James Barnett trains in an old-school boxing gym for an old-school boxing trainer in an old-school boxing town. Only James Barnett is not so old school.
In fact, Barnett, known formerly as "Meatball" and now as "Too Sharp" in Philadelphia pugilism circles, is just 13 years old, and he just might be the city's next great boxer. His journey is chronicled in a fantastic feature by NewsWorks.org's Brian Hickey.
"You can see he's got the skills," local training legend Derek "Bozy" Ennis told Hickey. "He's a good listener. You've seen the moves he's got. He's hard to hit, and that's what I teach. A defensive style, that's my most important thing. He's got everything."
A former professional boxer, Ennis, 58, took over a Police Athletic League training gym from the 1960s in the basement of a baptist church in Philadelphia's Germantown neighborhood, and then moved it to the attic of a nearby religious center. Both locations feature holes in the ceilings, releasing the echoes of jump ropes and speed bags.
Still, Ennis has trained his fair share of pros, including his two sons: former USBA light-middleweight champion Derek "Pooh" Ennis and Farah Ennis, who brings a 21-1 record into his July 19 fight against 2008 Olympian Badou Jack in Las Vegas on July 19.
Yet, Bozy made an exception to train the young amateur Barnett, whose mother Uvaunka showed the renowned trainer a cell phone video of one of her son's Indiana Silver Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament fights, according to the NewsWorks.org feature.
"He's always fighting bigger boys, boys with cuts in their arms, at least three inches taller, a few years older," Uvaunka Barnett added. "Each time I see him fight, I'm a little scared. The way he moves, he barely gets hit. His steps are so slick, he never really gets tagged."
Also an honor student, spelling bee champ and flutist, according to Hickey, Barnett has transformed from "just a fat little kid" into a punishing southpaw with a 7-3 record against those "bigger boys" and two more fights scheduled in the next two months.
"I used to be really big, so I didn't want to stay in the house all day and play video games," James told NewsWorks.org. "I wanted to play sports. Every other kid was playing football or basketball but I wanted to try something else. I wanted to play soccer but I couldn't find a soccer team, so I started playing tennis at (Mount Airy's Henry H. Houston Elementary) but I stopped in the fourth grade. That's when I started boxing."
When Hickey asked the budding boxing star if he expected to become the greatest fighter Philadelphia has ever seen, Barnett answered in the affirmative. That's not easy in a city that has produced a handful of Olympic gold medalists, former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins and a pair of heavyweight champs in Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston.
Even at 13, Barnett understands the weight of that statement. Asked about his favorite fight, James told NewsWorks.org, "When Frazier put Ali on the floor." Old school.