Tag Archive | "Boxing"

A Boxing Gym Owner Fights to Keep His Culture Alive

If you walk into El Maestro Boxing Gym at 5 p.m. on a Monday, you might find the gym full of young men, battering away at the bags and shuffling around the ring to the metronome of the round-timer.

Come in on the right Saturday night though, and you might find that instead of fighters shadow-boxing inside the ring, there’s a bomba band, or a fiery patriotic Puerto Rican poetry reading. 

“Boxing is not enough,” gym founder Fernando Laspina said. Boxers can end up broke and brain damaged, Laspina said, and that’s why he designed El Maestro not just as a gym where neighborhood kids could learn to fight, but as a place where they could connect to Puerto Rican culture and history.

But after 16 years, Laspina’s community center is now under threat. His landlord has put the squat two-story building that houses El Maestro up for sale.  Laspina has lost locations and been forced to downsize before, he said, but yet another move could be disruptive to what he’s managed to build at 1300 Southern Boulevard.

 Akmicar Torres, 33, whose son Joseph trains at the gym, said it would be unthinkable to lose El Maestro. When he first walked into the gym to sign his son up for boxing classes, he was struck by the huge mural on one of the walls. It depicts a mix of Puerto Rican nationalist heroes and scenes from Taino folklore.

“It was like I was looking at a history book from my third grade in Puerto Rico,” Torres said. He described standing in front of the wall and explaining to his son Joseph, then 10-years-old, what their connection to this history was. 

For many in the Puerto Rican community in this corner of the Bronx, El Maestro is a little piece of the old country. 

“There’s no other place in New York that feels like home,” said Akmicar. “When I feel homesick, I go to El Maestro.” Four years after signing up Joseph, now 14, he’s a New York Junior Olympic Champion. His boxing lessons, Torres explained, take place entirely in Spanish. 

Laspina’s path hasn’t been a straight one. A “jibaro” from the mountains of Puerto Rico, he moved to the Bronx at fifteen and quickly became a target for schoolyard bullying. He joined The Savage Skulls, a notorious black and Puerto Rican street gang, for protection. Within a few years, he’d risen to the rank of regional leader in the South Bronx. Fighting quickly became a part of his life. “Everyone always said I was good with my hands,” he chuckled. 

But a two-year stint in prison for extortion made him rethink his priorities. He resolved to change. Prison proved to be a crash course in community organization, as he and other Spanish-speaking inmates had to band together and use their collective voices to, among other things, demand a bi-lingual chaplain.

Once out, he’d channeled the skills he’d learned as a prison-yard organizer into a career in grassroots community activism and outreach, helping to lead a campaign to keep Puerto Rican-founded Hostos Community College open. He enrolled in college, eventually earning a masters degree from Buffalo State University in Latin Studies. More than 40 years later, Laspina’s ties to his community go deep. He runs El Maestro and works as an extracurricular coordinator for the New York City Housing Authority. 

Rising rent prices have caused the gym to have to move before: they’ve had four locations in the past 16 years. But now, the possible sale of the building, coupled with the discussion of zoning changes along Morrisania’s Southern Boulevard has many community members worried about what this might mean for El Maestro

Yet another move could force them into a smaller space, less easily accessible by train than the current location, which is just down the block from the 2 and 5 stop at Freeman Ave. In turn, this could shrink the programs the gym is able to offer, and take away a critical linchpin in the cultural landscape of the neighborhood. “This gym keeps kids off the street and out of gangs, people come here who have messed up their lives and are trying to straighten out,” said 16-year-old boxer Firdaus Abdulai. “People take this place for granted, but it would be terrible if the gym got sold.” 

Fernando doesn’t seem worried though. The Bronx has changed a lot in the years since the gym was founded, and they have always managed to survive, and if that means finding another location, so be it. Instead of dwelling on the potential sale of the property, he’s thinking about ways to grow. He’d love to launch a tutoring program for the kids who come to the gym. “That’s the dream, to have a space with computers where the kids could come and do homework,” he said. For now though, he’s happy to listen to the thud of gloves against the heavy bag.

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VIDEO – Bronx Boxer Keeps Chasing Golden Gloves Dream

Photos and Text by Mamta Badkar

Video by Shreeya Sinha

Javier Baez, a 17-year-old boxer from the World Class Boxing Gym in Soundview, walked into the Theater at Madison Square Garden shrouded in darkness for his bout with 19-year-old Luis Cruz. His trainer, Luis Olmo, stood behind him while coach Ron Gibson massaged his shoulders as he waited for the announcer to call his name.

Having won the 2009 Metropolitan Championships in the 132-pound novice division and beaten two worthy opponents at the Golden Gloves this year, Baez had arrived at the tournament finals.

Javier Baez prays in the corner as his rival in the 132-pound division, Luis Cruz warms up in the ring. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Javier Baez prays in the corner as his rival, Luis Cruz, warms up in the ring. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

The annual tournament tests young boxing hopefuls around the city, yet no one at South Bronx Prep knew about Baez’s fight — the high school senior intentionally kept it quiet to avoid inviting trouble. “They might want to fight,” he said. Waleska Roldan, the wife of his trainer, suggested another reason. “He’s very reserved,” she said of Baez. “He comes in, says hello, changes and gets to work.”

Baez is uncommonly mature for a teenager. “I don’t really wanna be like anybody else,” he said, admitting he has no idols. At the gym, it is hard to hear him over the ricocheting speed bag and the buzzer that sounds every three minutes keeping the boxers rotating through their warm-ups. While other kids earn reprimands from Roldan, Baez keeps at the bags, rotating through them. He exhales heavily every time he makes contact, occasionally scrutinizing himself in the mirror to ensure his stance is right, that he’s pivoting and hitting the bags the right way.

“He serves as a mentor for the younger kids here,” Roldan said. One of them, Ivan, gushed about jogging with Baez, being in the dressing room with him and helping him wrap his gloves at his last fight. “I look up to him. I call him my brother,” he said, before turning to Baez. “I call you brother, don’t I?” Baez nodded and returned to his bag.

Watching him closely at the gym was his grandmother, Marguerita Fuentes. She has a heart condition and underwent surgery when Baez’s older brother, Jaime Stewart, won the Golden Gloves. “I like that he’s in here boxing and not out in the street,” she said, sitting in her usual ringside spot wearing a blue Yankees bomber jacket.

Fuentes acts as Baez’s driving force. “I want to win my fight for my grandmother,” he said. “She’s asking me to win. I can’t let her down.”

Baez is part of the “Adopt a Boxer” program at the gym and his membership and training fee is sponsored by Roldan. He used to train at Betances Boxers in The Bronx before it closed down, while Olmo, who put his savings into World Class Boxing Gym, used to work for the New York City Housing Authority teaching young people at the community center how to box until he was let go in February 2009. With a number of Police Athletic League boxing programs shutting down and the fire at Morris Park Boxing Club, the Bronx community was in need of boxing gyms for amateurs.

Olmo opened the gym Aug. 1 with a ring and a few punching bags. There were no mats or mirrors at first, but equipment started to follow after he received donations and grants awarded by Assemblyman Marcos Crispo and State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr. The gym has a family feel to it, and Roldan said she felt sick watching Baez fight describing it as her “mother hen syndrome.” She looked over at Fuentes and laughed, asking her to bring in her pills for the actual match. “I’m proud as his sponsor,” Roldan said. “He has so much on his plate at such a young age. He’s doing it very gracefully.”

Roldan said she checked her boxers’ report cards, didn’t let them cuss, made sure they dressed appropriately and was pleased to see them help out in keeping up the gym. “We close at 9 and they’re still sitting here,” she said. “It’s like a safe haven for them. I’d rather them be sitting here than be out on the street getting into trouble.”

She recognized that this is a tough neighborhood and wanted “Javi,” as she calls Baez, to win because it would keep the other young boxers training hard. But she could not attend his match at Madison Square Garden because she had to pick her daughter up from dance practice.

“When I fight, I only think about winning,” Baez said during a training session, without a trace of arrogance. Even at 17 he has a quiet determination about him.

At the Garden, it was hard to tell if Baez was nervous beneath his head gear. His eyes seemed focused on the ring. He climbed in, did a quick round kneeling at the corner and crossing himself, threw a few uppercuts into the air and retired to his corner.

After the opening bell, Baez threw a jab at Cruz and missed. He dodged one punch and then ducked to deliver a blow to the stomach. The fighters remained at arms length for most of the fight, but Cruz seemed to be landing more punches. Baez received penalties for ducking and holding before referee Jihad Abdul Aziz stopped the match.

Javier Baez holds Luis Cruz during the final at The Theater at Madison Square Garden. The hold got him a warning in a match that was eventually stopped. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

Javier Baez holds Luis Cruz during the final at the Theater at Madison Square Garden. The hold got him a warning in a match that was eventually stopped. (Mamta Badkar/The Bronx Ink)

“He kept ducking low and after the warning he ducked again,” Aziz said. “They train hard to get here and the last thing I want to do as a referee is stop a match. I am disappointed he didn’t follow the rules because he has experience.”

The dream was over for this year, but Baez said he planned to continue boxing at the World Class Boxing Gym because he didn’t want to leave his trainers. He wants to box until he is 28, and he is applying to study business at colleges in New York.

“It’s also because of his grandmother,” Roldan said. “It’s hard to go to college and not have your family there.”

Additional filming by Dan Fastenberg

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Multimedia, SportsComments (0)

Former Champ Looking for Boxing’s Future

John’s Gym buzzed with young fighters on Monday while New York public schools were closed for Passover. Two teenagers sparred in the smaller of two rings, taking swings at each other with misguided hooks. One punch finally caught the taller of the two.  He spiraled to the ground. Dazed, he got up and grabbed the ropes, staggering off to his trainer who fixed his headgear.

Edwin Viruet, 59, a retired professional boxer, trains fighters six days at week at John's Gym in the South Bronx

Edwin Viruet, 59, a retired professional boxer, trains fighters six days a week at John's Gym in the South Bronx. (Michael Ratliff/ The Bronx Ink)

Edwin Viruet, 59, sat in his “office,” a ringside table plastered with photos from his professional lightweight career. With glasses and permanent grin, he doesn’t look like much of a fighter. But every boxer that entered the gym offered Viruet a handshake. He critiqued the boxers and their trainers, and pointed out that the kid who was getting beat was wearing heavier gloves. The first thing Viruet does with a new fighter is make sure the gear is right. Then he moves into the basics. Jabs, footwork and defense.

“I love teaching,” Viruet said. “I get fun out of it. It is like watching them learn to walk.” For a retired fighter, one of the few ways to stay in the game is to train a promising member of the next generation.

Viruet learned to box at 10-years-old at the Boy’s Club in the Lower East Side. He went 18-0 as an amateur, and turned pro after winning the New York Golden Gloves for the second time in 1969. Viruet fell a few points short of becoming the World Lightweight Champion in 1977. He now trains amateur fighters six days a week at John’s Gym, though most of his money comes from managing and arranging fights.

Big things have been happening at the small gym. Joshua Clottey, a boxer from Ghana who trains in the Bronx, fought world welterweight champ Manny Pacquiao on March 13. He lost by unanimous decision, but was watched by millions in the pay-per-view fight. Stivens Bujaj, another John’s Gym regular, won the 2010 Daily News Golden Gloves heavyweight title. Neither fighter, however, trained with Viruet.

He contends that they would be even better if they had. Viruet’s favorite tool is the double-end bag, an inflated red ball that hangs from the ceiling from a thin rope and is attached to the ground with a rubber cord. Unlike a traditional punching bag, the double-end hits back.

“It teaches you to move your head,” said Viruet, working with a new boxer. The novice was stalwart, powerful and quick, but lacked coordination. Viruet saw his potential and quickly picked him up. His first fight is in a month, and Viruet said he would be ready.

“The way I prepare, you are going to have a hard time with my fighter,” he said.

Viruet is the most accomplished trainer at the gym. During his prime, Viruet was known for his footwork and classiness, and was even compared to a young Muhammad Ali. He is the only man to have gone 25 full rounds with Roberto “Manos de Piedra” Durant, one of the best fighters of all time. Their genuine rivalry was one of boxing’s best.

Viruet first met Durant in a 1975 fight, which he lost by unanimous decision. The crowd was shocked, as was Viruet, who thought he had won. The two met again at the 1977 World Lightweight Championship title fight. Durant retained the belt after 15 rounds. Viruet blamed promoter Don King for swaying the judges and in turn ruining his career. In spite of the loss, Viruet reveled in the experience, knowing he gave Durant the fight of his life.

“When you get to fight the biggest man, the champ of the world, it is like going to the moon for the first time,” Viruet said. “I played with him, he couldn’t knock me out.”

Not many boxers could. Viruet went 37 professional fights before being knocked out. He was only knocked out twice; they were his last two fights. Viruet retired in 1983 with 31 wins, six loses and two draws. He went on to train Wesley Snipes for a 1986 boxing role in ‘Streets of Gold’.

Viruet plans to continue training at John’s Gym for now. If he gets bored, Viruet might move back to Puerto Rico to spend time with his 90-year-old father and start up a gym. When he is not looking for a champion, Viruet tries to keep up with the ladies the best he can.

“I have fun, I look for girls,” Viruet said, letting out a gruff laugh. “I am a bachelor here! But, it’s not easy, you got to make sure you got the right one.”

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