Outside The Box
A former US boxing champ teaches kids confidence inside the ring.
Thursday, November 29, 2001
Huffing and puffing, they come back in from the run around the ballfields behind the Boys & Girls Club. As another group plays casual handball at a nearby wall, Germaine, Tyrone, Chris, another Chris, Petey, Maurice, Landon and Terrence stumble in, catch their breath, hold their knees and sprawl out on the grass. It''s Friday afternoon in Seaside and boxing practice has begun.
These boys are very popular figures at the club, so popular, in fact, that while they''re outside warming up, Ron Powell, the phys-ed director, is in their practice room taping butcher paper over the large frame windows that face the lobby.
"The kids get attracted. They line up to watch," Powell says. Taping a corner of the paper up against the window he adds, "This lets [the boxers] focus."
Outside, after a quick break in the grass, boxing coach Liko Smith lines them up.
"On your feet. We''re gonna do 10 push-ups," he says firmly.
With varied techniques--some have arched backs, others have their knees on the ground--the junior boxers, ages nine through twelve, bust out 10 big ones to Smith''s cadence. Up. Down. Up. Down. Up. Down.
Walking back into the practice room, one of the boys wears Smith''s US Boxing Team warm-up jacket, a souvenir from Smith''s earlier days. Today, Smith is the manager of the Carmel Mission Inn, but in a previous life he was a nationally ranked fighter with Olympic aspirations. A member of the US team in 1995, he went to Western Samoa to box for that island nation''s team. (Smith''s mother is Samoan.)
But Smith''s bid to fight for Samoa fizzled in Sydney when he twice knocked down his opponent, but lost by decision. Smith was so disgusted he hung up the gloves and moved back to his hometown of Las Vegas to finish a degree in hotel management.
Now a resident of Carmel, he volunteered to teach boxing after hearing a presentation at a Rotary Club lunch.
Smith wants the youngsters to learn boxing and develop solid confidence at the same time. He wants them competing in tournaments by spring.
"I tell my boxers to hit and don''t get hit. It''s very simple. That''s the basics of boxing," he says. "You repeat that formula until the other guy passes out."
Smith ended up in the ring in much the way some of his students ended up in his class.
"I was getting into fights a lot," he says. That''s when his dad dropped him off at the Boys & Girls Club and told him, "Okay. Fight these kids. They love fighting."
He took to it and was soon fighting at the Golden Gloves boxing gym in Vegas. After high school, he nearly found himself in Saudi Arabia during Desert Storm, except he was boxing in the Army. During trials for the All-Army Boxing Tournament in 1990, the sergeant in charge told the soldiers that if they didn''t progress in the matches, they were headed to the Persian Gulf. "It was the most intense fighting I''ve ever seen," Smith says. "It was a bloodbath."
No bloodbath today, just some jab practice. Despite the butcher paper on the inside window, there are fans watching through an outside window.
One of them, a lanky, smiling girl, does jumping jacks when the boys do jumping jacks. When they throw quick three punch combinations, she stands outside and throws her combinations, only faster. She''s karate fast. The lanky, smiling girl can join the class if her parents let her, and in fact, Smith wants girls in the class. He says it''s good for self-esteem, boys'' and girls''.
When the boys are done stretching it''s time to wrap knuckles. Half of them pull on gloves, the other half wear "focus mitts," the paddle-like gloves used for taking practice punches.
As they get ready, Smith tells them, "Today we''re working on the jab. The powerful jab."
Another boy, older and taller and with an afro, leans against the wall and watches. "You guys are so lucky. Man, if I had the time I''d do this," he says. He can''t box because he has football practice.
The boxers start throwing punches. They have to last two minutes, and Smith wants to make sure they can endure. "You notice how your arm gets tired," he says. "That''s why we exercise."
After two minutes they stop and get air.
"Take deep breaths," Smith says. "Replenish your bloodstream."
One of the boys knows real matches are coming in a few months and asks, "Will we be fighting with bigger kids than him?" pointing to his partner.
"Yeah," Smith says.
"Oh," the boy replies, wide-eyed. Encouraged, he asks another question.
"Have you ever knocked out somebody?"
"Lots of times," Smith says.
The boy smiles wide this time.
"No more questions," Smith says.
After they get their air, Smith taps the stopwatch for another two-minute round.
"Exercise!" he says, and with that they throw another flurry of jabs.
"This isn''t even boxing, fellas," Smith tells them. "This is pillowfighting. This is playing around."