A Philadelphia Story: Generations at Hand
By Daniel Kravetz, MaxBoxing (Jan 26, 2012) Special to Doghouse Boxing
Gabriel Rosado
(Danny Davis works the mitts with Bernard Hopkins at Joe Hand Gym in Philadelphia)
At 4:30 p.m. on a cold Thursday afternoon, Danny Davis was coasting around the ring by the front entrance of Joe Hand Boxing Gym, extending his mitts in a crooked “W” and delivering rapid instructions. “Jab-hook-jab! Again! Again!” Across from Davis, a solidly-built teenage girl threw the combinations, laboring with each punch but meeting the mitts with an echoing clap. After two minutes, the girl turned away and put her hands on her knees, exhausted. She took three or four heavy breaths, turned back toward Davis, narrowed her eyes and resumed the regimen.
When she finished the round, Davis, a slight and diminutive man with expressive eyes and a thin but authoritative voice, gave her a word of encouragement—as they exited the ring, two young men replaced them and began shadowboxing in opposite corners. “She was having problems at home,” Davis told me later. “Her father brought her to me. He knew I worked with kids and somebody told him I was down here. I talked to her and we clicked.” He paused. “And the girl can fight too. She can fight.”
Veterans of Philadelphia pugilism like Bobby “Boogaloo” Watts and Marvin Stinson—who (as I was reminded on several occasions) was a longtime sparring partner for Larry Holmes—ambled around the gym floor. On the wall sat large black-and-white photos of local legends of earlier still: Joey Giardello posed next to Bennie Briscoe on one wall, Jesse Smith next to Gil Turner on the opposite. Near the entrance were smaller, framed pictures of contemporary fighters who train at Joe Hand such as Mike Jones and Chazz Witherspoon. Above them was a picture of Davis wrapping the left hand of Bernard Hopkins, with whom he has worked for six years. 
Davis started as Hopkins’ pad man when Hopkins was training to fight Oscar De La Hoya. Then he was promoted to hand wraps and recently was given a more expanded role in assisting Naazim Richardson with fight preparation and training. “I was fortunate enough to be around Bouie [Fisher], to be around Freddie Roach,” said Davis. “I’m still growing as a trainer…but, you know, I see the development. I see the growth.”
Davis, a former National Golden Gloves champion, is at the center of a generational nexus that typifies boxing—and perhaps more so in Philadelphia than in anywhere else in the country: former fighters cannot get away from the game and current and aspiring fighters cannot get enough of it. “It’s just something about the sport…it becomes an addiction,” welterweight Ray Robinson told me after finishing a workout in preparation for his fight in Philadelphia the following Saturday. As a result of this dependency, each generation ultimately finds itself in the same locale: the gym. The byproduct of this assembly is an organic, each-one-teach-one phenomenon, in which middle-aged trainers like Davis have both many elders to glean from and many pupils to nurture.
Footwork and punching technique are not the only lessons emphasized at Joe Hand. “Being a former policeman, I saw a lot of kids that went astray,” gym founder Joe Hand Sr. told me, “so I told my family I wanted to give something back to the community.” He continued, “We always built these gyms in bad neighborhoods. We put computer labs in there so kids can do their homework…hopefully, they have both the gym bag and the school bag when they come in.”
Davis said the reason he took the job at Joe Hand, after spending 14 years working with youth in the juvenile justice system, is because of this value that the gym places on education. “The first thing I liked about the gym was that they had a computer lab…I could still work with inner-city kids and that’s what I loved about the job.” In the lab, a narrow room adjacent to the locker room, nine new Dell monitors line the walls, below a collection of 1990s-era heavyweight fight posters: Evander Holyfield vs. Larry Holmes, Riddick Bowe vs. Holyfield; Bowe vs. Andrew Golota; Mike Tyson vs. Golota.
This scene, however, illustrates the quandary of Joe Hand. Despite an active promotion of education, the pervasive culture of the gym is one of boxing. Maurice, a 17-year old amateur fighter, came to Joe Hand because he wanted to be around talent. “I’m trying to be world champion,” he said frankly. Tajh, another teenage amateur, said his goal was to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games and then turn professional.  He also sought to attend Temple University—“I’m gonna spread far,” Tajh told me—but his future ambitions revolved back to boxing. If becoming a professional fighter did not pan out for him, he said, his next goal was to become a boxing commentator or to “build my own gym to train other kids to fight.”
Most would argue that when a young person finds his passion, it should be celebrated and that these instances should be no exception. All the better, many would say, if that passion can become a career, and even more so if it helps that person overcome disadvantage. Yet, as is the case with any extracurricular activity, if the youth who frequent the boxing gym become consumed by the craft—a commitment that is almost a prerequisite for long-term achievement—then it can undermine the very schoolwork that Joe Hand seeks to promote.
This particular passion also happens to be a health risk. Tommy Barnes, a former fighter who has been a trainer at Joe Hand for seven years, talked to me about his former peers. “A lot of them came out in bad health,” he said. “They have no money; they’re walking on their heels, talking with bad slurs…I see guys that are really, really bad off.” Davis said that retiring from boxing after just five professional fights “was one of the best decisions I ever made in my life.” The balance that these trainers must strike is thus a difficult one. How do you foster a passion for boxing as a way to keep youth away from trouble but then bridle that same passion so that it does not eclipse other elements of a healthy childhood or generate its own scars?
Davis and his fellow trainers do attempt to confront this dilemma. “The kids know Mr. Danny don’t play,” Davis said. “If I find out you had a detention, your butt is sitting in the computer lab doing your homework…they know their grades have to be right or they can’t train.” Also, one could posit, albeit with great caution, that fostering a dedication to any art at any measure is constructive in places where opportunity is scarce. “There are a lot of broken homes,” said Davis, “so what is a child going to do?”
For an example of boxing’s value to the development of a young man raised in the rough conditions found in much of North Philadelphia, one need not look further than Ray Robinson. Robinson’s trainer, Howard Mosley, has been his mentor and father figure since he was eight years old, taking him to and from the gym every day. In his neighborhood, it was “easy to get in trouble,” he told me, “but if I’m going to the gym, I don’t have time to be on them corners or around the wrong crowd.” 
Robinson excelled as a young fighter, earning his way onto the USA Boxing Team, which gave him the opportunity to travel all over the United States and across Europe. He used his amateur boxing accomplishments to earn a scholarship to Northern Michigan University, where he met his wife. They now have a son and live in a quiet area in Northeast Philadelphia. And Robinson loves his job. On Saturday night, he celebrated his 26th birthday with a victory.
Of course, people who frequent Joe Hand are not monolithic in their backgrounds, ages or reasons for showing up. Barnes spoke with me after working pads for two young men in succession, both of whom took up boxing to lose weight. “My main concern is about keeping people healthy,” he claimed. “Taking on this obesity thing, I’m very high on that.”
Jack, a 12-year-old boy with a bowl of brown hair, explained to me why he came to Joe Hand as he was wrapping his hands: “A group of kids thought it was funny to pick on me and I wanted to show them something,” he said with a blue-collar intonation of a Philadelphian of yesteryear. “But then, I realized I like the sport of boxing,” he added, “so now that’s why I come.”
Then there is the omnipresence of “Boogaloo” Watts and Marvin Stinson, unable to pull themselves away from the allure of the sport, volunteering their hard-earned pugilistic wisdom to the gym’s younger habitués. Both men smile often.
Herein lies the most often overlooked element of Joe Hand and other boxing gyms like it across the United States: not how diligently boxing is taught by one generation to the next—that is an exceptional but notorious trait of the sport—but that the boxing gym has become an increasingly rare species of venue by producing any organic, intergenerational interaction at all. In a country with ever-growing age segregation, Joe Hand is indeed an uncommon scene in which non-related people of all ages are not only present but mutually and constructively engaged.
“In the health club in the suburbs, nobody talks to anybody,” is how one 50-something Joe Hand patron put it to me. The two of us were conversing along with an elderly man named Charlie, who works at the gym as a sort of greeter/cleaning crew hybrid. “But in a boxing gym,” the man said, “you get the toughest of the tough. And everybody talks to each other.” Then he made his way over to a heavy bag in the middle of the building, where he began circling and winging giant, isolated hooks into the bag’s flesh.
Questions or comments can be sent to Daniel at dkravetz@gmail.com

This article provided by © MaxBoxing.com

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