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Step Into the Ring

Three of coach Tom O'Shea's boxers hope to strike gold at the Olympics



By Ben Joravsky

It took years of training in the ring for Tom O'Shea to prepare his boxers for Olympic competition. And it took a few days in court for Jim Foley to win one of them a chance to try out for the Olympic team.

The peculiar alliance between Foley, a lawyer with a downtown practice, and O'Shea, a boxing coach with a gym on the near northwest side, has contributed to one of the most unlikely success stories to emerge from this year's Olympic trials.

Four of the 24 fighters on the U.S. Olympic boxing team come from Chicago's near northwest side; three trained under O'Shea. "No other city has more than three fighters on the team," says O'Shea, who runs the Matador Boxing Club at the Northwestern University Settlement House, at 1400 W. Augusta. "They make a big deal about Philadelphia because they have three. Well, our little gym has three fighters alone and our little community has four. That's an amazing victory."

Two of the four fighters, Nate Jones and Anthony Stewart, grew up in Cabrini-Green; Darnell Wilson graduated from King High School, and David Diaz graduated from Schurz High School. None could be reached for comment, since they're training with the Olympic team in Michigan, but they've previously attributed much of their success to O'Shea, who is to boxing what Phil Jackson is to basketball: a brainy, Zen-practicing strategist.

"My family moved to Chicago in 1953 from Ireland when I was 13 years old," O'Shea says. "It was too late to take up other sports, like basketball or baseball. So me and my brothers went on with boxing. The great Tony Zale was our coach; he was middleweight champion in his time."

In 1961 O'Shea won a national Golden Glove championship and fought on the same national amateur team as Muhammad Ali.

"I was a different kind of fighter than my brothers. They were tough guys who could knock you out with a punch. I was very defensive; my claim to fame was I never got knocked down in 378 amateur fights. I was fast, I moved around. Sometimes it's more important to avoid getting hit than it is to hit--it's as true in life as it is in boxing."

In the 1960s O'Shea became a high school English teacher in the Chicago public schools; he started coaching boxing about 20 years ago, when he was teaching at King High School.

"I was having discipline problems with some of the kids, so I thought I'd introduce them to boxing--they needed something to channel all that energy," he says. "I learned my approach to boxing from the priests and Christian Brothers in Ireland who taught me. The way I see it, boxing's a discipline that enables you to control the animal within. A lot of guys come in with the big bar-brawling mentality, and I tell them to fight like a fox. If someone goes in with hatred and anger it tires them out. I tell them to act like the hungry cat going out for a meal: don't be angry, be shrewd and alert. I tell them you have to convert the animal within you. There's a reason I call my club the Matador. I believe that there's a bull and matador within us all, and if the matador governs the bull we're in balance with life. If the bull takes over we're out of whack.

"To me, boxing is a marvelous initiation rite. The ring gives kids what they don't always get at home. Many of the kids who come here don't know about living with each other and communicating and fair play. Boxing teaches them that without words. It's just put on the gloves and face another person. The boxing ring is where you face your fellow man and you look him in the eye and you move around. There's great expression in the dance of boxers. We've had grudge matches between two guys who really hate each other; so we fit them with headgear and mouthpieces, put on the big 16-ounce gloves, and let them pound away. And then something happens. They get tired. And they start lying on each other. They look like friends; their sweat mingles. They need each other. It's a beautiful thing."

By the 1980s O'Shea had started the Matadors and was working out of various schools and parks. In 1989 Northwestern University built him a boxing facility in the basement of its settlement house, and O'Shea hired a full-time coach, Joe Kaehn, to work with the hundreds of local kids who came by for free lessons. "To compete nationally it costs money to buy equipment and pay for traveling expenses, and we're very fortunate to have an angel in Jim Sloan, a lawyer downtown," says O'Shea. "Sloan and I sparred against each other in the old days. I met him again at a Golden Gloves finals, and he offered to help."

The more dedicated Matadors fight in amateur tournaments all over the country. That's how Jones, Stewart, and Wilson started.

"I met Darnell in an English class at King," says O'Shea. "He didn't need boxing so much. The kids we think need boxing are the ones who have trouble controlling themselves. But Darnell was smart--he could read and write well. He just took to boxing.

"Now Nate Jones was something else. He was more of the bull, he had more of the slugger mentality. He came to me when he was only nine and I was coaching out of Seward Park near Cabrini-Green. He started boxing at 65 pounds. You could see he had it in him to be good. There was never a question about his courage. He came in every single day and he didn't want to punch the bag, he wanted to box. He'd spar with anyone, no matter how big. We had a couple of big strong guys, Ronnie Nelson and Patrick Bruce, who were great local fighters. Nate fought with them when they were 16 and he was only 9."

Earlier this year Jones, Stewart, and Diaz (who has sparred with the Matadors but trains at Hamlin Park) were invited to compete in the Olympic trials. Wilson, however, wasn't invited. "The way it works is that eight fighters are invited to compete in each of the 12 weight categories," says Foley. "Seven are automatic invitees because they've won recognized tournaments. The eighth is an at large. Darnell [Wilson] didn't get invited for at large, even though he had a better record than the fighter who was invited."

This was not the first time O'Shea felt betrayed by the association that governs amateur boxing. "It's all politics, it's all who you know," he says. "In 1995 Nate Jones was supposed to represent the U.S. in the amateur world championship, but a closed committee of national coaches chose a fighter Nate had already beaten. I don't know why they overlooked Nate; maybe they felt the other fighter was better behaved. Believe me, if I knew Foley was around I'd a called him."

O'Shea and Foley met when the lawyer, a former amateur boxer, began sparring at the Matador gym. When Wilson was snubbed, O'Shea asked Foley for assistance. Working with his associate, Amy Saldanha, Foley filed a federal lawsuit, seeking a permanent injunction to stop the Olympic trials until Wilson had a chance to compete. "At the very least, we wanted a box-off between Darnell and the other fighter," says Foley. "Darnell said, 'If I can't beat him in a box-off, I don't deserve to be on the team anyway.'"

A few days after Foley filed the suit, the U.S.A. Boxing Association agreed to the box-off, which Wilson won. He went on to make the team as an alternate. (The U.S. has one "Olympian" in each of the 12 weight categories; alternates step in if an Olympian gets injured.) "If not for Foley, then Darnell wouldn't get to go to the Olympics, just like Nate didn't get to go to the world champ-ionship," says O'Shea. "It's a terrible lesson to teach young fighters. I teach them that success happens right there in the boxing ring, and no man in a smoke-filled room can dictate the outcome of their lives. If we lose in the boxing ring, we say 'thanks' and walk away. But when someone intervenes it makes a lie of everything we profess. I want them to think that they're all equal in the ring."

Of the three fighters, most attention will be focused on Jones, since he's the Olympian heavyweight. "All eyes are on the heavyweight--that's the way it always is," says Foley. "But if any of them wins a medal they'll have instant celebrity. It shortens the time they'll have to wait to get into a real money fight, if they go pro. Already [fight promoter] Jackie Kallen is scouting Nate, so good things are happening."

O'Shea says he'll fly down to Atlanta to be with his fighters during the Olympics. But for the moment most of his attention is on the younger Matadors (like 17-year-old Jose Rodriguez, who O'Shea says may one day be a Golden Glove champ).

"Everyday a new kid walks in, looking to box," he says. "I train them all. I won't kick them out. Are they afraid at first? Most are. I think fear is the crucible in which all the other things are mixed that make a great fighter. Without fear there's no human investment; it's too easy. The fear makes it exciting. Walking into the ring is the scariest moment for many a boy. Sometimes the greatest victory is just climbing those steps into the ring and feeling the lights and hearing them call your name and turning to face the other fighter.

"I know boxing's brutal, I know it's violent. But the world is brutal and the world is violent. And if my kids are going to have to face it, I want them to be able to survive."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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