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Champions in Life Charter oak boxing academy

Five nights a week and most weekends, in what looks like an old garage sitting on the edge of the Parkville section of Hartford, Connecticut, dozens of boys and girls - men and women - check into the Charter Oak Boxing Academy to practice, study and spar.

In a room made humid by perspiration, there are the sounds of jump ropes snapping on the floor, punches landing on heavy bags, the snorting of shadow boxers and the squeak of shoes shuffling across two rings, as fighting friends practice the art of hitting without being hit. For all the sound the place is quiet, because boxing takes concentration and as much as success in the ring builds confidence, absorbing a punch infuses humility which removes the impulse to brag over momentary conquest.

COBA was started 30 years ago in one of Hartford's housing projects by Johnny Callas, a local boxer, coach and referee. Now he is the executive director and more importantly the team captain. If he quit today - his legacy would be secure - having had a major positive influence in the lives of hundreds of young men and women. During the day Callas works for the Connecticut Department of Children and Families. In his remaining waking hours, he is absorbed in the mission of the boxing academy.

COBA is mainly an after school program. Its goal is to apply the discipline required for excellence in the ring to life. The program aims to give kids unique skills with the potential to turn them into outstanding adults. If somewhere along the way, a COBA boxer turns into a champion - it is a bonus.

(Above: Former Hartford Deputy Police Chief Robert Ford)

One of the best examples of COBA's success is Robert Ford, who until July of 2018, was deputy police chief in Hartford. Ford was in the first class of COBA boxers in 1988. He is the president of the board of directors and Callas says he is the one boxer he trusts to keep him true to the founding principles of the organization. Ford still trains at COBA today. So does his daughter - Dejah Ford.

Clockwise: Dejah Ford. Chief Ford working out. Callas and Ford present Dejah with her official COBA uniform. Only boxers considered ready to fight in the ring can wear the uniform.
Everyone who steps in the ring is accorded the same level of respect.

With my eye on the ring I begin to hear a unique set of sounds coming from the area of the heavy bags behind me. Jessica Perez has begun to work out and you can tell she is enjoying it. Mixed with the sounds of her gloves making contact are the grunts of an athlete trying to put every ounce of her energy into one strike and the elation of someone laughing in pure joy at having done so. It is unlike any other sound in the gym. In fact, everyone has stepped aside as Jessica pounds the bag as if fighting for her life.

The sound of Jessica working the heavy bag is a mix of pain, power and ecstasy.

Jessica teaches students with autism at an elementary school in Springfield, Massachusetts. She has found a home in boxing where she can be herself without judgement. Her husband is a boxer and got her interested in the sport. He is her primary trainer. She competes at the tournament level and in the last year she has dedicated her work in the ring to the son she lost in the 39th week of pregnancy. "I fight for him now, because he can't fight for himself."

When she wins a belt or a trophy she shares it with her students - who she says - do not really understand the concept of boxing, but do understand the symbols of success.

For her and for the younger students she shares the gym with, training is something to look forward to, a routine that allows for aggression in a controlled setting, and encourages discipline.

Jessica's story is just one of many individual stories in this gym.

There is Coach Teddy Perez(Jessica's father in-law), a Department of Children and Families social worker who spends nights at COBA. His family had it hard when he was growing up in Puerto Rico and he pledged at an early age he would devote his life to working with kids. "Saving just one. Just one," he says, is victory, but he believes he has saved many through his work at the academy.

There are the students from Trinity College, who on the face of it have every advantage over the city kids the gym caters to, but are nonetheless welcome and equal in the ring. There are the little kids wearing little kid tee-shirts and boxing gloves and there are the former champions who show up several nights a week to impart their wisdom on anyone with the courage to put on the gloves.

Clockwise: Coach Teddy Perez, students from Trinity College learn footwork, Nelly Ruiz, O.J. Coley with coach John "Iceman" Scully - a former light-heavyweight contender.

All the training is tested at least twice a week in sparring matches. This is where even the un-trained eye can see the difference between what it is like to practice boxing and what it is like to be in the ring with someone trying to hit you. The difference between preparing for a fight and being in one is as different as the sound of a glove hitting a bag and the sound of a glove hitting your face.

Isiah Deas spars with Gabe Cruz above(2) and Matthew Peck.

Coach Callas fell in love with boxing while a student at Central Connecticut State University. He says what he learned in the ring, under the instruction of Coach Billy Taylor, was more important to him than what he learned in the classroom. It was a "profound experience."

Every challenge you meet in life you confront in the ring, Callas says, and that's what makes boxing effective as an instructional tool for youth. Boxing is a metaphor.

"You have your ups, you have yours downs. You have to believe in yourself. You have to stay positive. You have to surround yourself with good people. You have to make healthy choices. You have to envision yourself [succeeding] and set certain goals for yourself. It instills all those things and the ingredients of being successful....seeking guidance...working as a team even though it's an individual sport. [Boxing is] a vehicle to affirm life."

(Above: Jessica Perez, Edgar Martinez and Jada White).

O.J. Coley spars with Demani Williams as he prepares for a tournament bout with Callas and Scully.
Jameliz Morales

Competitive boxing can be brutal, but at COBA the violence is channeled to shape character. The boys and girls the place is meant for present themselves as young men and women. They are polite and respectful to each other and to strangers. They represent to the world the ideals listed in the code of honor that hangs on the wall near the front door.

They may walk in the door searching for something, running from something, or asking for help, but they leave the gym every night with the confidence that comes from facing a challenge with courage and determination.

When evaluating a program like the Charter Oak Boxing Academy there are those who demand to see data based "outcome measures." But the outcomes here are self-evident and multi-generational. The outcomes can be seen in how the kids carry themselves, the pride they have in their accomplishments, and the grace they show in sharing what they have learned with those coming behind them.

To watch 10 year old Jameliz Morales bobbing and weaving with coach Pito Cardona, a former champion, is a measure of what happens every night in this gym, when the COBA boxers quietly wrap their hands, slip on their gloves, and train for life.

© Dean Pagani 2019

dean@deanpagani.com I DeanPagani.com I ThisDecisiveMoment.com

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© Dean Pagani 2019

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