ATLANTIC CITY — Shamirah Howard, 26, is trying to keep her young son on the right path, which is part of what led her to bring Lyfe Watson, 9, to the boxing gym on the third floor of the Atlantic City Police Athletic League on a recent Thursday evening.
“I want to keep him busy and focused,” Howard said. “He could go to the streets if he’s not doing anything.”
Boxing teaches discipline and self-defense and can instill self-confidence in youth. In struggling communities such as Atlantic City, which recorded 27 homicides and nonfatal shootings in 2018, the sport offers more than just exercise, keeping youth out of trouble, providing exercise and offering some a path out of poverty.
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“I’ve been working with kids and boxing since we were in the old PAL on Rhode Island and Mediterranean avenues (in the early 1980s),” trainer Bill Johnson said. “It definitely helps keep the kids off the streets.”
Howard, a 2010 Atlantic City High School graduate who lives in Venice Park, flashed a bright smile while Lyfe worked with trainer Darnell Parker.
His tiny hands were encased in gigantic, blue gloves. Parker donned a pair of hand pads while Lyfe fired punches.
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“Lyfe’s wanted to try boxing for a while, but we made a deal that he had to make sure he kept good grades before we came here,” Howard said. “School comes first before anything else. I’m glad he’s trying this, though. It gives us some bonding time.”
Lyfe was among a dozen young boxers working out at the PAL on New York Avenue.
Older, more accomplished boxers slammed hooks against heavy bags, producing “thwacks” that echoed throughout the arena. Enrique Torres Jr., 16, worked a speed bag with a blurring succession of punches, making the tiny ball of leather bounce with a quick beat that sounded like a drummer performing a solo.
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“I’ve been coming here for about 2½ years,” said Torres, who lives on North Arkansas Avenue and attends the Atlantic County Institute of Technology in Mays Landing. “I don’t play any other sports because I’m committed to boxing. I want to become a world champion so that I can give back to the community but also so my parents won’t have to work anymore.”
There is a lot of temptation.
Parents and guardians face an ongoing fight to keep their children involved in school and other activities.
“I’ve been coming here for seven months,” said Zyeem Hicks, 11, who lives in Back Maryland. “My mom and dad (Medina and Richard Hicks) are always encouraging me to try something new. I played football for the Atlantic City Dolphins last year, and this year I wanted to try boxing.”
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The Atlantic City PAL is known for its boxing program, producing a number of amateur champions, such as Shamone Alvarez, Dallas Holden and Alfred Kinsey, all of whom went on to turn professional. The venue has also produced its share of professional standouts, including the late Leavander Johnson, Bill’s son, who was the International Boxing Federation lightweight champion, and John Brown, a former world title contender.
On a given day, the abilities of the young fighters vary. During a recent visit, the boxers ranged in age from 8 to 18. Some had been there only a few days, others a few years.
“I’ve been coming here for 10 months,” said 10-year-old Abdur’Nur Preston, who lives in Back Maryland. “My mom and dad (Atiya Hathaway and Michael Preston) thought I should try it. I love it. I like to hit people.”
When he finished his workout, Torres packed up his gear and headed home. When he’s not boxing or attending school, he spends his spare time in his bedroom playing video games.
He steadfastly refuses to get involved with the wrong crowd.
“I’m not interested in gangs or any of that other stuff,” he said.