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The fight of his life

A boxing coach is the underdog in this battle. Funding and facilities are imposing opponents. But don't count him out yet.

By JOEL POILEY
© St. Petersburg Times
published May 12, 2002


NORTH TAMPA -- It's not the size of the ring that matters to John Brooks. It's the punch behind his message.

Brooks doesn't see a 13-foot-by-13-foot ring -- almost half the size of a regulation boxing square -- that passes for his classroom. Instead, he takes his 12-foot-by-24-foot compartment in two Bay Area Mini-Storage units off of 50th Street and Sligh Avemue, and pushes and prods 25 youngsters from all over Tampa.

The aim is to get them to use boxing as he did, as a way to beat the streets.

Thirty-plus years ago, Brooks was one of those youngsters from Tampa's inner city who fought his way out. A lean, hard middleweight with foot speed and style, Brooks fought professionally from age 19 to 27. Lou Duva, who also guided the careers of Tampa Bay area heavyweights Bob Foster and Cleveland Williams, managed him.

Brooks went by the moniker "Saw Pretty," a man with a thousand kisses. He cackles at those faded memories, long ago blurred by living too high and partying too hard. It cost him a year of his life in prison on a drug misdemeanor charge in the early 1980s. But it also led him to helping today's street gang members become productive members of society.

"I got saved in prison," says Brooks, 56. "I didn't have the financial backing to make it on the big scale as a fighter. But I knew I could save kids from making the mistakes I made by doing what I love more than anything in this world: boxing. "

He began his self-described crusade about 10 years ago working out of the Audley Evans Multipurpose Center in central Tampa. As word on the street grew of Brooks' work with youngsters, he needed more room. A couple of storage units acquired last year may not look like Madison Square Garden. But Brooks makes the place work by running a tight ship.

Boxers arrive weekday evenings, ranging in age from 8 to 33. Brooks starts some on the heavybag inside. Others jump rope and shadow box outside, or run laps around the block. Son John Jr., girlfriend Maite Hilario, and any parents who want to work the corners, providing fresh water and encouragement for each boxer, help out.

Everyone gets to spar, but only when Brooks says they're ready. That includes 10-year-old grandson John III, already an amateur champion. Shoes better be tied, shirt tails tucked and attitudes focused. Let your fists do your talking, he says.

"We're like a family," Brooks says. "And you don't disrespect your family."

You want a way out from life on the streets; I'll give it to you. But you give your heart to boxing and your soul to me. It ain't just boxing here. I'm giving them something to take into the world.

"This isn't about me, it's about the community," Brooks says. "Instead of making these jailhouses, a lot of these kids just need love and guidance and that big brother or father figure in their life. Once I get these kids in here, I give 'em that."

What Brooks lacks is money, and he may be running out of time as well. Another month's rent is soon due and the $35 he charges each participant doesn't come close to keeping the school open and providing adequate equipment.

That hits home like a stinging jab when one of his combo-throwing pupils advances beyond local tournaments and can't attend a state or regional competition because he lacks the funds.

He took out a second mortgage on his house, and car washes run by the school raise community awareness. But with more kids showing up at his door, he needs more space. He would like to knock out a wall to get two more storage units. Or better yet, a small gym in another part of town -- a pipe dream at this point.

"The problem is that I don't like boxing; I love boxing," Brooks says reverentially. "I love it. I eat, sleep and live boxing. I might be mad elsewhere, but I get here and this is family. I don't know what to do with myself Saturday and Sunday. Sometimes I've taken these kids to Clearwater Beach on a Sunday and they run on the beach.

"The parents have been great. They give all they can and they help as much as they can around here. I'd hate to lose this. I don't know what I'd do."

Weekends like two recent ones, with Junior Olympics and Golden Gloves tournaments, keep Brooks going. Along with several helpful parents, he'll accompany his troops to tournaments in St. Petersburg or Tampa, where they'll showcase Brooks' teachings.

He's had boxers appear on HBO and ESPN fight cards. Six of his students -- Brooks III, Marcus Broadnax, Alberto Escamilla, Carlos Escamilla, Eric Escamilla and Clinton Fullwood -- brought home championships at a recent Golden Gloves tournament at Bay Arena in St. Petersburg.

"I don't know how he makes it here," says Darrick Fullwood Sr., whose 13-year-old son, Darrick Jr., comes from Carrollwood's Plantation neighborhood for Brooks' brand of discipline and fitness.

"He keeps it open with his own will. We're trying to get him a facility in the north end of town in Carrollwood, then he'll reach a lot more kids. They play soccer, do karate and other sports. But to expose them to the discipline of boxing and work with Coach Brooks would be of great benefit to a lot of them. But it takes money."

Boxing is about discipline, control and focus. The same qualities that make a good student and leads to a quality of success in life.

Frustrated by the lack of results at fitness clubs, Sandy Maloy came to Brooks several months ago seeking to lose weight. She says she gained much more in self-confidence and inner toughness that she didn't know existed.

"I've never been so motivated to stick to something like this," says Maloy, 33. "I like the way he pushes you. He doesn't baby you at all. He doesn't treat me any different being a woman.

"I was shy at first. But my confidence is up, I lost 25 pounds, and I really like being a part of the team."

Maloy said watching Brooks has aided her as a parent. "He gets kids to listen through the consequences he puts out," Maloy says. "He'll tell a kid, "give me 25 pushups' when someone doesn't listen. He won't let them get in the ring until he has their full attention and gets them to behave properly."

Broadnax, a current protege, is a chiseled 17-year-old from Tampa Vo-Tech known as "Combo" because of his lightning-quick fists -- just like his hero, reigning world light heavyweight champion Roy Jones Jr. Broadnax has been coming to the school the past year and views Brooks as a second father. He hopes to use Brooks' teachings to earn enough professionally to move his family from their current home off Nebraska Ave.

"Things ain't that right over at my house and I want to be able to help out," Broadnax says, sweat pouring off him like rain. "Coach teaches me right from wrong. He teaches a lot about what goes on in the street and how to stay away from it. He taught me everything I know about boxing. It's the one sport I'm good at. If I was ever to make it I wouldn't forget about him."

Young Fullwood represents more of a project for Brooks. Prodded by his father, and after watching some bouts on television, Fullwood returned several months ago after initially turning away from the sport.

"He's got a good heart," Brooks says. "He's a good kid, a smart kid. He's got some skills. He'll be a heavyweight. All my fighters will be good because I spend time with them."

Brooks says he sometimes finds it hard to find local teams that will spar with his students. "We go one round and they say "Coach, that's it. No more,' " he says. "My life is boxing. You take that away from me and you might as well put a casket in front of me. I'd be ready to lie down."

But Brooks is a long way from that point. He says if he doesn't have a building, he'll throw the gloves and mouthpieces in his car and work with kids right there in the street.

"Who knows?" he says, a brief smile creasing his white beard. "One day I may see a kid who came here and they say "Coach Brooks, if it wasn't for you I wouldn't be here today.'

"That's why I do this."

-- Brooks can be reached at 251-1907 or 293-4883.

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