April 11, 2008

Ithaca's Basement Tradition

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The row of drab brick is interrupted by a door distinctive only for its color — yellow. It’s not a cool, pale, Easter yellow, but a bright, screaming, spray-paint yellow.
“[It’s] on Albany,” an email with directions said, “and there is a yellow door slightly cracked open which leads to the gym.”
It may sound vague, but the door sticks out like a single yellow fruit loop floating in chocolate milk. A five-pound weight props open the door, which leads to a few concrete stairs descending into darkness. Sporadically lining the concrete shelves are a few cheap high school baseball trophies, contradicting the character of the scene that awaits. [img_assist|nid=29738|title=Andrew Killion|desc=Senior Andrew Killion has been training for the New York Golden Gloves competition at the GIAC in the Commons.|link=node|align=left|width=|height=0]
Not until the bottom of the staircase do you see the first suggestions of what is to come — two punching bags and a scale. The bags’ contents bulge and beg to be set free from the restrictive, liberally applied duct tape. The scale waits ominously for its user to meet his requirements.
To the left of the bags is a set of double doors shrouded in darkness. It takes time to find the metal handle, or even realize there is a handle, for that matter.
Opening the door up is like unzipping a gym bag that has been sitting out in the sun all day. The room sprawls beneath a low-hanging ceiling. A “Fallout Shelter” sign pretty much sums up the ambience of the room — cracking white paint, three green lockers with bent doors and rusted sides, a small bench with the stuffing bursting out like mushroom clouds.
Amidst swinging boxing bags and the sweatsuit-clad people dancing around them, Cornell senior Andrew Killion sticks out. He’s at least a head shorter than anyone else in the room, and is not helped by a face that guarantees that he will be carded until his mid 30s.
Killion is getting ready to go for the day, but still hanging around in the small aisle to the left of the ring, where the dented green lockers and beat up wooden blue cubbies line the wall. He’s talking to his trainer Danny Akers, a former boxer who runs this training facility, a single room located in the basement of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC). Hanging on the ropes, having just finished a sparring session with Akers, is Willy Monroe Jr., the professional boxer that trains with Akers at the GIAC.
“How old are you?” Monroe asks Killion.
“21,” Killion says with a smile that shows he’s heard this question before.
“How old did you think he is?” Akers shoots back. Monroe is laughing and shaking his head.
“Man, when I saw you walk in here the first time, I thought you were like 16, 17.”
Monroe himself is just shy of 22, but looks about five years Killion’s senior. But after Killion’s first fight, no one’s questioning his boxing ability. That specific fight, a few weeks ago, won him the Central Region in the qualifying rounds of the New York State Golden Gloves competition. Tonight, Killion will compete at the state level, seeing how he matches up with the big boys in Syracuse (metaphorically speaking, that is, they’ll all weigh 140 pounds at weigh-in just like Killion).
The 30 Golden Gloves competitions held around the country are considered some of the most prestigious amateur boxing tournaments. The New York division, in particular, is one of the top-2 or top-3 Golden Gloves divisions. Boxers like Floyd Patterson, Sugar Ray Robinson and Mike Tyson all have New York Golden Glove titles on their resumes.
Killion’s road to the Golden Gloves, though, has not been a linear one. He started off as a varsity rower for Cornell. After he quit as a junior, though, he looked for another physical outlet and ended up with the Cornell Boxing Club, where he began to learn the fundamentals from its coach, Erik Charles. Charles stressed footwork, which Killion said was the hardest and most unnoticed part of boxing.
“When I started at Cornell, you don’t even throw punches for the first two weeks,” he said, his booming voice rising in excitment. “Don’t cross your feet, move like this, step up, back, like this.” Killion starts bouncing on the balls of his feet, rocking back-and-forth, side-to-side, resorting to a physical explanation. And that’s just like Killion — always moving, always engaging — bouncing into Keenan, a kid no older than 10, and playfully sparring with him one second, then pummeling a punching bag the next.
After some time with the Cornell Boxing Club, another former rower turned his attention to the GIAC.
“I had a friend who was a super-senior so his [NCAA] eligibility had run out,” Killion said. “He started boxing down here and he told me I would like it so he introduced me to this.”
“This” could be interpreted in so many ways. In the physical sense, “this” is the room, with walls lined with posters from old amateur matches, showing boxers with nicknames like “Bam Bam” and “King” Tutt and ticket prices in the $1-3 range. Beige, crumbling newspaper clippings about the various boxers that went on from the basement of the GIAC to varying degrees of professional success are pinned at odd angles and buried under the posters.
“This” could also mean the culture and the atmosphere of the place.
“It’s like a family,” Killion said.
“He’s like my pops,” added Andrew, another amateur boxer there, about the man who they all train under.
Killion likes to tell the story about the days leading up to Monroe’s first professional fight. Monroe was a guy that Akers had really taken under his wing. After Monroe graduated from a performing arts college, he became an alcoholic. Akers, who had coached Monroe’s dad during his professional career, convinced Monroe to move to Ithaca and train in his gym. The father figure and family comparisons are almost too easy.
When Monroe was finally ready to begin his professional career, everyone associated with the gym was there to support him.
“There were guys coming in I had never seen before,” he said, his eyes wide. “It was like those HBO specials before the fights where they have media days and there are like 600 camera people there. It was like that except on a much, much, much smaller scale. You could feel it. You could feel the excitement.”
And you could feel Killion’s excitement with his voice cutting across the room. In all fairness, though, Killion always seems excited, waving his hands around as he speaks and tells stories.
“I just want to be there, I just want to watch it,” he quickly yelled, half joking about the prefight media events.
But it’s really most apparent in the more minute, every day interactions that reveal the gym’s character. The first thing you might see walking in could either be Killion working a punching bag, or giving pointers to Keenan, who is about to spar for the first time and then promising him a Gatorade if he wins. It’s no less normal to see two boxers sparring in the ring than it is to see a boxer dancing and singing to Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me” — or The Temptations, Al Green, James Brown or the Isley Brothers for that matter.
“That’s all Willie,” Killion said. “He loves the oldies.” TO BE CONTINUED