‘‘Private Keep Out” says the sign.
It is taped to the scarred glass door of a one-story, peach-colored building on West Ferry Street. Faded letters above the entrance are from the name of a barbell club that left more than 10 years ago. A cloud of dark gray paint on the stucco wall conceals graffiti.
It looks like any abandoned building on the West Side – which makes what goes on inside all the more surprising.
On weekday afternoons, the one-room, no-frills West Side Boxing Club comes alive with the sounds of boxing gloves pounding punching bags, trainers barking commands to fighters in the ring and bursts of laughter from the sidelines.
But more than boxing is going on. The gym provides a safe and close-knit after-school refuge for dozens of inner-city youths and young adults, many from violent streets and dysfunctional families, circumstances that help stack the deck against them. Staying in school and doing well, and planning for a future with or without boxing is emphasized by the volunteer trainers who run the club.
“It’s all about keeping these kids off the streets. I, for myself, didn’t have nobody come down and push me [in the right direction] when I was growing up, and I wish I had,” said Rick Diaz, a professional boxing trainer who is also a driver for the county Highway Department.
Diaz shoulders most of the costs, from the mortgage and tournament travel expenses to license fees and food for the fighters. The club is bare-bones, there are no dressing rooms, and the heat is fueled from a propane tank. Still, it is a step up.
“One thing they learn is, it’s better to fight in here than to fight in the street. The street’s not worth it, and it’s going to get you shot or stabbed, since no one fights anymore,” added Adalberto “Jerry” Diaz, Rick’s son and an Air Force veteran who is also a trainer.
Staying in school is preached all the time in the gym.
“If they’re messing up in school, we won’t let them train. School is always first. Not everyone can be a professional boxer, so you always need a fallback plan,” said the younger Diaz, who is pursuing a degree in physical therapy.
A second home
The boxing club was formed in 2011 after the Police Athletic League, which had provided boxing, vacated the building. The other volunteer trainers – Alvin Gibbs, Andrew Upchurch and Emmanuel DeJesus – also play major roles in the lives of the mostly young Latino and African-American males who find a home away from home.
Daniel DeJesus is one of them. He was among the club’s 11 fighters scheduled to fight Saturday night in the New York State Golden Gloves at Tralf Music Hall. At 16, Daniel was the youngest enrolled in the tournament – and already one of the most celebrated.
“His balance, his hand speed, his combinations – he’s really a complete fighter at such a young age. It’s scary how good he is. The kid’s at a whole other level,” Upchurch said. “He’s also an incredible kid.”
Daniel grew up nearby, in an area with its share of violent crime. “Things have gotten a lot worse over the years, with gang violence and things like that,” he said.
“This place is like my getaway,” Daniel said. “It’s a second home, pretty much like family. I come here, keep my mind focused. I know boxing isn’t a certain thing, so I’m staying in school, getting my education.”
The term “family” is mentioned a lot by the young fighters.
“[The gym] keeps me out of trouble, it’s like another family to me,” said Antoine Ngayot, another highly touted fighter who was born in war-torn Congo, lost his father at age 2 and doesn’t know if his mother is still alive. He came to Buffalo with relatives at age 9 and is seeking U.S. citizenship since graduating from School 44.
The trainers help Ngayot with money from time to time, and are trying to find an immigration attorney to represent him.
Jalen Wright, 16, also likes the gym’s familial atmosphere. He’s called “Cupcake” there because he attends Emerson School of Hospitality, and hopes to be an executive chef someday.
“We all treat each other like we’re family, joke around, play around. I love it here,” Jalen said.
Alvis Colon appreciates the emphasis the club’s trainers place on the importance of school. He said he stresses the same with his 16-year-old son, also named Alvis, who moved last summer from Puerto Rico to live with him in Cheektowaga.
“The agreement we have is, you do good in school, I bring you to the boxing gym. He’s doing good in school. I’m really proud of him,” Colon said.
The gym isn’t just a sanctuary for teens. Heavyweight Marcus Winsrey, 23, whose active Army service took him to Afghanistan and South Korea, said the gym helps him stay on the straight and narrow.
“If I didn’t come here I would be out in the streets somewhere, making money off of somebody. This is one of the safest ways to keep myself out of trouble now that I’m home,” Winsrey said.
“I wish a lot of my friends did this. A lot of them are dead or in jail, or on drugs or selling drugs.”
Winsrey, who hopes to turn pro someday, said he’s grateful to the club’s trainers.
“They actually care about the fighters and what our futures are going to be,” he said.
Upchurch, a Williamsville resident, said being able to go to the gym beats having the kids out getting into trouble or sitting at home in front of the TV.
“It’s an outlet for these kids, unlike in the suburbs where I live where the parents have more income going on, and can load their kids up in the minivan and take them to a camp that costs a lot of money. These kids don’t have that opportunity,” Upchurch said.
Diaz is committed to giving teens an alternative to the street. A motivation, he said, is the memory of a fighter who came to him 20 years ago asking for help getting back in the ring. “We didn’t have a place to go, and he wanted me to take him somewhere because he was getting into trouble out in the streets.”
The fighter was shot and killed two days later. Diaz wants to help other young people avoid a similar fate.
“I was out there in the streets a lot, and I know what it is, and I know what’s out there,” Diaz said.
A highly respected trainer, Diaz worked with boxer Kenny Abril leading up to his upset victory over Dennis Laurente, the fifth-ranked World Boxing Council welterweight contender, Dec. 8 in Las Vegas.
Making ends meet
There is a minimal charge to use the gym because of the high degree of poverty and the reluctance to prevent anyone from participating. Diaz hopes to eventually obtain not-for-profit status so they can apply for grants and tax-deductible donations.
Diaz owns the building, and the rent from the auto repair shop next door pays for the mortgage. But there are many expenses, from the water bill to the $7,000 he paid last summer to send seven fighters to the Ringside National Tournament in Kansas City.
“Seven teenagers – I’ll never do that again,” laughed Jerry Diaz about the road trip. He has kicked in some of his GI Bill money to help cover the boxing club’s expenses.
The Midwest trip and even one to Angola have given some of the teens a chance to go outside the Buffalo area for the first time.
“I once brought the kids to my uncle’s campsite in Angola, where we had a cookout,” Jerry Diaz said. “I said to one of the kids, ‘I told you there’s a beach here, why are you wearing jeans?,’ and he said, ‘I’ve never been to a beach before.’ ”
Alvin Gibbs, a popular trainer who sparred with three heavyweight champions, including Muhammad Ali, said the club does a world of good but clearly needs more support, such as help in buying food for the teens who file in after school.
The range of boxers includes a few children as young as 8 to Bianca Cruz, a 39-year-old grandmother who recently returned to the ring with an eye toward turning pro.
Boxing has fallen out of favor over the years in the United States, partly because of the splintering of boxing associations that no longer offer undisputed champions but also due to the brain damage suffered by popular fighters over the last several decades from repeated blows to the head.
The club’s trainers are aware of the dangers, of course, and have their own perspectives on how to avoid them.
“There’s definitely a dark side of [boxing], for sure. It really comes down to people staying in the sport too long, and not having the right people looking after them,” Upchurch said.
Emmanuel DeJesus said a good trainer can do a lot to prevent serious injury.
“If your fighter is hurt, you tell him to quit. You can see when it’s not good to fight. To not do so is because you don’t have love for the sport, or for your fighters,” DeJesus said.
Preston Jones, a boxing judge and referee who helps out at the gym, sees another side to the sport. “Boxing is really an art form, and we teach kids the art of boxing in the ring, not out in the street.”
Christian Colon, 17, learned boxing first for self-protection, since he was picked on for being small. But what he has learned in the gym, Colon said, has given him a new perspective on life.
“There’s no point anymore to fight on the streets. I’d rather stay in the gym and make something of myself. Now I make my parents proud,” he said.
Upchurch said the changes in these inner-city kids have been a sight to behold.
“There’s really a no-nonsense clause with them to do well in school, respect their parents and respect everyone in the gym, and it shows, and it shows with the dedication,” Upchurch said.
“Every one of these kids that walks through the door shakes everybody’s hand when they come in, and when they leave.”