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Fighting for kids

Ambassador Boxing Club coach Cecil Lalas is changing lives - one punch at a time.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 21, 2002

SPRING HILL -- Keeshia Roberts moved her oldest son out of the south side of Chicago to get him away from the temptations of the street, the drugs, the desperation. More immediately, the fighting.

A year later, inside a musty cafeteria at the National Guard Armory off Spring Hill Drive, she -- along with 100 or more spectators -- have massed for a public demonstration of how far her son, 15-year-old Stanton Ellis, has come.

He will prove it by boxing. Not fighting, boxing. And as Roberts nestles into a seat a few feet from the ring, she couldn't be more proud.

"This is something my son really wanted to do," Roberts said, a fat raffle ticket roll bouncing on her lap as she claps and stamps her feet. "It gives him a sense of discipline, gets him up in the morning to do his chores, jogging and keeping in shape. This is a really good thing."

Ellis is another disciple in the church of discipline-through-boxing, the Ambassador Boxing Club, which Spring Hill resident Cecil Lalas operated in the mid-1990s and resurrected a year ago. The club used to conduct training sessions three times a week in Lalas' garage, but a few months ago began renting space for a full gym in a warehouse off County Line Road. The obvious benefit is more room, and the opportunity to serve more kids. The drawback is rent.

Lalas helps offset that by charging each of the roughly 30 members $45 a month, and he encourages them to seek sponsors. Kids can work off a month's dues by doing work around the gym.

"The $45 separates the serious from the not-serious," Lalas said. "Some of them realize they're investing in their lives and an investment will require some sort of commitment and sacrifice."

Some of those fees went toward renting the armory for $532.50 this night, when ABC hosted its first USA Boxing exhibition in nine years. Lalas hopes to use proceeds to take the club to similar exhibitions in other towns.

"We want to expose this area to USA Boxing, amateur boxing," he said. "There's kind of a dead spot in this part of the state."

A youth pastor, Publix employee, certified boxing instructor and promoter of amateur boxing, Lalas, 46, is a man of many callings and responsibilities. Such was the case last weekend, as he addressed last minute-problems and hawked door prizes on a portable microphone. When the bouts began, he and assistant Robert Trease were in the corner, as always.

Nine amateur clubs from around Florida competed under USA Boxing regulations that emphasize point-scoring through punching over knockouts and safety above all else. Unrefined skills were often unraveled by the nervous enthusiasm of first-time fighters such as Ellis. Bouts more often resembled two helicopters colliding than boxing, but Lalas was there after each round with an attaboy smile and a positive word.

"They know they have a coach in their corner that loves and cares about them," he said, sitting ringside before the first bout. "I'll throw in the towel before I let them get hurt. Our motto is: "I'd rather stop 1,000 bouts early rather than one too late."

Lalas, who helped develop Spring Hill professional middleweight Jose Alonzo, says there is potential in his club, but the underlying purpose is community outreach. Kids with holes to fill find their way there, often led by parents or guidance counselors.

"(Cecil) is awesome," said Roberts, an out-of-work substance abuse counselor. "He really cares that my son has a mother, and that's all right by me. His primary focus and goal is all about the kids, bringing something out in them. If they do not have the skills to be the next Tyson or Holyfield, he shows them they can still do something."

But the kids don't always want to be there, not at first, which makes Lalas' job harder. He mentioned one club member who was aggressive to the point of combativeness when he joined.

"Now he feels like he's part of a family," Lalas said.

Different kids need different time and approaches for their defenses to fall. Until that point is reached, his Army-issue glare and no-nonsense demeanor get their attention. Oh, and the speed bag.

"I walked in there and I thought he was just an old bald guy," Ellis said, laughing. "And then I saw him hitting the bag, and I was like, "Whoa.' That's the guy I wouldn't want to meet in a dark alley."

It's not an image Lalas seeks to diminish. Tough is half of tough love.

"Every once in a while a coach has to put their forehead against theirs and say, "Hey, listen, this is the way it is and if you want to stay here, this is the way it is,"' he said. "I think they really know we love them first and foremost and we care about where they end up."

Lalas, who never knew his father well until the elder Lalas retired from the military, clearly has won over Ellis, becoming the father he never had.

"He's been great to me," Ellis said. "He watched out for me, he gives me advice."

Ellis doesn't like to think about still being in Chicago. He likes to think about his future.

"I'd say, yes, I'd probably be in trouble without the boxing club. I'm going to remember that this was a stepping stone to me, to be something greater," he said. "Maybe I'll be going to the pros, or maybe it'll just keep me out of trouble while I go to college."

One of the most satisfying aspects of Lalas' many jobs is seeing a success story. They take time, but they're worth it.

"You never realize who you might have an impact on because you think they may not be listening at the time," Lalas said. "Sometimes they go away for a while and then they come back and they say, "This is what you did for me.' (Alonzo) started with us in '93. ... He came in walking all sideways and cocky and getting in trouble and going to the park. Wherever there was trouble, he was there.

"He called me the other day and he said, "You've done a lot for me. You taught me to honor and respect,' " Lalas said. "You feel good about that."

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