Washington gym takes fighters from streets into the ring

Washington gym takes fighters from streets into the ring
PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - Stepping into the Bald Eagle Recreation Center in Washington is to step out of a neighborhood better known for street violence, armed robbery and assault, and into a state-of-the-art boxing gym home to world-class athletes.

The center is stocked with two elevated rings, rows of fleshy punching bags and all the workout equipment an aspiring athlete could dream of.

But the equipment is just a small part of the gym's draw; most come for father-figure coaches who have built this safe harbor in a rough part of town.

"When we become adults, we forget the struggles of the younger people, so we lose the connection with them. I've never lost that, I connect with them from day one," one of the founders, Barry Hunter, said.

Tracing the border with Maryland, the suburb of Washington Highlands is just a 20-minute drive from the White House, yet reports of late-night gunshots, armed robbery and violence are common within this predominantly African American neighborhood.

Tyrek Irby, 21, came to Bald Eagle to turn a past marked by neglect and street fighting into a future as a world-class boxer.

"I learnt from other people's mistakes. I've seen friends lose their lives on the streets... That was about the time when my daughter was born, and I realized I had to change my life around.

"I got off the streets, I stopped smoking and doing stupid stuff, and now my focus is just my daughter and boxing. That's it."

Currently ranked number one in the US amateur light welterweight category, and number two in the world, Irby was growing up in a lawless, violent culture of street fighting when he discovered the "sweet science" of organized boxing.

He joined the Headbangers team at Bald Eagle and now has his sights on a World Series Boxing title.

Hundreds of kids

Although Irby has succeeded inside the ring at full speed, he's had to learn the sport's discipline the hard way.

When he was given second place at a local tournament at Maryland University, he threw his runner-up trophy into the crowd in a rage and was impolite to the judges.

The Potomac Valley Boxing Association, one of his sponsors and supporters from the start, wanted to suspend him, but settled for an in-house punishment that consisted of Irby scrubbing toilets, floors and equipment at the gym, unable to train for one month.

Bald Eagle began in a small school annex twenty-seven years ago, where Barry Hunter and Marshall Cunningham began training kids form the neighborhood.

A few years ago, then-Washington mayor Adrian Fenty approached Hunter with the promise of building a new facility in recognition of the work they did with city kids.

In their new gym, inaugurated in 2012, Hunter and Cunningham have coached hundreds of kids and adults. Hunter has been a boxing coach for the US Olympic team and he is one of the most sought after trainers in the country.

But it is the row of belts and trophies in the glass display case at the gym that makes his eyes shine.

"This program has resurrected a lot of kids," he said, adding that some of his current coaches started as students.

Patrice 'Boogie' Harris is Hunter's right hand when it comes to training, but they go back to when Harris was 16 and had the ambition of going pro. He stopped fighting himself, but began coaching and passing the HeadBangers legacy to the younger fighters.

More to life

While it mostly draws boys from the streets, one woman, Tiara Brown, 27, currently trains with the team.

"Being a woman, most people say you have to go the extra mile. As a woman in a male-dominant sport, you have to go the extra five miles," she said.

Restricted to the three Olympic weight categories for women's boxing, Tiara has spent the last months gaining weight to reach the 132lb Welterweight category, finally qualifying for the Rio trials on September 17 with a semifinal victory.

In 2012 she became only the third US boxer - male or female - to win a world title, a status she maintained until last year, when she came in third.

Brown knows violence outside the ring, too. Her brother was murdered in their home state of Florida in 2010 and Brown admits that her future could have been very different had she not have committed to boxing through the HeadBangers.

She earned a degree in Criminal Justice and is working on becoming a US Marshall. "Crime is everywhere. The world we live in now is just so tainted for the youth. There's more to life than drugs, robberies and murder. I want to make a difference and clean the streets up."

There are several other HeadBangers who have built careers in other demanding fields such as law, medicine and computer sciences. For the younger kids, the coaches keep track of their homework, enforcing a few simple rules that build keep boxing in balance with formal education.

"Our program isn't just boxing, it's a youth program disguised as boxing and we teach the kids discipline, teamwork and comradery, which help build self-esteem and life skills," explains Marshall Cunningham, one of the founders of the HeadBangers team.

"It's an outlet, a positive alternative from the streets, crime and delinquency."

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