Longtime Eastside Boxing Coach Curtis Isaac stays motivated by seeing youth succeed

When asked what keeps Kalamazoo Eastside Boxing Academy Coach Curtis Isaac committed after over 30 years, he’s quick to answer, “his babies.”

And while he can list off the many successful boxers under his tutelage, including State and National Golden Glove champions, as well as pre-Olympic athletes, Isaac still says he regrets those, who despite their potential, chose the streets.

For 30 years, Eastside Boxing Coach and former professional boxer Curtis Isaac has been committed to helping youth make healthy choices.Among Isaac’s “babies” are the many young boxers who through the arduous workouts, training, and commitment to the Eastside Boxing code of conduct, learned to channel their energy and frustration into self-disciplined sport. He also counts those who rose to elite ranks.

“That’s what keeps me motivated,” says Isaac, “seeing my guys succeed.”

Torrence Daniels, (alias Dynamite), a bantamweight seven-time Michigan Golden Glove winner, a National Golden Glove, and a 2004 Olympic Alternate, was one of those talented boxers who gave it his all.

Daniels, who grew up in inner-city Muskegon, was a competitive boxer at 14, traveled the world on the Junior Olympic Boxing Team. But tough times during adolescence, including the traumatic loss of his younger brother, Lorenzo, who died suspiciously in a fire, contributed to his decision to take a break from boxing. 

“Everyone counted Torrence out around because he was around some bad dudes,” says Isaac.

After seeing Daniels at a boxing show, Isaac convinced him to visit the Eastside Boxing gym. “I didn’t really think I would go back into boxing,” says Daniels, who was 16 at the time. 

At the gym, Isaac matched Daniels up with another boxer, Tony Henshaw, and Daniels beat him. 

“Do you know who he is?” Isaac asked. “He’s ranked number one in your weight class in the country,’” Daniels recalls.

“Curtis said, ‘Listen if you really want to do this, I’m willing to go 100 percent with you. I will put my time and ability into developing you and moving you forward, if you want to take this seriously.’ That’s what made me put forth that dedication to drive down from Kalamazoo every single day,” says Daniels, which meant a 90-minute drive from Muskegon, then a return to Holland where he worked a third-shift job, every day of the week. 

“When I came to his club, it was a match made in heaven,” Daniels says. “It actually motivated me to want to get back in the sport.”

Through years of training and amateur boxing with Isaac, Daniels rose to elite status as a highly-touted amateur. 

“As a coach, he’s a no-nonsense guy,” says Daniels. “In order to be successful in the sport, you have to have the support and the proper training and the person who is able to motivate you and Curtis is that guy. He’s been there, grew up in the sport, and was a former champion. Receiving knowledge from him was impeccable.”

Former Eastside boxer Torrence Daniels, a seven times Michigan Golden Glove, National Golden Glove and 2004 Olympic alternate, is now a Federal Police Officer in Texas.Isaacs remembers Daniels’ early struggles, but also his commitment.

“That poor kid, he did a hell of a job. He came from nothing. He’s a rags to riches,” says Isaac proudly. “He’s one of my babies. He’s a leader, too.”

Daniels credits Isaac and boxing for his current successes as an adult. Boxing “leads to discipline. It teaches focus. You need the focus and discipline in anything you do in life,” he says.

As many accomplished youth as there have been over the years, Isaac says, the loss of a young Kalamazoo boxer named Victor Garay still haunts him.

Isaac remembers Garay as being “so good with his hands.” Sadly, Garay did not adhere to the Eastside Boxing Academy Rules and Regulations, about which Coach Isaac is very firm. 

“I had to dismiss him,” Issac says. “He was bringing unsavory people to the gym.”

In 2014, not long after his dismissal, Garay, then 15, was charged as an adult for the shooting death of Michael Day, 13, in a gang-related fight between the Washington Street Boys and Trapp Money. Garay was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, a very rare sentence for a juvenile. Later the sentence was reversed. The murder, which shocked the community, raised the awareness in Kalamazoo of the crisis of youth violence in the city.

After the shooting, someone told Isaac that the night before Day’s death, Garay had said he wanted to return to boxing.

“I don’t want to give up on any kid, but I’m haunted by Victor Garay,” says Isaac. “He was hanging with the wrong people. I don’t think he killed anyone. He wasn’t that kind of guy.”

Isaac is convinced that Garay took the rap for someone else because he was young, only 15, and would have likely been served a lesser sentence.

“I’ll go to my grave thinking he didn’t do that,” says Isaac. “I know him. Was he hardheaded? Yes. Was he stubborn? Yes. He was not a murderer.”

Through boxing, Isaac does what he can to lead youth to make positive choices, but he knows he can’t control what they do outside of the gym.

“That could have been Torrence,” Isaacs says about Garay. “He was hanging with much, much rougher guys.”

At the Eastside Boxing Academy hosted show on Feb. 16, Daniels returned to Kalamazoo to see his old coaches and watch the matches. He was warmly greeted as a star athlete, often photographed and videoed. As a fan listed off his honors and accolades, he smiled from his ringside seat. 

At 44, Daniels is now a Federal Police Officer in San Antonio, Texas, with a wife and three children, all sons. He credits boxing for helping him reach his goals.

“Over the years, Curtis has dedicated more than half his life giving back to kids in the community, and I’m one of those proteges who came through the program,” says Daniels. “Hands down he has one of the best programs in the state, and it can compete with anyone in the country. I think that’s a great accolade for the local community.”
"Boxing is a marriage," says Coach Curtis Isaac. "I tell my kids, it's this or the streets."

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.