Tucked behind the Lunch Box Diner and Cafeteria on the corner of Elgin and Dowling in the Third Ward sits a corrugated metal building in the middle of a patch of weeds. It doesn't look like much of anything at all. Certainly not like the sanctuary it is.
Inside isn't pretty either. Everything is covered in the thinnest layer of very old sweat, accompanied by the standard junior-high locker smell. Ripped vinyl couches and bars on the windows provide the finishing touches. But the local boys who pour into this building every day around 4:30 in the afternoon couldn't care less. They could be home watching television or running the streets. Instead, they have come here to box.
The project belongs to the Reverend Ray Martin, the 62-year-old "fighting preacher" who created his own Progressive Amateur Boxing Association in October 1969. A former serviceman and nightclub bouncer, Martin learned to love boxing as a small child, when he listened to Joe Louis fights on the radio.
"Boxing teaches discipline, and even today I don't smoke and I don't drink, because of boxing," says Martin, known as "the Reverend" to anyone who meets him. The Reverend was moved by champion Muhammad Ali's ability to use his fame to make political statements and share his views on social problems. Maybe I could do the same, the Reverend thought. So he opened up PABA and created the motto "You can't open a knife or fire a gun with a boxing glove on!"
Today 35 to 40 kids take part in the Reverend's after-school sessions and his summer program. Boys, and some girls, as young as six and as old as 14 or 15 are picked up after school every day by the Reverend's son Ray Jr., who brings them back to the ring for a workout.
For the most part this is the business of serious young men. When Ray Jr. leads them out back to a patch of untended grass behind the building so they can practice warm-up drills, the boys line up and don't talk. A taller one in red nylon shorts and a white T-shirt spits neatly into the weeds in front of him. They do not smile. Sweat and toughness drip off them. Over the sound of cars rushing by just a few feet away, Ray Jr. calls out orders, and the backyard is suddenly transformed into a makeshift boot camp.
"Jab!" he bellows.
"Jab!" the children answer back, tossing out their skinny arms.
"One, two!" Ray grunts.
"One, two!" they respond, straining to make their voices sound deeper.
"Right!" Ray cries.
"Right!" they yell. But some are still too young to remember right from left, and Ray calmly reminds the ones who've thrown the wrong punch to use "the other right" next time.
Ray Jr. approaches the children and positions their body parts like a sculptor fashioning a new statue: placing an arm here, turning a shoulder there. He gets them in a fighting stance and makes them think they could take on anyone.
After the outdoor drills, he leads them inside where they sit quietly in a row of metal folding chairs. One by one Ray takes them into the ring, which is roped off in red, white and blue. He suits them up in bright red gloves. The gloves are so big relative to their tiny arms, it seems as if the kids might tip forward from the weight. But they do not. Instead, they get their hands up, listen to Ray and follow his instructions as carefully as they can.
"You gotta step side, step side," Ray Jr. says, sliding around his miniature opponent. If it weren't for the sweat and tiny jabs and punches, it would look like they were negotiating a dance.
The rolling thumpity-thump of older boxers attacking punching bags punctuates the drone from a television in the background. Someone's little sister is playing with a jump rope in the corner. The rest of the younger boys look on from the folding chairs. Some of them are so small their sneakered feet barely brush the floor. But they are not afraid.
Ten-year-old Kalyn Boudre calls boxing an adventure. He says it keeps him out of trouble. And he doesn't fear getting hit in the head, or so he claims.
"Oh, I've been hit in the head before," he says casually.
Nine-year-old John Boutte concentrates on the fight in the ring. He really doesn't have time to answer questions. He takes things seriously, even though he admits boxing is "fun." How long has he been boxing?
"Ever since I started," he answers, squirming in his chair.
Some of them will only be here for a few weeks; some might never come back after today. Each child who walks through PABA's doors isn't necessarily saved immediately, and lots of them are never saved at all. The Reverend tells of one former student who came by to see him after he'd just gotten out of prison for drug-related crimes.
"That's a hurting situation," he says. He knows not even boxing can turn everything around.
But there are those who make it and come back to give their thanks. Such as Larry Leon Williams, who darted inside one recent afternoon to hand the Reverend a handmade card out of green construction paper. A $5 bill was tucked inside.
"Thanks for the lessons," Williams had carefully inscribed over a sketch of himself in the ring.
"The thing I like the most about Reverend Ray is he gives every kid a chance," says 33-year-old Elvert "Buffalo" Gill, who started boxing with the Reverend 13 years ago and won several amateur titles and continues to box professionally. "Of course, it doesn't mean they're all going to become the next Muhammad Ali," he admits.
In fact, the great majority of them won't. But that's not really the point of PABA anyway. The point is that for a few hours after school each day, the Reverend and his son help these kids believe they have some kind of fighting chance.
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