The crafty old trainer watches his new kid shadowbox in front of a full- length mirror. Fifteen-year-old Chris Campbell is working out for the first time at the Tuff Side Gym on 17th Avenue and Van Buren. Sweat pours off both of them. It's 110 degrees outside the gym and at least 120 inside. "If you win, I win," trainer Gino Segura tells Chris, a skinny white kid from Glendale whose color and suburban home base are in the minority at this inner-city gym. "If you lose, I lose. In life, what you don't know might not hurt you. In boxing, what you don't know can get you knocked out." Segura suddenly shoots a left hook into Chris' right kidney, pulling the punch before it can do any damage. "You listen to me, okay?"
Segura has been giving raps like this since he started coaching amateur boxers three decades ago. He's about sixty now, and he may have shrunk a half-inch or so from the diminutive five-foot-three he used to be.
The trainer is on a fixed income, and his old car won't make it across the Valley from his home in Mesa. So every weekday, he hops on a bus and takes the hour-plus ride to open the gym. Three hours later, he makes the long return trip.
"I come here for the kids," says Segura, a former USA national team coach. "Nobody pays me a penny. I paid my dues, bro'. Now I'm giving something back. We get kids coming in and out of here. We lose some to jobs, and that's okay. We lose some to drugs and bad stuff. But we're here for the people who want to be something."
Tuff Side is no different from a thousand other urban boxing gyms: It has a ring, speed bags, heavy bags, and little else. Like every other gym worth its salt, Tuff Side also has that musty smell of hope that pulls in dreamers and underdogs.
"When I was a kid, I had nowhere like this to go and I got into some trouble," says Wes Melton, a radiator shop owner who opened the gym a year ago and operates it with his brother-in-law, Tony de la Paz. "I needed a place to do something right. The idea here is to give kids a chance to get off the streets and do something positive. Maybe if one of them is good enough to turn pro, we'll manage him. But we're not in this to make money--obviously. I can't say how long we're gonna to be able to keep this alive."
Expenses at Tuff Side--rent, electricity, water--come to about $1,500 a month, half from Melton and half from De la Paz. The pair have some grant proposals in the works, and that may keep the gym doors open. A fund-raising tournament last weekend at the downtown Fiestas Patrias netted only about $500.
Keeping the gym doors open is important to Carl Barnett. He isn't sure he wants his two young sons to box professionally. But he does want them to stay straight, and that may be their hardest fight. The Barnett clan lives in a drug-ridden, rough-and-tumble
neighborhood near 24th Avenue and Buckeye Road.
Carl Jr. and Carlos--ages ten and twelve respectively--played Pop Warner football until this year, when the league raised the per-player fee. Barnett Sr. says he couldn't afford the new fee, and was at a loss for what to do with his boys. Then he heard about Tuff Side.
"I come down here with the boys almost every day," Barnett says. "I puts my time in with my kids; that's what a lot of parents should be doin'. I really like what Gino does, how he treats my kids like young men. Boxing gonna give them a better chance at doin' something good. I think it's a hell of thing they doin' here."
Barnett stares intently at his sons as they pound the heavy bags for three minutes. He gives each of them a high-five after Segura checks his stopwatch and shouts above the tumult, "Time!"
Ten-year-old Carlos doesn't pause when asked whom his favorite fighter is. "Mike Tyson," he says. And number two? "That guy who beat him," Carlos says of current champ Buster Douglas.
Not all of the gym's regulars are young kids. Curtis Alexander, an articulate 24-year-old airman stationed at Luke, is preparing for his first amateur bout.
"I've never boxed formally before, but I thought I'd give it a chance," says Texas native Alexander. "It's extremely hot down here, and it's nothing fancy, but I have a lot of respect for Gino and the way he deals with people."
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In another corner of the gym, lanky 139-pounder Sam Lerma works on his footwork with Gino Segura. "Dance, bro,'" Segura says. "Mira, Sam. Get up on the balls of your feet. Legs are like shock absorbers. Remember that."
Lerma is a seventeen-year-old neighborhood kid who is working part time as a carpenter. He wandered into Tuff Side in February and has been a fixture ever since. Undefeated in five bouts, he shyly admits that he's considering a pro career.
"I had lots of fights outside the gym, street fights," Lerma says during a short break. "But I didn't know nothing about boxing, about the work it takes. You got to be clean to do this right. I love this."
Tuff Side has that musty smell of hope that pulls in dreamers and underdogs.