April 16, 2008

Ithaca's Basement Tradition: Part II

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A man strides through the door. His broad shoulders and pencil-thin waist seem out of place together — true of many good boxers. He has a bag of rice cakes slung over his shoulder and is hungrily munching down on one with his other hand.
“Gotta cut weight,” he says with a grin in response to a quizzical look.
The man is Willie Monroe Jr. He is the one professional boxer who trains at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. He’s already finished his workouts — yes, more than one — for the day, but has still chosen to spend his afternoon hanging out in a room packed with grunts, sweat, odor and the thuds of punches hitting bags.
The man giving the quizzical look is Andrew Killion, a senior at Cornell, who also trains at the GIAC. Their lives couldn’t be more different outside of what goes on in this one room. But in this one room, they are part of the same community. That’s why Monroe is here even though he is done for the day.
When two boxers enter the ring to spar, Monroe paces the few steps it requires to cross the room and drapes his arms over the hard rope enclosing the ring. Several others do this as well. Soon enough, there is a constant dialogue flying around the room as the two boxers bob and weave and circle around the ring like ballroom dancers.
“Circle out, circle out.”
“Hands up.”
“Don’t go straight back.”
“Don’t let him trap you in the corner.”
Finally, Killion enters the ring.
“Set it to three minutes,” someone shouts.
He touches gloves with his opponent and the orchestrated chaos begins. Killion throws his hands up in front of his face and that’s where they stay. He’s good at following the cardinal rule of fighting — always keep your hands up. Even his punches originate from shoulder level or higher. He keeps his opponent at a distance and likes to toss quick jabs as he lets his opponent chase him around the ring. He fights like he talks — quick, hyper, and bouncing from thought to thought.
“If you can get your footwork down, you can control everything,” Killion said. “Think about it. If I’m standing in the center of the ring and you’re running around me, you’re wasting 10 times as much energy as I am.”
Spoken like a well-trained boxer. A lot of boxers at the amateur level are what GIAC boxing trainer Danny Akers calls “sluggers.” They bull rush when the bell starts and go for broke on every punch. They throw haymakers like Tim Donaghy throws basketball games — often and with all their might.
That’s why Akers is around. Akers, a former boxer himself, trains the boxers at the GIAC. At 74 and slightly hunched over, Akers is the perfect stereotype of the crusty old boxing coach. When people are in the ring, he’s staring intensely, barking sharp insightful comments in his raspy voice. He will even get in the ring with the hitting mitts (flat pads attached to gloves) and go several rounds with one of his trainees.
“He’s not going to bullshit you,” said Andrew, one of the other boxers. “He’ll tell you if you’re good or bad and what you need to work on. If you don’t want to show up, he’s not going to make you.”
The instant the high-pitched tone signals the end of the round, Akers drops the venire — but not the Rocky coach stereotype.
“That Gatorade is looking pretty good right now,” he says with a sly smile, eyeing a red Gatorade in someone else’s cubby. As if to emphasize his intention, he wipes some sweat off his glistening forehead. Killion laughs, also breathing heavily after the session.
“It’s all you Danny,” Killion says. He had promised the Gatorade to Keenan, a kid around 10 years old who had sparred for his first time two days previously. Danny, satisfied, says the one thing that you might expect a 74-year-old boxing coach in the humid basement of a run-down building.
“You got any whiskey back there?” He eyed Killion out of the corner of his eye, waiting for a reaction to his joke.
“It’s not a mixer Danny, just a Gatorade,” Killion responded laughing.
And this from a guy who the boxers say is the guy to go to “if you want to live right — free of alcohol, eat right.” It’s as if he knows he has a role to fill — the intense, yet wisecracking boxing trainer. He only charges his amateur boxers $75 for a yearly membership. You get the feeling that if they couldn’t meet that price, they would be allowed to slide until they got the money.
Still, Akers is the technical coach. And there is no doubt he is all business.
“It’s amazing what he can recognize,” Killion said.
And Killion saw Akers’ keen perceptive abilities first hand in his first fight, the Regional portion of the New York Golden Gloves competition. From the moment the bell rung, Killion’s opponent simply dashed at him, head down, fists out. There were arms going everywhere in a blur. Killion seemed a little surprised by how aggressively the guy was trying to shove him into the corner. As Killion’s opponent walked off to his corner after the bell rung, he raised his hand to acknowledge the small crowd cheering him on.
“Danny was just like, here, when he rushes you, just start stepping back out of the way and hit him with the jab in the face,” Killion said.
The next round, Killion was suddenly in control of the situation. Two jabs with the right, then a tight hook with the left hand — Killion is left-handed.
“He was throwing these crazy, looping punches,” Killion said.
Killion started bouncing in and out of his opponent’s reach quickly while his opponent swatted at him like a bear batting a beehive. By the third round, Killion’s opponent was visibly tired.
“You know, I thought [Andrew] wouldn’t be a boxer, I thought he’d be a slugger,” Akers said. “But he boxed very well in his first fight. He had a fluent jab, good movement. It looked like he had had a fight before.”
While Akers feeds the technical information, George Hagood works with Akers’ boxers as well. He’s a huge part of the GIAC community, although no one seemed to be able to exactly define Hagood’s role — kind of like Flavor Flav with Public Enemy. Even finding out Hagood’s real name took some work. Everyone just calls him Gee Gee. His real identity was hidden in a press clipping from his boxing days.
“He warms me up before fights,” Killion said.
“He’s been around for a long time,” another boxer said.
Hagood, a tall, lanky man, who floats effortlessly around the ring slinging downward jabs at his shorter opponents, is there most days working with the boxers in the ring, too. He and Akers handle more boxers than they probably should, but they seem to be there every step of the way, following them around to their local fights.
And after Killion’s Regionals win, they followed him to Syracuse for the statewide competition.