The Fight Club

For about a decade, Barry Hunter has run a youth boxing program at Lincoln Junior High. What goes on under Hunter's watch five nights a week inside a cramped, sweaty room in Columbia Heights has little in common with the ring-related circus now grabbing so many headlines locally. There are no entourages or limousines or staged brawls or eight-figure paydays in Hunter's world.

This isn't show business. This is boxing.

During Monday's workout, which Hunter described as typical for this time of year, more than a dozen kids practiced their punches by themselves, using shadows and their reflections in the wall mirrors as targets, then took turns jumping into the makeshift 10-by-10-foot ring for one-on-one sparring sessions. While waiting for Hunter to call their names for ring work, fighters beat on the well-worn speed bags and heavy bags hanging around the room. Music was turned off, talking was kept to a minimum, and nobody muttered the words "Mike Tyson" all night. The mood in the gym was far more serious than fun.

The training sessions run year-round, but Hunter recently stepped up the pace of his young fighters' workout regimen. This is tournament season in amateur boxing. The regional portion of the 2002 Golden Gloves championships opened last weekend at Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Gym in Palmer Park, Md. Hunter's fighters, whom he has dubbed the Headbangers, went 6-1 in the opening round.

The stars of his stable, brothers Lamont and Anthony Peterson, didn't compete at Sugar Ray's. Hunter's now getting them tuned up for a trip to Las Vegas, where they'll compete in the Everlast Men's U.S. Championships beginning April 1. The Petersons are used to the national spotlight by now. Last year, both won major amateur titles: Lamont took the Golden Gloves championship fighting at 132 pounds, and Anthony captured the U.S. Junior Olympics crown at 125 pounds. Both have fought more than 125 amateur bouts.

Lamont, the second-youngest of 12 kids in his family, quit school a couple of years ago because he thought he was already "too behind." Now 18, he says he plans to get his GED. His only career goals, he says, are to go pro and "win a world championship." Asked what he'll do if the title belt never comes his way, Lamont hesitates for several seconds and says he might look into becoming a carpenter. Anthony, who turned 17 last week, remains a student at Cardozo. Hunter says that he has trouble finding any local amateurs willing to face Anthony. "He's knocked everybody out. I had to leave town to find him a fight," says Hunter.

In Hunter's club, the Petersons, who are from the Knox Terrace section of Southeast, serve as each other's sparring partner. Before letting them in the ring, Hunter dabs Vaseline on their brows and gloves to reduce the risk of cuts and makes sure their safety equipment is tied snugly. When he yells "Time!" they go at it like, well, brothers. Albeit very disciplined, well-trained, evenly matched brothers. They trade textbook hooks and crosses until Hunter yells "Time!" again. Then they tap gloves, take deep breaths for 30 seconds, and wait for the signal to go at it for another three-minute round. Even Gandhi would have to admit that these guys throw very pretty punches.

"Those kids are loaded with talent," says the proud coach as the brothers go toe to toe.

In Las Vegas, the Petersons will be trying to catch the eyes of the national boxing officials who will be selecting the U.S. team for the 2004 Olympics. Hunter will be there with them.

"This is the first step toward the Olympics," Hunter says. "This is a big deal. I've got to be there. I've had Lamont and Anthony since they were 9 and 10 years old."

Hunter gets most of his kids when they're very young. Take Joshua Parker. Nobody in the Lincoln Junior High brood has better footwork or a quicker jab than the 75-pounder. He's been training with the club for six years. He's 11.

Boxing, particularly the youth version of the sport, has its detractors. A few years ago, the American Medical Association, which has long viewed boxing as hazardous to participants' health, pushed to ban the pastime in all "governmental athletic programs." That means the organization wouldn't cotton to the use of a D.C. public school for Hunter's boxing club, which is the only public club left in the city. (The expected razing of Lincoln Junior High threatened to leave the Headbangers homeless, but Hunter thinks he'll find a new home for his club at the Bald Eagle Rec Center in Southwest.)

Hunter, 39, knows more than he'd care to admit about the macabre side of boxing. In 1995, one of his fighters, Nate Wigfall, collapsed and died after a workout at the Lincoln Junior High gym. Wigfall, too, was preparing for the Golden Gloves. Doctors ruled he'd developed a blood clot in his brain from taking punches.

But Hunter needn't bother worrying whether he's fighting the good fight. Over his years with the club, a whole lot more young lives have been damaged on the streets that surround the school than in his ring.

"When the kids are here," he says, "we know where they are." --Dave McKenna

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