"I'm going to come out fighting like a lion tonight," says David Diaz. He's a dark-eyed, square-shouldered kid from the near north-west side, 13 years old, one of 15 young pugilists lacing on the gloves for the Hamlin Park Boxing Club.
The gym, in an old brick barn of a building off Damen and Barry, is decked out for the occasion. An 18-foot-square ring has been erected, surrounded by red, white, and blue bunting. About 400 friends, family members, and fight lovers from this working-class neighborhood, some dressed up as if on dates, are filing in for what is perhaps the best $1 show in the city, fight night at the Hamlin Park Fieldhouse.
For a few hours, the cowardly intimidation of the gangs outside will give way to leather popping on cherubic faces and sportsmanship that would make any parent proud.
"Gangs are stupid. They can ruin your life," advises Bernard LeBron, 13, an 85-pound short-haired blond kid, called Psycho by his pals because of his crazed style in the ring. "I have a weak nose. If I don't start bleeding I should win tonight."
LeBron gets the evening going at the microphone with a nifty soprano rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner." He forgets the words down the stretch, but no matter: it's a game effort, and the crowd howls with delight. LeBron will redeem himself later with a flawless boxing exhibition.
The bouts begin with Gary Hocutt, 11, an 80-pounder from Hamlin Park, charging out at Maurice Easkines from Columbus Park. Arms flying, the two tiny jabbers go toe-to-toe, throwing so many punches they both nearly knock each other down. The crowd is on its feet stomping in the first minute.
"Try the uppercut, Gary," a woman yells. "Pop him again," exhorts another fan.
Hocutt, with his straight-up style and neighborhood cheering section, batters the young fighter from Columbus Park and wins the three-round decision handily. Their black leather headgear removed, the pair hug and both get a trophy.
As the bouts continue the gym begins to ripen with sweat. Between rounds, coaches bark instructions at their chest-heaving charges while little girls in miniskirts strut around the ring, hoisting placards that inform the crowd what round is next.
The Hamlin Park boxers, attired in their shiny white and dark-purple shorts and T-shirts, share in a long tradition of fine amateur boxing. "These kids are hard workers and excellent fighters," says Mike "Tank" Ghuneim, 25, a Loyola University premed student who learned to juke and jive with the Hamlin Park boys a decade ago and now helps coach the latest brood three nights a week. "I grew up across the street and I want to see these kids stay out of trouble."
By the sixth fight, Hamlin Park has won four decisions and the partisan crowd is starting to quake as Elijah Conn, a 150-pound 16-year-old with the build of a scaled-down Mike Tyson, steps into the ring against Israel Echevarria, 19, representing Welles Park. They met months ago in a bout that Conn won but Israel insists was "stolen." Conn, a proud kid from the nearby Lathrop Homes, says he doesn't steal anything except the will of his opponents.
The bell sounds and the two rippling, athletic bodies collide like rams at the center of the ring. Conn lands a killer right that rocks Echevarria, though he manages to stay on his feet and spread his arms like wings as if to say, "Is that all you got, man?"
In round two the crowd chants "Eli! Eli!" as Conn pounds the visitor into a corner. Suddenly this is no longer kid stuff. The punches pop off the leather headgear like muffled grenades as the kids in the stands start stomping as if to set off a prison riot.
In round three Echevarria hammers his way out of the corners, showing that courage can stand up to raw muscle and talent. As the fight ends the two round-shouldered combatants empty their arms on each other, tumbling to the canvas as the bell sounds. They rise hugging each other in mutual respect.
When Conn is announced the winner, he celebrates with a back flip, then shares an existential moment as the crowd lets loose with ear-piercing whistles. "I got nailed a few times tonight but I adjusted my style enough to win," he says. "I make adjustments every day. That's how you get out of the projects. You stay away from drugs and alcohol. You tell yourself you can't lose. You don't give in."
A sophomore at Near North Career Magnet High School, Conn likes computers and his nickname "Titanic." He's not the one who sinks, he explains. "I Titanic the other guy."
As the neighborhood showcase nears the two-hour mark, the crowd starts to break up. A patient mother holds a sleeping baby in one arm and a trophy in the other. Two big boxers climb into the ring. No fancy trunks here, just two meaty men in sweat clothes. Oreal Crepeau, 19, 175 pounds from Hamlin Park, steps up against David Ramirez, from no one seems to know exactly where. The bruisers commence pounding, powerful thuds on flesh.
Crepeau buckles Ramirez's knees in round one and looks confidently up at his family as the bell sounds. But round two takes a different turn. The two nearly butt heads as they converge at ring's center. Ramirez lands a series of hard combinations and Crepeau is wobbly. The referee steps in for the evening's first standing eight count. The fight resumes with Ramirez's head-thumping assault. Crepeau is dazed; the night's first blood encircles his mouth. It's a TKO. Crepeau shakes his head at the fight that got away.
But the lesson is lost on the younger boxers. They are scattered about the gym amid clusters of friends, telling short tales of mini macho.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.