Can New Jersey boxing fight back from the brink of extinction?

·7 min read

Latrell Mitchell was a fighter long before he learned to box.

Mitchell grew up in the Bronx, "in the streets, running around." After his father died when Mitchell was 14, he "walked around with a lot of anger," and realized he'd wind up either in jail or dead. Determined to spare his single mom from having to deal with that fate, he walked into Morris Park Boxing Club.

Boxing became Mitchell's dream and his career. He followed his coach, Pablo Gary, to New Jersey about three years ago. Mitchell and his 19-year-old brother, Jermih St. Furay, now live in Hackensack and train at Different Breed Sports Academy in Teaneck.

"I chose my dream, rather than working toward someone else's dream," said Mitchell, 22. "I work so I can change my family's life forever. I can't say I'm not tired, but I can't let nobody else outwork me. ... Boxing can help you change physically and mentally, whatever darkness you're going through. It can help you transform."

But in New Jersey, boxing has become a particularly rare path to career and life success.

Registration for New Jersey's Golden Gloves tournament was down to about 300 kids this year. In the 1960s and '70s, there were more than 500 young participants, according to Dan Doyle of Middletown, who has had the state franchise for 11 years. Instead of 150 gyms registered with USA Boxing, where newcomers can spar under the governing body's insurance plan, New Jersey is down to about 60.

Doyle also highlighted a marked decline in the open division of Golden Gloves, where participants have had 10 or more registered fights.

"We're still a good draw, not the draw we used to be," said Doyle, who ran the Middletown PAL boxing gym for 17 years.

"They don't stay with the program. A lot of other sports have gone year-round, so that cuts into us a lot. ... Coming out of COVID, we lost a lot of kids we'd developed for years. They turned pro, or after two years, they moved on with their lives."

No place for youth?

Mitchell and 26-year-old Andy Betance both train young fighters at Different Breed, teaching them to channel their anger and frustration into the ring. A New Jersey Golden Gloves champion in 2014, Betance is planning to return to the competitive ring for the first time in six years at the Mayers' Belt on Sept. 10 in Trenton with an eye toward entering New Jersey's Diamond Gloves in October and November.

Betance, 26, hopes to turn pro next year. He says he was bullied at school and by his older brother at home. He was suspended from school "every year from third grade to sophomore year in high school," but his mother wouldn't let him join a boxing gym until age 18.

He won the New Jersey Golden Gloves a year after beginning his training. The Golden Gloves National Tournament of Champions starts Aug. 15 in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Thirteen New Jersey boxers have won 14 Golden Gloves national titles, dating back to Jersey City's Richard Hock (132) in 1958. Anthony Johns of Newark is the most recent, at 108 pounds in 2019.

"When I won (Golden Gloves, my brother) was crying, 'I'm so proud of you. I feel like I made you, but in the most (messed) up way,'" said Betance, a Honduran immigrant who lives in Englewood.

"I think boxing really saved me. ... A lot of kids, they go to where there's a crowd because they want to be accepted somewhere. No one can judge me. There's a lot of kids who should get into boxing, but how to get them in here? That's the question."

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The tournament was founded by Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward in 1923 and was initially between boxers from that city and New York. Open to all amateur boxers aged 17 to 34 who are United States citizens, Golden Gloves has been truly national since 1962.

Winning Golden Gloves used to qualify a fighter for the Olympic Trials. Doyle said that is no longer true, and the current path to a shot at Olympic gold − which requires a fighter to remain an amateur, rather than trying to cash in on his talent − "takes so long. It's become a bit more complicated."

Even Doyle, the national Golden Gloves' secretary, can't explain USA Boxing's current Olympic qualifying system.

"Unless it's a national tournament, everything else is practice," he said. "Winning a local club show, it's a great feeling, but that's not a national tournament. That's the ultimate goal, to get these kids to a national tournament."

Finding a home in the ring

Though interest in boxing is waning in New Jersey, participation is rising nationally. Fewer than a million people age 6 and up participated in competitive boxing in 2011, according to Statista Research Department.. However, that total grew to about 1.42 million in 2019.

Saleh Ali is trying to grow that number at his West New York gym, Ape Kingdom.

Saleh Ali, owner of Ape Kingdom Boxing in West New York, NJ is shown in the gym on Tuesday July 27, 2022.
Saleh Ali, owner of Ape Kingdom Boxing in West New York, NJ is shown in the gym on Tuesday July 27, 2022.

Ali emigrated from Yemen with his family at age 5, moving from California to New Jersey in 2010. He was inspired to get in the ring by Prince Naseem Hamed, an English featherweight boxer of Yemeni descent who held multiple world titles in the late 1990s. Ali took over the gym where he had grown up − then called Coliseum Boxing Center − almost two years ago, when his previous coach was unable to keep up with the rent.

After self-funding the gym through loans from his family, which operates more than 200 New York City delis, Ali is trying to find sponsors so he can teach underserved kids for low or no cost. Boxing is important for self defense, but it also requires discipline and helps build confidence.

"The kids need it, especially the way things are now," said Mercedes Peralta of Lodi, whose 14-year-old son Johan DeLaCruz trains at Ape Kingdom and Different Breed.

"Kids want to play cowboy: shooting, stabbing, robbing. There's no structure, no respect. Ali does it for the kids, to keep them out of the street and keep them busy. He pushes them."

Ali said "the easiest part is the fighting part," but all the training required to reach his pro debut has been a bigger challenge.

Ali danced into the ring at American Dream in a leopard-print hoodie and shorts, the red, white and black Yemeni flag draped over his shoulders. Ali earned a majority draw on July 29. He still works two nights a week at his father's deli, Adam's Market Place, on 20th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan.

"You have to live and breathe it," Doyle said. "We fight every day to keep them in the amateur ranks. It's a business, and you've got to have product to sell. Getting on a card is hard, because it's a business. You have to bring something to the table. "

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Gary is skeptical of boxers-turned-cornermen, insisting "everybody who has a towel on their back is not always a trainer." Old-school trainers like Cus D'Amato (Mike Tyson) and Angelo Dundee (Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard, George Foreman) are dying out and "the science and wisdom of the sport is not being passed down." Instead, Gary sees "coaches" offering water and platitudes and "conditioners," who can lead a workout but not teach boxing technique.

Doyle also questioned where the larger number of registered boxers are fighting. To Gary, the best places to find true boxing trainers are Cincinnati, Philadelphia − home of the fictional Rocky Balboa − and the Mexican American community, "because they only have one fight style." Gary is one of the trainers behind Different Breed's six-week Blue-Collar Boxing program, which tries to get anyone and everyone into the ring.

"There a lot of things about boxing that are beautiful, and a lot of things about boxing that will last in your heart forever," said 14-year-old Lucian Sarduy, who trains at Ape Kingdom. "The art of boxing, it's a really controversial subject. People may argue it's not worth it. It brings a lot of emotion. It takes out a lot of bad things. It brings good energy. It filters you out and replenishes you."

Jane Havsy is a storyteller for the Daily Record and DailyRecord.com, part of the USA TODAY Network. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.

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This article originally appeared on Morristown Daily Record: Boxing in New Jersey: Can it fight back from brink of extinction?