On a recent Tuesday afternoon, seven boys congregated on a set of mats behind the boxing ring at the West Area Education and Athletic Center on Geddes Street in Syracuse. Some of them took a city bus to get there, some of them walked from nearby Fowler High School. Few of them are friends, or even know one another outside of their time together in the building.
Once they get in the door they know what is expected. They get changed and prepare for warm-ups. Anyone planning to spar gets his or her wrists taped. They prepare diligently, without having to be told or supervised by an adult.
Newcomers quickly pick up the unwritten rules: There is no swearing, and the boys who come to train had better not come in wearing low-slung trousers. Attitudes are quickly altered. If not, they’re out.
Boxing’s roots in American culture run deep. Although the sport is more heavily regulated than ever, competitive boxing is still potentially dangerous. The American Academy of Pediatrics, in a policy statement published in the September 2011 issue of Pediatrics, does not support boxing as an appropriate sport for kids and teens.
But local coaches, and parents, acknowledge the benefits that good training can have. Boxing training is demanding, and it requires a level of commitment and dedication that some kids can take and apply to other aspects of their lives.
The West Area center, a former McDonald’s fast-food restaurant, opened in 2005. It’s one of two athletic and educational facilities run by local boxing impresario and Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Famer Ray Rinaldi. The other, the North Area Education and Athletic Center, is located on Pond Street in Syracuse. Rinaldi opened that gym in 1994, giving a new purpose to an old laundry building.
At the two locations, Rinaldi and his all-volunteer staff have trained thousands of young people. They pay no fee and have access to educational services like general education diploma classes, computer instruction, arts workshops, counseling and tutoring.
As coach Chris Burns gets ready to lead the group through a series of drills, a new young man comes through the door. Before the boy can join the others, Burns quickly looks over paperwork supplied by the boy’s school. “How are your grades?” he asks.
“Good,” the boy says without hesitation. Then he joins the others on the mats.
“There are anywhere from 20 to 50 kids who come in here every day, just for the boxing program,” says Burns, adding that kids who do wish to compete on the boxing team must pass all their classes.
Rinaldi, a youthful 82, has been sharing his love for boxing since the mid-1950s. At first he used a small gym in the basement of his home. Then he coached at the Central New York Amateur Boxing Club in Syracuse, among others. In 1975, Rinaldi opened his own place, the North Area Athletic Center in North Syracuse. He moved it to Pond Street in 1994. He says boxing is basically “the hook that gets kids in the door. Because of it, we can reach these kids quicker.”
Burns, a teacher with the Syracuse City School District who coordinates educational programs at the center, was once one of those kids. He’s Rinaldi’s nephew and a graduate of Le Moyne College, but he was also a boy who needed that hard-to-describe “something” that comes from boxing.
“I went to the North Side gym growing up,” he says. “I was a normal 12-year-old boy who thought nobody could tell me anything. I started coming every day. Boxing was the carrot that got me to do the right thing.”
Now 29, Burns has been coaching since he was 17. Like Rinaldi, he still gets a kick out of the transformations that take place at Rinaldi’s gyms.
“Boxing always attracted the unreachable,” says Burns. “We’ve been able to make a bond with them here. Adults who can do that will have their trust. But the fact is this is a serious sport. They are here as individuals but there is a big team aspect to it—a family. The kids on the boxing team are very close.”
Rinaldi claims to have reformed 95 percent of the young people who have gone through his program. “You know how many doctors and lawyers and teachers I’ve trained? I’m not training these kids to be successful boxers. I’m training them for success in life.”
Ed Brophy, a former amateur boxer who is now executive director of the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, has heard every kind of story about how boxing helped turn lives around. He says he is convinced that the key lies in the slow, subtle personal transformations that take place in the gym.
“Kids develop respect for their opponents, respect for the coaches, respect for the other kids in the gym,” Brophy says. “Over time, they develop respect for themselves. And when they are faced with a choice, whether it’s drugs or alcohol, or whatever else the kids they are hanging around with are doing, they can fall back on that.”
Because of its close proximity to Fowler High School in Syracuse, the West Area center is a magnet for young people needing a better way to spend time after school. Rinaldi says about 190 kids from the school are currently using the gym. (Fowler High School officials did not return calls requesting information about the program.) Kids who get kicked out of school come, too.
“If you can get to these kids and turn them into boxers, they can apply those lessons to other aspects of their lives,” Burns says. “If there was one thing I could point to and say, ‘This is why it works,’ it would be the structure. You’ve got a lot of kids coming in here from single-parent homes. That parent has to work, or tend to younger children. So there may not be that much discipline at home. But kids need that to build self-esteem. The bottom line is, if you give kids the tools to built self-confidence and initiative, they are likely to use them.”
Rinaldi says that many kids are happy to never participate in an actual boxing match. Others are motivated by the competition. Those who do seek the thrill of the ring must complete at least six months of training before having any physical contact with another boxer, and it’s typically a year before they can compete. Through USA Boxing, a national amateur boxing organization that holds regional competitions for youth ages 8 to 15, some of them become successful. The gym currently boasts four nationally ranked juniors and two National Silver Gloves champs.
“For a lot of these kids, competition is a motivator,” Rinaldi says. “So we stress that. Boxing can be an opportunity to travel and see a little bit of the country. Hard work can pay off.”
Burns says it doesn’t take long for the uninitiated to understand the appeal—and the benefits. The training is tough, requiring not only physical strength and stamina, but mental sharpness. It attracts both “the macho kids” and those who like to test their boundaries. “In other sports, if you make a mistake there are teammates to back you up,” he says. “In boxing, it you make a mistake, you could get injured.”
These are lessons that appeal to kids—and parents—of all backgrounds. Frank Taylor, a former amateur boxer who now runs his own gym, CNY Boxing, in Shoppingtown Mall, agrees that the level of discipline required to train for boxing—even if kids do not intend to compete—builds character. His gym attracts kids from the eastern suburbs and from the eastern city neighborhoods.
“I think it promotes consistency and resiliency,” says Taylor, who opened his gym roughly two years ago. About a dozen kids—8 to 13 years old—come in at least three times a week. “The fact is you’re not always in the mood to train. You have to want it.”
Proper training minimizes the risk of injury. “The No. 1 question is: ‘Is my child going to get hurt?’” he says. “When they start sparring, we monitor them very carefully.”
Of all sports, Taylor says, boxing is perhaps the one most dependent on solid conditioning over skill. “A lack of conditioning will show itself pretty quickly,” he says. “So, that discipline is crucial. We set a standard here and the kids adhere to it. They seem to get pretty quickly what it takes.”
Wendy Armenta of Fayetteville was at first concerned about the safety of her son, Joey. The 12-year-old has been training with CNY Boxing for more than a year. “Absolutely, I had some anxiety about that at first,” she says. “I don’t now; Frank’s Mr. Safety.”
And it’s not just the guys who are drawn to the physical demands of boxing. Many of those participants are female. About 20 percent of the kids who come in to Rinaldi’s gyms are girls. Rinaldi says they fit right in, and the guys don’t treat them any differently.
“I’ll be honest, I originally didn’t want to see girls in the gym,” Rinaldi says. “I’m a traditional guy from an Italian family. I put girls on a pedestal. But if they are taught right, they can do anything a guy can do.”
Rinaldi, a great-grandfather who has been married to his wife Florence for 59 years, says girls are drawn to boxing for the very same reasons as boys. They see it as a means of building self-confidence and testing their physical and mental limits.
Several girls are currently enrolled in Taylor’s classes at CNY Boxing. Arthur Barksdale of DeWitt says his daughter, Shibre, 12, started training about a month ago. “I boxed in the service, and started training again here (about two months) ago. She came with me one day and said she wanted to try it. She’s a great kid—a sixth grader on high honor roll. She really likes the discipline.”
Taylor, who trained as a boy with Syracuse’s Kennedy Square Boxing—a small gym once affiliated with the now-demolished Syracuse apartment complex—says his coaching style is quite different from those of the coaches he worked with.
“When I was growing up, only the kids who had the most talent got attention from the coaches,” he says. “I focus more on helping kids find their individual abilities, to help them reach their personal best. I don’t want anyone to feel left out or overlooked.”
In addition to the group sessions, Taylor offers one-on-one training twice a week. Taylor’s assistant, Gina Russo, says she is constantly amazed by how dedicated the kids are. “After the first class, they’re hooked. Almost all of them are here at least three times a week,” she says.
Armenta says she never expected her son to develop an interest in boxing, but a neighbor raved about Taylor’s techniques. Her son has embraced the structure and discipline, as well as his increased fitness level.
“I wouldn’t be rushing home from work to get him here if I didn’t think it was awesome,” Armenta says. “The kids respect Frank a ton, and his way of working with the kids gets results. He doesn’t need to raise his voice, or anything. They just follow his lead.”
Rinaldi’s mission is to get kids to reach for goals far beyond the physical. It seems to be working. Antonio Bottos, 15, has been training at West Area center for nearly four years. His father, Christos, says Rinaldi’s guidance has inspired Antonio, taking him from a young man who might have taken a wrong turn to a straight-A student who has his sights set on attending college to study psychology.
Although Antonio, now a student at the Liverpool High School annex, did not come to the boxing center with serious behavioral or academic problems, the structure and the camaraderie of the gym helped build self-confidence, Bottos says. The afternoons there also exposed Antonio to people from all walks of life and helped him “stay strong” when his parents decided to divorce last year.
“If it wasn’t for the gym to keep him centered and focused, he may have had more trouble—he may have taken a wrong turn. I don’t know,” Bottos says. “I just know that Ray’s place is a light.”
But for how much longer can that light shine? Because Rinaldi’s gyms are non-profits, money is always a concern. Burns and the other coaches and instructors volunteer their time, but bills still need to be paid. “We (currently) don’t get any state or federal grants,” Burns says. “We’ve fallen low on the totem pole.”
Rinaldi now relies on donations and fund-raising. A summer golf tournament and annual dinner are the big draws—supplemented by ticket sales from monthly boxing events that Rinaldi organizes himself. Rinaldi has run his gyms and encouraged youth for all of these years with a boundless energy and enthusiasm. But he’s clearly tired of the scrambling he has to do to keep his gyms open. He had to let six staff members go last fall.
“I worry about it every day,” he says with a sigh. “You can only go to the well so many times.”
Brophy says the Central New York community would be foolish to underestimate the importance of the influence Rinaldi and his programs have had. “Ray does a fantastic job with his programs and he should be commended for changing the lives of thousands of young people. His approach has been taken and multiplied all over the country.”
“I just want to get these kids off the streets. Three to four weeks can change a kid’s attitude,” Rinaldi says. “The motivation they build here can be applied to anything. We’re not making professional fighters out of them; we’re trying to help them be successful human beings. There is no program that works better. None.”
“Some parents think we’re saviors—we’re not saviors,” Rinaldi says. “This is just a safe haven. They can come from
the ghetto, they can come from CBA. They’re all good kids. They’re all the same to me.”
Award-winning writer Tammy DiDomenico lives in DeWitt with her husband and two sons.
Michael Davis Photos