Boxing as alternative to trouble

I was interested to see that the city of Albany has started a program to divert young offenders from

I was interested to see that the city of Albany has started a program to divert young offenders from the court system into boxing or physical fitness.

Kids who get into nonviolent trouble will have the option of boxing at the Quail Street Gym or working out at a Lincoln Park facility, both owned by the city, as an alternative to being criminally prosecuted.

Now, it may seem counter-intuitive to teach young troublemakers to punch more effectively, so, playing devil’s advocate, I asked District Attorney David Soares about that at a press conference the other day at the Quail Street Gym, where the program was announced.

“That’s a short-sighted perspective,” Soares said. “They’re going to be taught commitment and discipline.”

As an occasional visitor to the Quail Street Gym, where I try to educate myself in the mores and customs of the boxing subculture, I could have given the answer myself. Commitment and discipline are what I most see, even in the youngest kids there, and they go down to as young as 7.

Boxing is a violent activity, no doubt about it, but above all it’s a highly disciplined activity, and anyone who gave it a try with a slouchy attitude would get nowhere at all. You’ve got to be tough with yourself, above all, to succeed at it.

“Our job is to keep people out of the Albany County Jail,” Mayor Jerry Jennings said at the press conference. If giving youngsters the discipline of a boxing regimen can achieve that, it seems to me a worthwhile job.

I know that the head trainer at the gym, Jerrick Jones, is a master of what is sometimes called tough love, giving kids all the attention and affection of a father, which many of them lack, while not tolerating any nonsense.

Anyone who comes in looking to be a more efficient bully or a badder bad guy is quickly on his way back out the door.

The rules of the program are not set in stone. “We want to be flexible so we can learn,” Jennnings said. Kids will work at the gym a certain number of hours, a certain number of days, certified by the manager of the gym, under the supervision of Probation, and everyone will just see how it goes.

This puts me in mind of a program at Schenectady High School called Peaceful Warriors, which was developed with Schenectady Youth Boxing. Kids who have what are nowadays called “anger issues” are directed into this program, where they learn to box.

It started small a few years ago and has now grown to about 50 kids, according to Vince Kittle, head coach at Schenectady Youth Boxing, which is a nonprofit organization that operates a gym at Crosstown Plaza.

“People are finding that the discipline aspect of boxing is very, very helpful with young kids,” he says, “especially the ones with anger issues, the ones that are mad at the world. It gives them something they can call their own. And for the lesser tough guys, it’s a way to build self-esteem.”

If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t think it. You’d think teaching angry kids to punch hard and straight would be a recipe for disaster, but no. Kittle says those who participate in the program see their grades go up and their attendance improve, something that is aided by the participation of Union College students, who go to the gym once a week to offer tutoring. So it’s not just boxing, and it’s not just physical fitness.

A few of these Peaceful Warriors will be on an amateur card this coming Saturday at 4 p.m. at Schenectady High School, which will feature more experienced amateurs from around the region and will serve as a fundraiser for the Peaceful Warrior program.

For those so-called open-class amateurs, the event will be a trial for the Adirondack Regionals, under the auspices of USA Boxing, which is this country’s Olympic affiliate. None of the high school kids have yet reached that level, which requires at least 10 sanctioned amateur fights, but they have seen what kind of discipline it takes to get there.

I offer this information just to show that boxing is more than the glamorous violence you might suppose from the occasional super-fight on pay-per-view television.

Smokin’ Joe

And then there was mighty Joe Frazier, who last week went to his reward just a few days after it was announced that he was in hospice care, suffering from cancer of the liver.

I immediately thought back to Travers Day in Saratoga this past August, or more exactly the day before Travers Day, when he was at the track signing autographs as part of a promotion, and then later at Siro’s restaurant doing a little song-and-dance number, and how frail he looked then.

Not all readers were happy when I described him as “gaunt and crooked-bodied” and a “frail old man” who needed an aide to keep him from tipping over, but it was true and I didn’t see any reason to disguise it.

I attributed his condition to multiple back operations following a car accident, which was all I could find out at the time, but now I suppose the fatal worm must have been turning in him even then.

It was sad to see him in that condition — almost incredible — if you remembered the granite rock he had been, but there he was, tottering on a cane and, worse yet, doing a lame nightclub act for the fleeting entertainment of a post-race crowd of young inebriates, putting me in mind of Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of the washed-up Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.”

But the image that will endure, I’m willing to bet, is the one of him flooring Muhammad Ali with that gargantuan left hook of his.

I saw that one land on what I believe was the only television set in Laos at the time. It was in the lobby of the Lane Xang Hotel, Vientiane’s nearest approach to luxury, affixed high up on a wall in the lobby. A small group of us Americans gathered around, craning our necks and concentrating on the snowy black-and-white picture that was being relayed from Thailand.

I very much wanted the resurrected Ali to win and vindicate his refusal to fight in the ghastly war I was covering, and I felt that left hook myself when it landed and departed the hotel greatly dejected.

All these years later to see the thrower of it frail and wobbly, even if still in good spirits, was an experience I won’t soon forget.

You can see the photos I took of him that day in the photo gallery above.

Categories: Opinion

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