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In the Ring/Hagerstown Boxing Club a Hit with Kids

by Nathan Oravec

Unbeknownst to most of its citizens, a good fight is being fought in the heart of Hagerstown.

Johnnie Johnson has been boxing for the better part of his life. Fighting pro for a short time himself before deciding to use his talents to tutor up and comers, over the course of his career as a professional trainer and manager he’s worked with a number of name fighters - Vincent Tompson, David Izegwire and Riddick Bowe. Today, though, as manager of the nonprofit Hagerstown Boxing Club where he teaches youths ages eight to eighteen the ropes of boxing: discipline, pride and commitment - his mission has more to do with turnabout than knockouts.

Johnson remembers his days as a troubled young man, before a concerned family member turned him to the sport that would change his life. “I started in North Phily,” says the soft-spoken trainer. “At Columbia Avenue & Ridge at Pal’s Gym. I was twelve years old.”

“At the time, I was out on the streets - getting involved with gangs. My uncle was a fighter. He pulled me off the streets and told me, ‘What you’re doing now is going to get you in trouble. If you want to learn to fight I’ll take you to the gym.’”

There, he was introduced to boxing. “I liked it,” he exclaims.

Johnson would work himself up through novice and open classes until he was old enough to join the service, whereupon he enlisted in the army. While working in the engineering outfit, he made the boxing team and under the tutelage of mentor Stanley Martin, won the base championship. As a boxer in the army, he would fight across the globe, traveling from California to Korea, undefeated. After being discharged, he returned to the states - and to the gloves, fighting in the nationals and ultimately turning pro. With twenty-six fights under his belt - four, six, eight and ten rounders - but not making a great deal of money, he made the decision to retire from the sport as a fighter, and instead turn his attention to training others.

For several years, beginning in ’75, Johnson trained amateur and pro fighters in Northeast DC at Finley’s Gym. That year he met Dick Hess who taught boxing at the Boys and Girls Club in Hagerstown. They would become best friends, Johnson counseling some of Hess’ fighters who wished to turn pro. When Johnson moved to Hagerstown in 1986, Hess introduced him to Bob Strout, President of Cumberland’s Has Beens Boxing Club and convinced him to join as an assistant trainer, working with many of the club’s amateur fighters. Five days a week, Johnson would travel between Cumberland and home becoming good friends with the Cumberland-based instructor. When Strout became ill, he entrusted Johnson with a professional boxing ring that he had recently purchased. “He said, ‘I know you’ll use it and won’t sell it,’” Johnson recalls. After Stout’s passing, Johnson and Hess brought the ring to Hagerstown and began searching for a place in which to use it.

For a time, Hess and Johnson secured space at the old YMCA facility, where they trained fighters for nearly a year before the building was acquired by the state, and the search for a viable gym began anew. In 1998, a storefront on South Potomac Street was located. With ample space to house their ring and permission from the building’s owner, the newly christened Hagerstown Boxing Club opened its doors and began training the city’s young boxers.

Today a member of the South Atlantic Boxing Association, the gym is open seven days a week for training. While available to men, women and children - a handful of adults utilize the gym and its equipment for weight training purposes in the evenings - by and large, the younger crowd is the Boxing Club’s focus group. Currently fourteen young men, ranging in age from eight to nineteen, show up every afternoon after school, Monday through Friday, for an intense one and a half-hour workout, under the guidance of Johnson and fellow trainers/former students, Jeff Haynes, Wayne Anderson and Scott Draper.

While heavy bags and free-weights are definitely part of the strenuous regiment, Johnson stresses the more intangible elements of the sport. Prior to a boxer joining the Club, Johnson says he explains to them the difficulty involved and what he or she is going to be required to learn, and more importantly, what behavior they will be expected to exhibit. “To be a good boxer,” he says, “you have to have a good attitude; be reliable, responsible and respectful; you have to carry yourself as a gentleman; you have to listen - and you have to have a lot of dedication.”

“It’s a hard sport,” he continues. “You have to love it.”

It’s a coda that he lives and teaches by, and one that has shown promising results. “I get a lot of comments about the kids and how their attitudes have changed [for the better.]”

The Hagerstown Boxing Club’s operating funds are provided from membership dues - $35 a month per boxer. “We went through some hard spots - and are still going through some. We took some money out of our own pockets, and we finally had to tell the kids that we would have to charge them a fee in order to keep the Club running.”

Realizing the integral role the sport plays in many of the children’s lives, Johnson reaches out whenever possible. “I had one kid, twelve years old, who couldn’t afford to pay the membership fee. He was a good kid, had good grades, so I said I’d pay his dues. We try to help when we can. We’ll work with the kids and their parents.”

“That’s the way I was brought up,” Johnson continues. “My goal was to get an education and to do what I do best, which was box.”

Asked if any of his current students could be considered naturals, Johnson smiles. “There’s one kid, eight years old, from West Virginia - there’s not a bag back there that he doesn’t know how to hit. I think he could be a natural.”

“They’re all doing a great job,” he adds. “Every day I see improvement in these fighters.”

The Hagerstown Boxing Club, Johnson believes, serves a definite purpose in the community. By providing the youth it teaches with a productive outlet, as well as a sense of accomplishment, they are kept off the streets, out of drugs - out of trouble. “Hopefully the people of Hagerstown will see the light of what we’re trying to do here,” he says. “I see in these kids what my uncle saw in me. I do it for them. I enjoy working with them and seeing them grow.”

For more information on the Hagerstown Boxing Club, 7 South Potomac Street in Hagerstown, call 301-745-4282.

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