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Balance, in more ways than one

The magnetic pull of the Fourth Street Boxing and Community Center is about a lot more than pummeling. It's about life.

By JON WILSON, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 27, 2002

ST. PETERSBURG -- A stocky 10-year-old strides the treadmill, hoping to walk off an extra pound. Learning the rudiments of an effective jab, a dozen boys line up to take a turn poking at a heavy punching bag. A middle-aged woman for the first time tries the little pear-shaped sack that hangs from a platform, furnishing a boxing gym's classic rhythm:

Boppada-boppada-boppada-bop ...

In the ring, two young men wear thick protective headgear and wide belts that armor their midriffs. They bob and weave amid flurries of punches.

"It's not your average sport," said Judy Morachnick, 51, a dental hygienist who wanted to try something different.

The Fourth Street Boxing and Community Center has been a fixture on Fourth Street N for 20 years. When it began in a storefront near a notorious saloon, founder Jim McLoughlin used to toss out bikers who, fancying themselves tough, went looking for fights in the wrong place.

Later the club moved a mile away to an old house (which is now a cafe), and finally to its current headquarters at 2710 Fourth St. N.

In many ways, the club is a typical boxing venue, home to professionals and top-flight amateurs. A marquee name is David Santos, who learned his craft as an amateur at the club and is now ranked among the world's top 130-pound pros.

But the club has undergone a transformation in recent months, expanding both its building and its membership.

Several men who as kids worked out at the club during its early days have returned to establish a program for youngsters. McLoughlin, 52, helped guide many of them through their teen years. He has kept the club going even when it meant working an extra job.

"He helped me with school. He helped me with money, he helped me get a job. You could hear this same kind of story from 100 different guys," said Kip Carevic, who has been driving the club's initiative.

So the former pupils want to repay their mentor and help a generation coming up.

In April, three dozen of them enlarged the club by renovating an adjacent storage area. Some of the volunteers have stayed on to help train the youngsters and adults who come to learn to box or get in shape. (The club is open Monday through Friday, 4:30 to 8 p.m.)

Carevic says the club's greatest need is more volunteer trainers, from all backgrounds.

"We have a wide range of people. Guys who make a lot of money, and a lot less. Attorneys, MBAs, construction workers, we got guys across the board," said Carevic, 35, who is a vice president at Raymond James and Associates.

Members who can afford it pay $35 a month. But no one is turned away. In lieu of cash, kids might bring in canned food, which is distributed to homeless people, Carevic said. Young members are encouraged to take part in community service.

The club's adults mentor as needed, helping out with schoolwork. Carevic wants to bring in people in various careers to talk about youngsters' futures. Members who want to box, and have their parents' permission, do so. But no one is required to get in the ring.

Cynthia Lueallen's 11-year-old son, Chris, goes to the club virtually every day.

"It was not what I expected, (that it would be) just teaching him boxing skills," Mrs. Lueallen said. "They teach him self-esteem, they teach him the importance of work. I can actually see a difference in his behavior, a difference in body tone. Also, I don't have to fight with him to go to bed!"

The club's membership has soared from 38 to about 160, Carevic said. He expects it to keep growing.

"There's no reason why we can't be the best gym in the world," he said. "I want to be a landmark, part of the culture here, like El Cap and Harvey's 4th Street Grill."

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