"It's about the kids."
We have always known this, but this is just the simple statement Roberto had made since the beginning. The Panda Athletic Club opened last summer as an evolutionary byproduct of Hoosierweight Boxing. While the PAC has produced fighters for these fun fights, the focus has turned to kids.
The kids came in droves. The PAC has fielded four consistent youth fighters and has another ten that train regularly in the pugilistic science. The coaches Peter Neukirch, Doveed Linder, Roberto Martinez and Ron Egan have all committed to working with them and developing them into well-rounded individuals. Some of the veteran fighters, part-time coaches and many of the students Thomas Crone, Dio Turner, Jen O'Hare, Helen have taken it upon themselves to step in and help with some of the kids. Roberto was on the mark with his assessment.
The youth team comes mainly from the near north side, mostly from Murphy Blair. There are some other kids from the south side, east side and more. The north side youths walk to the gym in a small pack, running from stray dogs and jumping over abandoned railroad tracks. They come because they want to be there. They want the opportunity. I have gotten to know most the kids' parents. Sharonda Moore, the mother of four fighters (Demetrius, Dan Dan, Bruce and Derron) has told me not only have her kids been behaving better since coming to the gym, they also have been eating better.
It is not all boys, either. There is one ten-year-old girl, Dynesha, who comes all the way up from Clinton Peabody on the south side. She works as hard, if not harder, than anyone else in the gym. She already has the base skills down and runs her own strict regimen. It has paid off well, for she has been able to impose her will on any of the boys at her size in the ring.
The coaches have taken the kids under their wing to the point of preparing pre-fight meals. We invite the entire team over early for chicken, pears and peanut butter sandwiches and watch old pro fight tapes. We take them around to reward trips after the fights. Sometimes it is to get some French fries at Kitchen K. Sometimes over to City Museum. Sometimes to hang flyers in The Loop and grab a bite at Blueberry Hill.
We make them work. They run twice a week, down to the Arch and up the North Riverfront Trail. They shadow box. Spar. Hit the bags. Mitts. Medicine ball. Push-ups. Sit-ups. We make them clean up the gym. They prove themselves at the gym. It is at an age when feeling tough is important, and so is respect. Outside of the gym, such pursuits easily lead to trouble. When the youth come to the gym, that pursuit demands discipline. It demands respect for others. They learn how to win. They learn how to lose. They learn the value of work. They alone are responsible for their work inside the ring. Team sports allow a player to blame teammates for shortcomings, but boxing is an individual sport. They can only rely on themselves. By boxing they become tough and get to feel tough. They earn respect. They become confident in themselves and no longer need to prove themselves on the street. They have already proven their skills in the ring for real. They can prove it in a safe, supervised place.