’t work that way.”

D’Antonio is used to defending the program against budget cuts, explaining it to Common Council members. He knows budgets are tight across New York. But he thinks the gym provides something unique, something that truly is an anchor in the community.

“I know everyone across the state has to tighten their belts, but I think recreation and public safety go hand in hand. If you start shutting facilities and closing programs you are gonna take kids out of structured programs and put them onto the streets. You will see crime numbers go up and up and up.”

D’Antonio says he wants to see more local elected officials come visit the gym. “We need more elected officials in this area—common councilman, legislators, state assemblymen, senators—to recognize the good things we have, the success stories. We need elected officials to get behind it and support it.”

As of now, it seems that more elected officials will soon be getting behind the program. Chris D’Alessandro, director of operations for the Office of the Albany County District Attorney, is working with the gym on a program called “Fighting for Success,” helping the department of probation, schools and other organizations know that the gym is available to troubled youth.

D’Alessandro says that he has heard councilmembers express concern that the gym will promote violence; he says nothing is further from the truth. “First of all, we know kids don’t settle things with their fists out there any more,” he says. “Secondly, the kids at the gym know the best way to get kicked out is to get into a  fight on the streets.” D’Alessandro agrees with D’Antonio that the program deserves more support from Albany elected officials. “We need to recognize the programs that we have,” he says.

The gym is full of stories of perseverance, dedication and commitment. It functions as a support system and even a family for so many already that D’Antonio seems to think it is a logical choice. “We know these young kids out on the street are looking for a male role model. They can find some good ones at that gym,” said D’Antonio.

An hour and a half after practice officially starts, James Christopher sits with his wife watching as his son works in the ring with Landy and a number of other kids. Christopher smiles as Alejandro snaps a jab at Landy’s mit. “It seems like when they come through those doors they change,” he says, looking over at the gym entrance, ornamented with the posters of classic fights.

“Cory gives them a safe haven and a place to excel at their own pace. They learn how to trust each other, work together, and the biggest one I’ve seen for our son is that he has a lot of confidence now.”

It also doesn’t hurt, Christopher says, that Landy teaches the kids to pick up after themselves, respect their elders and do their homework. Their son’s room is no longer a mess. In the end, though, Christopher says that the gym, situated only blocks away from one of the roughest neighborhoods in Albany, actually gives kids a glimpse of what is outside of it. “It lets them know what is beyond the borders, beyond Albany. They go all over—the places for tournaments—to compete. They get to see what is out there.”