Fighting Weight: Eastside Boxing keeps youth off the streets

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's On the Ground Eastside series.  

The transformation of the event hall at St. Mary’s Catholic Church’s was complete when the doors finally opened and the young boxers, their coaches, families, and spectators, began filing in to fill up the seats.

A table near the north wall displayed the trophies and medals for the 13 planned matches of the evening, and a DJ was set up in the corner, spinning music to pump up the crowd. The ringside physician sat at a corner judge’s table, ready to check each boxer for signs of concussion at the end of a match. Judges in white, both men and women, sat at tables surrounding the ring with small squares of paper for scoring that they handed to the ref between bouts. 

In the center of the hall, ‘the stage,’ the boxing ring, had been reconstructed. On Friday, several youth from Lakeside Academy and a couple of ringmen from Kalamazoo Eastside Boxing had helped break down the ring from the academy’s second-floor gym at the old Kalamazoo Central High School on South Westnedge, to move it for the show.

A few boxers, already with mouth gear in and hands taped, were in the zone as they paced around the gym, while a few older men, likely former boxers, threw a few air jabs into the air or fist-bumped an old friend. The crowd waited quietly, calm and slightly pensive. At last, the announcer introduced a recently graduated Western Michigan University musical theater student who sang a moving rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Then a St. Mary’s parish member and former boxer said a few quick words, praying for “good, clean fights,” and the show began.

Coach Curtis Isaac tapes up a young boxer's hands before a match at the Eastside Boxing Show in FebruaryThe show, a USA Boxing Inc. sanctioned event, is one of five or six a year sponsored by Kalamazoo Eastside Boxing, run by Coach Curtis Isaac, drew a crowd of around 200 on Saturday, Feb. 16. Matches, which are set up by weight, record, and age, had been arranged with boxers representing several clubs around the state, including Kalamazoo, Ann Arbor, Flint, Muskegon, and Detroit.

The first scheduled boxers of the night were elite women boxers, light welterweights (141 lbs.), Danielle Cooley from Flint Town Boxing, and Maria Mazurieta, a University of Michigan student from A-Squared Fight Club, who both entered the ring smiling.

Following a hug between the two boxers, the bell rang and the match began fast and furious, with both boxers throwing rapid punches to the head and face. “Jab, jab, jab. Work with your jabs!” yelled Mazurieta’s coach. The crowd exclaimed whenever a hard punch was thrown. Mazurieta’s face seemed to flush and swell, as her long hair slipped out of the headgear. Cooley was a machine, throwing punch after punch without stopping. The ref called time, and the coach fixed Mazurieta’s hair.

The bout resumed. Cooley was relentless, but Mazurieta continued to throw punches. After a hard-fought match, Cooley was declared the winner. The young women hugged again, then hugged their opponent’s coaches. The crowd applauded wildly.

At the end of the show, the women’s match was voted by the audience as the most outstanding of the night, with the winner, Cooley, voted as the most outstanding boxer.

“Everybody loved that fight,” says Isaac. “They gave it everything they had. I got 15 calls the next day from people about how much they loved that fight.”

Giving it everything you have is part of the boxing ethos, and also what makes boxing such an effective tool for helping youth channel their aggression.

“Our goal is to diffuse the violence,” Isaac says of his boxing club, which accepts youth starting at the age of 8, and even 6 if they are especially prepared. Being a part of Kalamazoo Eastside Boxing, he says,  is like “a marriage. I say to kids, ‘It’s boxing or the streets’.”

Boxing might not come to mind as the first way to keep youth off the streets, but Isaac knows it works because boxing, and the support of his strong black mother, Earlene Isaac, saved him. 

Box, don’t fight: Coach Isaac’s mantra

As a black man who grew up on Kalamazoo’s Eastside, Isaac can relate to the frustration that black youth feel when they become aware of the racial inequities in our culture. For Isaac, despite being raised by a strong black mother who “didn’t tolerate any nonsense” and who “didn’t allow racism in our home,” he remembers a specific event that brought the dehumanizing sting of racism to his awareness.

Isaac was only 13 years old, and stopping in at the old Miller’s Store on East Main, where the Fish Dock is now. “The store was run by a white woman, Teresa Cooper, who was like a second mom to me,” says Isaac. 

“I was in there one day talking to Teresa and this elderly white man came in and kept calling me ‘boy’ and rubbing my head and mocking me,” Isaac recalls. “I was intimidated and afraid but had been taught to respect adults.  That experience stayed with me. And my resentment grew.”

Because of that incident and others, “I didn’t trust white people. I didn’t care for them,” he says. “I felt like I wasn’t being seen as a person.”

To be a boxer requires conditioning, training, and coach-ability, says Coach Curtis Isaac of Kalamzoo Eastside Boxing.Over the years, Isaac says, he was fortunate to have some more positive experiences that softened some of those initial impressions. He was mentored by people who cared, like his former Loy Norrix basketball coach, and also by John Caldwell, former director of the Douglass Community Association and principal at Kalamazoo Central High School, and Willie Turner, a former teacher at Milwood Middle School.

When he opened his boxing gym on East Main in the '80s, he “didn’t want those kids to carry the resentment and hatred in their hearts, because it’s still there. Racism is still there.”

He wanted to give youth a way to channel their frustrations. He wanted to use “boxing to diffuse the violence.”

“I reach kids that are mistreated and made to feel lower, sometimes because of their color,” says Isaac from his gym office at the old Kalamazoo Central building where for years he worked as a Kalamazoo Public Schools custodian. “I have the ability to turn them in another direction than violence because that doesn’t lead to anywhere except to prison, or death, or drugs. They all go hand in hand.”

After 30 years of working with youth through the Kalamazoo Eastside Boxing, Isaac has seen time and again, that these youth who come to him with chips on their shoulders, with a feeling of being less than their peers due to either racism, abuse, or bullying, find a spark within themselves that leads to self-respect and respect of others.

“When I was boxing professionally, I saw that there was a need,” says Isaac (alias Coffee Man, Michigan’s first cruiserweight champion in 1984).  With the support of Lois Jackson and Eastside artist James Palmore, Isaac opened his first gym on East Main in the mid-'80s. “I know what saved me from the streets. I wanted to give back to the youth.”

The promise of grapes and a refreshing swim

As a standout high school athlete in basketball, football, and wrestling at Loy Norrix during the late '70s, Isaac faced the temptations that can confront a young urban black man, especially when it comes to violence. “I was a young black kid, no money, hot in the summertime, nothing to do,” he says.

Coaches tend to the boxers between each bout or time-out of the match.As an all-city wrestling champ, he was known in the Eastside neighborhood where he grew up and still lives as “a pretty tough guy, not a bully.” A friend, Danny Bridges, who as a state Golden Gloves champion and his father, Eddie Bridges, began trying to recruit Isaac for boxing. 

“Eddie had an old, makeshift gym out in Mattawan where they had grapes and a big swimming pool,” says Isaac. “They said to me, if I would come to practice, I could eat all the grapes and swim in this real nice swimming pool, and I was hooked. That’s all it took.”

Except when Eddie came to pick Isaac up to go train, Isaac’s friends had reached him first. They wanted him to fight someone at the old Farm and Fleet on Gull Road. 

“I had a choice to make,” he says, “either I go with Eddie or go with my black friends. I wanted to stick with my buddies.”

“I’ll never forget the words Eddie said,” says Isaac. “’You don’t need that mess. It will only bring you death or prison. You need to come with me.’”

Those words lingered later, when in the confrontation, Isaac knocked out a 28-year-old man and then found out his friends had used him to draw a crowd to watch a fight. “I learned that day,” he says. “So that’s why it’s easy for me to relate to kids about fighting, about doing stupid stuff, and making the wrong choices.”

Isaac says he realized how terribly wrong it could have gone. “Someone could have died.”

Despite that episode, Bridges returned the next day, and took Isaac to Mattawan for the first of what would become many days in a rigorous training schedule. After the first day when Isaac sparred with Lionel Ford, a former Golden Gloves champion who got the best of him, Bridges said to him. “You did a good job. I’ll keep my part of the bargain.”

But Isaac said, “I don’t want to swim and I don’t want to eat grapes. I want to fight.”

And he never did eat the grapes or take a swim in the big pool. “And it haunts me, too,” he says, laughing.

There’s more to boxing than stepping in the ring

Before Isaac accepts a youth for boxing, he interviews them and their parents.

“Why do you want to box?” he asks. 

What Isaac often finds is that young boxers come to him because of bullying. 

“Some of the kids come here have been cutting (themselves) because they’re frustrated,“ says Isaac. “Through boxing, they become a much better person.

“When they do some hedonistic, barbaric type of thing, that reflects on the family and the coaches. We try to diffuse the violence, that anger. I had people, good people, to show me that anger and resentment are not the way to live. That’s what we teach here.”

In 1987, Kay Mero, a social worker, saw what magic Isaac was working with youth, and decided to join him. Though she has never boxed herself, she trained to become a USA Boxing Coach, and worked with the Eastside Boxing youth for years, even accompanying boxer Torrence Daniels to Olympic Trials in Colorado Springs, Colo. as one of the first women to do so.

“Kids that need the structure do well,” says Mero of the Eastside boxing program. “Even if they have oppositional defiant disorder, they come to understand what’s expected of them. They feel a part of something. Coach is very firm with that.”

Mero recalls a kid who had been so nervous, he had a tic. “Once he started boxing, he really emerged as a more confident kid.” Eventually, he joined the army and is now leading a successful life. No longer coaching, Mero now organizes the Eastside boxing shows throughout the year.

To promote the ethics of boxing, Isaac has a list of 11 Guidelines and Rules posted on the gym wall that require respectful addressing of adults (ma’am or sir), no profanity, no smoking, alcohol or drugs, cell phone use or horseplay at the gym, in addition to a strong commitment to the training regimen. 

Former Eastside Boxing Coach Kay Mero, a Kalamazoo social worker, (left) now helps organize the boxing shows and runs the concession stand.Mastery takes time, and Coach won’t put just anyone in the ring. Boxers have to prepare first. The first step is conditioning, which means increasing cardio capacity to at least a 9 on a 10-point scale through boxercise and working with the bags. Then comes sparring.

“They have to go at least three hard rounds,” says Isaac. “The key is to follow instructions. If they don’t follow instructions, they are not allowed to box on stage. And they all want to be on that big stage.”

“Safety before anything,” adds Mero. “If Coach feels someone’s not ready, they’re not going to fight.”

As Isaac looks back over his 30 plus years coaching youth in the Kalamazoo area, he sees both successes and heartbreak(See related story, here.) He admits that sometimes his commitment has cost him relationships, because his first commitment, he says, has been to the youth and the sport.

“If you’re going to be involved with kids, you have to be real,” Isaac says. “These kids need people. They don’t always have a strong mom and dad. A lot of these kids, their daddy’s in prison. I don’t want to be a daddy to them. This program is not to make you a great boxer. This program is to make these kids get away from this insanity of killing each other.”

Photos by Eric Hennig, VAGUE photography

Read more articles by Theresa Coty O'Neil.

Theresa Coty O’Neil is a freelance writer, editor, and writing teacher with over two decades of covering people, places, and events in the Kalamazoo community. She is the Project Editor of On the Ground Kalamazoo.