The St. Pete Boxing Club turned feared amateurs into polished pros and has sparked growing interest. Three men helped pave the way; three fighters made the scene famous.
By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
Published July 31, 2005
[Times photo: Willie J. Allen Jr.]
The bay area is a hotbed of boxing thanks to, front row from left, Winky Wright, IBF super-middleweight champ Jeff Lacy and David Santos. Helping to guide their careers at various points have been, back row from left, trainers Dan Birmingham and his brother Mike, longtime supporter John Vinciguerra and trainer Jim McLoughlin.
ST. PETERSBURG - It started, like so many things in Florida do, with the rain.
Jim McLoughlin, a trainer-in-waiting but still an old pug at heart, was training himself (and a dozen or so kids) in his backyard for an amateur fight at the Cuban Club in Ybor City when the skies opened up.
The next day, the same thing.
The day after that?
So McLoughlin scraped together most of his money and opened up a dry place to train, with just enough room for a boxing ring and two heavy bags.
On July 26, 1982, the St. Pete Boxing Club was born at 1032 Fourth St. N.
Despite a big sign in the front window - "Private Club, Members Only" - McLoughlin couldn't keep out aspiring pugilists and kids looking for a respite from the hot summer days.
"The first two weeks I rented the building, I had 14 kids in there," McLoughlin said. "After my fight, I just decided I liked training kids more than I liked to do anything else."
Six afternoons a week, the club buzzed. Sylvester Stallone kept a watchful eye on the tattered ring, staring down from a Rocky III poster, and boxers of all ages floated in and out.
A monthly membership cost $20, but McLoughlin rarely collected any fees. The kids who wandered in had no money, but many invested in dreams of a better life.
"We didn't turn anyone away," McLoughlin said. "We wanted to help keep these kids off the street and out of trouble, but they just had no money."
In eight months, the St. Pete Boxing Club, despite financial trouble that would force it to move many times, turned out the best and hungriest amateur boxing team in the state.
St. Petersburg was on the boxing map. Over the next decade, a trio of stars would make sure it stayed right there.
* * *
It didn't take long for Mike Birmingham to become the club's first member. Birmingham was walking by one day before it opened, looked through the window and couldn't believe his eyes.
A boxing club.
"I was so thrilled that I joined up right away and told him I could even help run it," Birmingham said. "I remember there was an apartment next door. I rented it on the spot, I was so excited."
Birmingham had been trained by older brother Dan, a former Golden Gloves champ, since he was 6. He told Dan the news, and introduced him to McLoughlin. The three became fast friends, and though none knew at the time, the friendship laid the foundation for a remarkable run.
The 1980s were, by all accounts, a glorious time for boxing in St. Petersburg. The decade produced a wealth of amateur champions, a haul of medals and trophies and the three greatest fighters the bay area has produced.
In a cast of hundreds, the emerging stars were David Santos, Jeff Lacy and Winky Wright; the directors were McLoughlin and the Birminghams.
"Fate swept its hand over St. Petersburg and brought these guys together," local boxing analyst Mark Beiro said. "The rest, as they say, is history."
Saturday, Lacy is scheduled to write another chapter when he defends his IBF super-middleweight championship against Robin Reid at the St. Pete Times Forum in Tampa.
On the same card, Santos will fight probably for the last time. And Wright, who has proven himself to be St. Petersburg's finest with a number of blockbuster victories over boxing's stars, will be the loudest spectator in the place.
The three fighters have done what for many years seemed impossible: established St. Petersburg as the home to quality boxing and champions.
"I don't know that any of us looked at it like that or knew what we were doing when we started out," said Santos, the most accomplished amateur in St. Petersburg history. "For us, it was just something to do. It was a way to stay out of trouble. We knew we were doing good, but as far as putting the place on the map, well I guess we definitely did that."
Detroit's Kronk gym had a top-notch reputation for many years. In Philadelphia, New York and Chicago, it was commonplace to produce great fighters.
But St. Petersburg, home of the retiree?
"St. Petersburg is a lot tougher area than people think it is," McLoughlin said. "We've had some street kids in here that could have survived anywhere. Everyone that walked in here was tough."
Typically, the St. Pete Boxing Club played to that crowd. McLoughlin estimates that the club had 15 homes over the years, but one thing never changed - it was always in a rugged and impoverished neighborhood.
"We had drug dealers come in and gang members, everyone," Santos said. "But they never lasted long. One time, we were located right next to a bar. I remember every night, some drunk would wander over wanting to fight. So we'd let him get in the ring, and he'd end up getting knocked out."
* * *
The names Roberto Rodriguez, Guy Sonnenberg, John Sciandra Jr., Eddie Minot and Roberto Medina are now obscured by the accomplishments of Santos, Wright and Lacy, but in 1983, they were the pioneers who paved the road into the St. Pete Boxing Club for the champions who would follow.
The SPBC was in its infancy when it entered the Florida State Golden Gloves in March 1983 in Melbourne. It harbored no dreams of beating Miami - financially subsidized and cloaked in fancy trunks and robes and the best team many years running - but the Miracle on Fourth Street slowly unfolded.
Of its eight fighters, five made the finals. Rodriguez and Sonnenberg captured Open titles, the first for St. Petersburg since Police Athletic League fighter Milton Owens in 1974.
Miami and the state boxing community were shocked.
"The kids used to climb in the ring with ragged shorts and holes in their shoes," SPBC publicist Bill Lehnert said at the time. "Our kids may not have been the best dressed, but they could fight. And they won. The other clubs may have smiled a little, but they had to respect us."
In 1985, the club won a second state Golden Gloves title. Sciandra, a gifted fighter with a crushing punch, reached the nationals in Little Rock, Ark., along with Charles Parks (by some accounts the most feared kid in St. Petersburg) and Brenson Josey, already hardened by brushes with the law.
And Santos, then 13, began to emerge. Dropped off at the gym by his father, Jose, after being caught stealing, he became the consummate gym rat. He worked harder than anyone, spent more time in the gym than anyone, and fell deeply in love with the game.
While others would come and go, Santos was the club's mainstay, and soon its face, coming out of nowhere to win a Junior Olympic title in '85.
"If anyone was going to look at a historical, red letter day for boxing, that definitely has to be the first step," said Beiro, who at the time was an official for the Florida Amateur Association. "I remember going to an amateur event, and that's when I found out. Someone came up to me and asked if I had heard David won the JOs. It was like everybody was talking about it."
Santos became a regular at the biggest and best tournaments.
"I think I took it to another level by going to national tournaments," he said. "Then when Dan came over, we got even better."
* * *
Mike Birmingham had moved to Orlando in 1983, and when he returned three years later he found Dan in a gym packed with aspiring boxers. Dan Birmingham, who had trained local fighters since 1978 but had been in and out of the SPBC, was finally persuaded to join on a full-time basis.
"It was kind of slow at first. I was going back and forth," Birmingham said. "Around 1986, I started coming every day. I'd say there was a nucleus of about 7-8 kids. Other than David, there weren't really any stars."
The timing couldn't have been more perfect. After years of moving around and struggling to pay its bills because the gym was filled with kids who couldn't afford the membership fee, McLoughlin had to step back to take care of some family issues.
Birmingham, who ran a successful painting company, stepped in and kept the gym alive, like McLoughlin often spending his money to ensure the doors stayed open.
"Dan and Jim are rare in this sport," Santos said. "These guys didn't get paid for what they did. They did it for free. They'd go to work all day and then come over and open the gym for the kids. Half the time they were paying the mortgage out of their own pockets."
* * *
By 1987, the gym was thriving.
Wright moved from Washington to live with his grandmother. Billy Dugan, one of the stars at the SPBC and McLoughlin's nephew, talked the new kid into joining the gym.
Then located on Fairfield Avenue behind Gibbs High, the club entered its heyday. Wright and Santos were dominating their weight classes, and others, including Dugan, Sciandra, George Walker, Fred Adams and Patrick Newsome were winning tournaments.
The SPBC was the baddest team in Florida from 1987-90, during which time Lacy and his father, Hydra, came aboard.
"We used to jump in a fricking van, there'd be 30 of us in an eight-person van, and we'd go to a show and win every tournament," Santos said. "We'd be sleeping eight to a room. We'd pull up and you could just see people go, "Awwwww man,' and hang their heads and say, "There's St. Pete.'
"There was no one in the state of Florida that could even come close to us."
It became a chore to find local competition, as fighters would purposely avoid certain weight classes and often let Wright and Santos win in a walkover.
"Most of the time you could hardly get a fight," said Hydra Lacy, a former boxer who helped Birmingham train at the time.
The status of the club continued to rise in national circles. Santos was invited to the 1988 Olympic trials and advanced to the national Golden Gloves. In 1989, Wright made the national Golden Gloves semifinals and won his first national title, the PAL, in West Palm Beach. The national amateur club rankings, usually dominated by Army teams, had the SPBC at No. 3.
"I remember I'd be working out in the gym, not old enough to fight yet, and these guys would come back with all these trophies," said Lacy, who was trained by Mike Birmingham. "Trophies used to line the walls here. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be part of that team."
"We were having a ball," Dan Birmingham said. "We laughed and joked and wrestled in the van and smacked each other. Nobody ever got in any fights. We supported each other, and we were just one big happy family."
But like any family, there are disagreements and breakups.
* * *
In early 1990, Santos and the Birminghams got in a dispute and the boxer was out of the club.
Santos rejoined McLoughlin, his original trainer, at a new club, the Maximo Boxing Club.
Before long, McLoughlin opened another club and called it the Fourth Street Boxing Club. He has been there ever since, and Santos still trains there.
For a while, there was tension between the two camps, but the bonds among the fighters and trainers remained strong.
"There were probably some attitudes," Dan Birmingham said, "but it wasn't long before the gyms were going back and forth and fighting each other and helping each other out."
With Wright eyeing a pro career, and Santos shooting for the '92 Olympics, the St. Petersburg boxing scene remained strong, but it was clear the foundation was crumbling and an era was coming to an end.
In 1996, Lacy left the gym. He had failed in a bid to make the Olympic team, but Dan Birmingham was busy with Wright. His options were to turn pro, or chase his Olympic dream on his own.
He chose the latter.
Had they all stayed together, says former club member and longtime Santos supporter John Vinciguerra, "it would have been bad to the bone."
* * *
In 1990, Wright blew up. "He was God's gift to boxing," Santos said.
He was ranked No. 3 in the country at 139 pounds, and won a bronze medal at the U.S. Amateur Boxing Championships in Colorado Springs after losing to No. 1 Steve Johnson.
In July, at the U.S. Olympic Festival in Seattle, he avenged that loss and earned gold.
Mark Breland, a 1984 Olympic gold medalist, was sparring with Wright at the time and predicted he would win Olympic gold.
But Wright tired of the politics of the amateur game and wanted to start making money, and 1992 was so far away.
On Oct. 16, 1990, he made his pro debut by beating Anthony Salerno in Tampa.
In 1991, frustrated by what he thought was a bad decision he received in the ring, Santos gave up his Olympic dream and followed suit.
With Birmingham and McLoughlin managing and training Wright and Santos, the focus shifted from amateurs to pros and Lacy was mostly on his own.
"The amateur program in the whole area was declining, so David and Winky turned pro at the right time," Beiro said. "After that, it was never really the same. The void that was left by Birmingham and McLoughlin was huge. Who today is going to dip into their own pocket for no other reason than to keep young people interested and involved for their own welfare?"
* * *
Birmingham, the 2004 national trainer of the year, is reviving the amateur program at the St. Pete Boxing Club (now on 49th Street S) with the help of father-in-law and best friend Andy Lockhart, whose CD Roma's restaurant on 66th Street N has provided thousands of free meals to fighters over the years.
McLoughlin, who has continued to train amateurs and professionals, hopes to hand over the Fourth Street Boxing Club to Santos, who is eager to "give back to kids what Jim and Dan gave to me."
Wright went on to become as famous a boxer as there is. Lacy realized his dream when he made the 2000 Olympic team. And Santos fought for a world championship three times.
They all avoided the pitfalls of St. Petersburg's mean streets but have never forgotten where they came from. Even today, the area that once produced the best amateur boxing in the state and yielded three great champions remains home for all of them.
"I remember no other time like that that I've ever known, even in more established places like New York and Chicago," said Beiro, who went on to fame as a ring announcer and local radio host.
"The real tragedy is that very few people in Florida even know that existed. With all the criticism of boxing, all these guys are exactly what people say, or pay lip service to, the sport should be like. It should be populated by good, decent, honorable guys that are very prideful of their community. St. Petersburg was lucky to have them come along."