New Braddock boxing gym offers an opportunity to become 'champions in life'

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In the boxing gym tucked away in the basement of the Nyia Page Community Center in Braddock, a chalkboard hangs on a far wall, a line drawn through the middle. Above the line are congratulations to boxers from the gym who have competed in local championships. Below it, scrawled in yellow chalk, is a mantra: "Smart is the New Rich."

The gym, which has been open for less than a year, already has spawned a regional champion. But more than that, it gives young people a place to go.

Braddock Boxing Gym serves a purpose

The Braddock Boxing Gym at the Niya Page Community Center offers free training to members of the community, ages 12-20, Monday through Thursday from 4-7 p.m. (Video by Julia Rendleman; 04/25/2013)

Jimmy Cvetic started teaching kids how to box in 1971 and has opened more than half a dozen gyms in Allegheny County since then, including the one in Braddock.

The retired Allegheny County police officer and Vietnam veteran founded the Western Pennsylvania branch of the Police Athletic League three decades ago, and his goal is to keep kids out of trouble by teaching them to box.

"I'm trying to build champions in life," he said -- teaching "the art of boxing" empowers young men and women physically and mentally and provides a way to channel aggression in a structured way.

"Men don't go around shooting each other," Mr. Cvetic said. "They step into the ring.

"Once we empower them, we also give them the responsibility," he said.

After a teenager Mr. Cvetic had arrested died of a drug overdose a few years after the incident, Mr. Cvetic decided that he had to do something to help.

"It stuck with me," he said. "I started opening gyms and teaching kids."

Mr. Cvetic is passionate about his work, and there's a noticeable frustration in his voice when he talks about what it takes to put young people on the right path. He lamented the U.S. Senate's failure to pass gun control legislation last week and said the millions of dollars going to the gun lobby should instead be spent on preventing drug addictions and funding college educations.

"There's no such thing as a bad kid," he said. "They just need opportunities."

Kevin Scott, who coaches boxing at the Braddock gym, began the process of setting up a gym a few years ago after hearing that Mayor John Fetterman was interested in having a gym in the borough. The men were initially going to set it up in an old basketball court in the Braddock Carnegie Library, but that didn't work out.

When Mr. Fetterman started renovating the Nyia Page Community Center on Library Street, he let Mr. Scott know there would be space for the boxing gym in the basement of the former church. Mr. Fetterman doesn't charge rent to the Police Athletic League, which runs the program. "I just serve as the landlord," he said.

Mr. Fetterman said the gym is the "highest, best use of the space" for that slice of the community center, adding that teaching children how to box provides structure, discipline and camaraderie.

"It's just one more thing that we've been able to do for the young people here in the community," Mr. Fetterman said.

He said boxing is a good way for young people to channel anger and aggression, and he hopes the program grows.

"A fire can cook your dinner or it can burn your house down," he said. "It just depends on how it's used and if it's controlled or not. ... This boxing program is an excellent example of channeling a lot of that adolescent energy and, in some cases, anger, into a positive pursuit."

The Braddock gym looks like, well, a boxing gym. In the white-walled room with a blue-gray floor, there's a ring, weight machines, punching bags, a treadmill. Rules are posted on the wall:

Obey the coaches' instructions at all times. No bad language. Respect the property of others. The gym is not a playground. Always do what's right.

The gym contains an interesting mix of serious boxers, energetic kids looking for an opportunity to tussle and a few quiet teens who seemed like they didn't have anywhere else to be.

"All of a sudden, we've got quite a few girls coming," Mr. Scott said one afternoon last month as two teenage girls wrapped their hands in tape. One was wearing a button-down shirt and fuzzy ankle boots. Another was wearing boat shoes.

Most come several days a week, Mr. Scott said, and the youngest tend to be the most consistent. He said he lets those who come to the gym "more or less have fun," and in addition to teaching them how to box, he offers guidance.

"I consider myself not just a coach, but a mentor," he said.

He said he doesn't pressure kids to come to the gym, and the workouts are loosely structured.

"If they want to come, they'll be here," he said. About a dozen visit each day.

He's trying to get a team together -- complete with matching T-shirts - that would compete in championship bouts. He said the team would be a good thing for the Braddock community to rally around.

Mr. Scott said getting a boxing gym off the ground can be tough and the first year is especially challenging. But they already have a champion in David Perez Jr., 21, of East Pittsburgh, who recently won the sub-novice division in the Western Pennsylvania Golden Gloves championship. He'll compete in the Golden Gloves' state championship in Philadelphia this weekend.

Mr. Perez has practiced martial arts and boxing throughout his life. When he was 5, his dad started teaching him how to box. At 11, he picked up judo, and at 13 he started boxing again. By 19, he'd considered going pro.

When Mr. Scott opened the Braddock gym, he called Mr. Perez and asked him to help out. Mr. Perez wanted to start boxing again and get back into shape, so he agreed.

"I think everybody likes to fight," he said. "You build a mind-set that fighting is a good thing" growing up in neighborhoods like Braddock.

But it's more than that: It's about being in peak physical condition and pressing on even when you're exhausted, he said.

"That builds a lot of character," Mr. Perez said.

Keaira Wright, 19, of East Liberty has been coming to the Braddock gym several days a week since September.

She said she was always interested in boxing, but people discouraged her:

"I always wanted to fight, but people told me, 'No, you're too pretty; you'll mess up your face,' " she said.

But now, she's hooked.

Mr. Perez, her boyfriend, taught her to box, so she mimics his movements. For now, she's just training, not competing.

"It's very rare that you'll find people who are willing to fight," she said, especially other women.

So for now, she spars with Mr. Perez.

She says it helps ease frustration when they're in an argument, but she said throwing punches at her boyfriend is also a bonding experience.

He's not allowed to box other women, and she's not allowed to box other men.

"It's like our thing," she said.

Ms. Wright said she likes the discipline that comes with the sport; boxing has taught her to be strong -- physically and mentally -- and push past her limits.

Ms. Wright said she had doubts when she first started and was underestimated because she's petite. She's 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighs about 100 pounds, but she's built like an athlete -- lean muscle, strong shoulders.

"I've always been tough," she said. "Boxing just made me tougher."

Mr. Cvetic said the youth of Pittsburgh have "a certain strength" that shows when they take up boxing.

"Maybe it's the steel in their backbone," he said. "They're strong people. ... We have a certain Pittsburgh pride."

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Annie Siebert: or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert. First Published April 25, 2013 4:00 AM


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