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Saved by the bell

Inside the Community Boxing Club, a handful of adults fight the odds to help kids, even as the gym faces struggles of its own.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 28, 2003


[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Tembray Williams, 9, punches a bag at the Community Boxing Club. The hard-hitting third-grader has been coming to the gym for more than a year.
WEST TAMPA -- Inside the ring, Deterrio Young, 9, staggers backward after a blow from Mark Reyes, 6. He drops the oversized gloves to his side, spits his mouthpiece to the mat. Blood clogs his nose.

The little boxer's body language groans: It's over.

But that's not how it works at the Community Boxing Club, a bare bones gym in a hardscrabble section of West Tampa. Life here can throw a crunchier uppercut than any opposing boxer.

Coach Tommie Ellis puts his hand on Deterrio's shoulder, looks him in the eye, speaks gently, firmly.

"You're not here to quit. This guy is just as tired as you," says Ellis, a retired Tampa police detective and former pro boxer. "We're not going to let you quit."

Ellis half-pleads, half commands: "Give me 30 seconds."

Deterrio, eyes moist, hoists his gloves back in front of his face. He trudges back to the center of the ring.

Gritty lessons like that are offered every day but Sunday at the Howard Avenue club, where the boxing ring offers easy metaphors for life. Club directors can only hope their charges remember the lessons when the gloves come off.

That's the mission, even as the gym itself struggles.

Since it moved to West Tampa in 2001, the Community Boxing Club has sought to become a beacon of hope and inspiration -- a place where people can not only learn to box, but bone up on homework, polish resumes and control high blood pressure. Even poetry readings and community theater are on the menu.

But the whole buffet isn't there yet.

Instead, directors must scrounge to pay bills. They send kids with buckets to busy intersections to ask for money. In a few months, they'll probably be looking for new digs because the crumbling building they use is being sold.

If the directors are worried, they mask it well. With their best game faces on, they recite the advice they give the kids:

Life is a struggle. Never give up.

"If a hurricane blows the roof off, it doesn't matter," Sanford Harper says. "We'll just have to get some straw and put it back together."

* * *

The club occupies the bottom floor of the Sicilian Building.

For decades, immigrants watched plays and danced in the ballroom. Now, pigeons flutter through holes in particle board where upper-story windows used to be. In the neighborhood beyond, garbage-strewn alleys and open-air drug deals are part of the landscape, to the chagrin of law-abiding locals.

photo
Deterrio Young, 9, signs in at the Community Boxing Club. The Howard Avenue club faces an uncertain future because its building is for sale. But club directors insist it will continue somehow.
When the club moved from 29th Street in East Tampa, the building was in even worse shape.

"A bombshell," Ellis recalls. "I said, 'Oh no. Not here.' "

Supporters got to work. Ellis fashioned a ceiling out of sheet metal. Then a tractor-trailer barrelled through the front door, leaving a corner of the building in shambles.

A bad omen? No, Ellis insists. A blessing.

"More people came down to help us out," he says.

Next to posters of Muhammad Ali and Evander Holyfield, water stains remain. And cracks in the walls. And chipped tiles. Rocky couldn't find a scrappier place to begin another comeback.

On weekdays, the gym begins to pulse around 4 p.m.

Young men skip rope. A woman slugs a punching bag. Kids do homework while hip-hop music bounces from a boom-box on the floor.

The gym has about 20 members, ages 6 to nearly 60. There are men and women, boys and girls.

"See that girl right there?" asks Harper, gesturing to Tembray Williams, 9. "She is awesome. She hits so hard."

Williams has been coming to the gym for more than a year. She shrugs when asked why. "I like fighting," she says.

Members pay $5 to $10 a week. Another 30 children stop by to get free help from professional tutors affiliated with the University of South Florida.

"This place is the best," says Sammy Valez, 18, who wants to become a pro boxer. "Nobody bothers you. Nobody is playing around."

Raquel Perez, 26, works out every day after finishing kitchen manager duties at Pete & Shorty's.

She hasn't been in the ring yet, but she's dying to try. If there are no women to spar with, guys will do just fine.

"As long as I don't look like their ex-girlfriend," Perez cracks.

To build her stamina, she runs along Bayshore Boulevard. Every night, she jogs as far as she can, until she can't take it anymore.

Then she jogs back.

Her goal at the gym is a lofty one. She wants to be a pro, too.

Why not? she says. Everybody starts somewhere.

"I have a chance," she says.

* * *

The gym's vision is shaped by three personalities: an ex-cop, an ex-con and an ex-owner of a blues joint.

Ellis and his friend, Linda Wilcox, started the club in 1998. Harper joined them in 2001.

Wilcox, an optician, owned the now-defunct Blues Ship, which drew fans of blues music and soul food to Ybor City. Years ago, Ellis convinced Wilcox to sponsor a match. She's been helping him ever since.

Now, Wilcox and a partner are selling the Sicilian Building, which despite its condition has enormous historic value. Her real estate agent says a deal could be finalized in three months.

Wilcox says the gym won't be abandoned. She promises a new location.

"Nothing is secure. Nothing is definite. That's life," Wilcox says. "But the gym is going to continue."

Some call Ellis "the mild-mannered Superman."

The ex-cop's soft voice might mislead people about his skills in the ring. But a blown-up photo on the wall shows him in peak form 30 years ago, in boxing trunks, with gloves up and eyes intense.

Ellis, 51, has been teaching young boxers to bob, weave and jab for more than a decade. When he was young, he says, the sport turned his life around.

Michael "Bu" Dickelson, a pro boxer who spars at the gym, works out with a homemade medicine ball. His message to kids: "Discipline matters."
"I was no angel," says Ellis, who retired in 1997 after 21 years with the Tampa Police Department. "Somebody gave me a second chance."

He offers his students no less.

On their behalf, he talks to teachers, counselors, judges. Some of his students have gone on to become police officers and businessmen. One became a pharmacist, he says proudly. Others wound up in jail.

"Some still haunt me," he says.

"The bottom line question is: Did you do all you could?" says Ellis, who volunteers 35 hours a week. "You can always do a little more. You want to see a kid become all he can be."

Harper, 40, adds street spice to the mix.

The gym's public face sports a shaved head and a red, yellow and green medallion made of wood and shaped like the continent of Africa.

He describes himself as "ambassador poet," "freelance bartender" and "hustler." He goes by the name San Man, and sometimes, Dr. San Man.

Once a week, he teaches the gym's younger members a new word, then asks them to use it in a sentence. A few weeks ago, it was "masticate," as in "to chew up."

The kids were frustrated, but Harper prodded. Finally one said, "Man, when I get you in the ring, I'm going to masticate you."

Harper declared victory.

The self-published poet freely admits his criminal record, which includes more than 20 arrests since 1982, but none since 1998. Those are past mistakes, he says -- and useful tools in dealing with at-risk kids.

When drug dealers staked out the corner next to the club, Harper says he asked them, respectfully, to leave. They honored his request.

"I've been there," he says. "I speak with authority."

Harper has tried before to channel his energy into helping children, but with little success. In the late 1980s he headed Citizens Helping Delinquents and Dependents. In the early 1990s, he started Parents Against Drugs and Juveniles United in a Community Effort. None of those groups lasted.

This time, things are different, he insists.

This time, he has help.

* * *

Alonzo Mainer, 11, gets help with his school work from volunteer Jennifer Craythorne, a tutor with the College Reachout Program. About 30 children stop by the Community Boxing Club each week to get free help from tutors affiliated with the University of South Florida.
Inside the gym, a buzzer sounds every three minutes.

For those sparring in the ring, it means the round is over. For those working out, it means move on to the next exercise -- sit-ups or push-ups or knee bends. Members aren't allowed to box until they've followed a strict exercise regimen for weeks.

The message: "Discipline matters," says Michael "Bu" Dickelson, a pro boxer who spars here.

While Dickelson talks, a skinny teenager breezes in, ball cap cocked to one side of his head. Gold teeth flash. "I need to do some hours," he declares.

Hours, as in community service hours assigned by a judge. The gym takes in minor-league offenders who can help raise money or sort clothes in the gym's on-site consignment shop.

Harper looks the teen over. "You're not a child molester or nothing, are you?" he asks.

The teen wrinkles his brow and shakes his head.

Be back Saturday morning, Harper tells him. The kid doesn't know it yet, but he won't be cruising through this part of his sentence.

Nothing is done the easy way here.

"Pull your pants up," Ellis tells two baggy-jeaned boys looking for a friend. When they pretend not to+

hear him, he says it again, a little more sternly.

They look away but tug at their belt lines.

* * *

Back in the ring, Deterrio is ducking and jabbing again.

"That's it, Deterrio!" Harper yells.

"Yeahhhhh!" the other kids cheer.

His punches are missing, but he keeps swinging. His opponent pops him again, but he doesn't drop his gloves.

In less than a minute, the buzzer sounds.

Ellis escorts Deterrio to his corner, says something only the boy can hear. The boy nods.

The older fighter finds some sterile gauze and a towel.

With a few gentle dabs, he clears the blood from Deterrio's nose.

-- Staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com .

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