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.
(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.
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.
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.
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.
(Above: Jessica Perez, Edgar Martinez and Jada White).
© Dean Pagani 2019