Lords of the Ring

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B rian Clark of Ring One Boxing has a knack for taking young kids and turning them into fast-fisted, prize-winning pugilists. He’s trained Tramaine “Mighty Midget” Williams, a ten-time national amateur champion; George Naclerio, two-time national amateur champion; and “Bad” Chad Dawson, rated the top “light heavyweight” boxer in the world in 2012 by The Ring Magazine—and one of the few Connecticut boxers to win a professional world title, ever.

About 80% of Clark’s young fighters come from The Hill neighborhood, with the other fifth coming mostly from other parts of New Haven. Clark says many of his fighters come in needing a constructive outlet for anger or pain, and Ring One provides.

Clark knows what it’s like to need something to swing at. Growing up in Orange as a self-described “delinquent,” he says be barely made it through high school before going straight into the Navy. It was there that he learned how to box. For the first time, Clark says, “something felt good besides screwing up.”

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He came back to the area in 1981 and started teaching kids at a boxing gym in Hamden—also called Ring One. That one eventually threw in the towel, but in 1989, Clark opened up a new Ring One Boxing with a local legend: Kenny “The Hamden Hammer” Schmidt. The Hamden Hammer’s star power gave Ring One some punch to start, but over the course of the last 27 years, it’s been Clark who’s kept the gym and its boxers strong.

“I develop people by developing fighters,” Clark says, instilling discipline with punching mitts and occasionally a walker—the kind an elderly person might use—to maintain proper distance during mitt training. “There’s not a kid who comes in here who doesn’t see themselves in Madison Square Garden”—or the Barclays Center, where many big fights are being held today. But while dreams of stardom often motivate his young fighters, Clark doesn’t sell them the illusion that they’re going to be “multimillionaires.” Neither does he knock those dreams out. Instead, he lowers the kids’ gaze to more immediate victories, in and out of the ring.

To keep his young boxers on track in regular school, Clark gives them an incentive. If students keep a B-minus average or better, they can attend Ring One for free. Otherwise, memberships cost $10 per month for New Haven school system and $25 for everyone else. In general, he says, the longer a kid stays in the gym the better he or she does in other aspects of life—academic, social, familial—and if he notices students’ performance starting to slip in any arena, he’s not afraid to give them some grief.

Matthew Franco Jr., a former State Police officer and current Yale Police officer, says of Clark, “He’ll test your character right off the rip.” Referring to kids Clark calls “Facebook fighters,” Franco says, “If you’re there just to take a picture, it’s not going to fly.”

Though Clark sometimes puts the heat on his young boxers, he’s not insensitive or unnuanced. “Every kid is different,” he says. He’ll use different strategies with different boxers “depending on what I want to get out of them.” He says some kids perform best when they’re feeling good about themselves, but giving praise where it isn’t due can backfire. “If you say ‘good job, good job’ when it isn’t,” Clark says, “they’ll find out in the ring and that could hurt a lot more.”

But some fighters can take criticism early, quickly converting critique into craft. With these fighters, Clark is merciless. “I won’t let a little thing slide.” When he was training the would-be champion—“Bad” Chad Dawson—Clark would sit with a notepad and tally up not just the times Dawson was hit but the number of times he could have been hit.

Current trainee Dayshon “Superfreak” Smith is another young fighter with whom Clark doesn’t pull any punches. 24-year-old Smith got into the boxing game relatively late, at age 18. But like many of Ring One’s fighters, he had good reason to want to punch something, having lost both his parents before he found Ring One. “It was anger. It was hurt. It was sorrow,” Smith says of what he was going through.

At Ring One, his pain was converted to purpose. Smith now wears an intricate full-chest tattoo topped with “pain is power.” That formula seems to be working for him. He was the 2016 Golden Glove Regional Champion of New England and now sits with an undefeated amateur boxing record of 13-0.

Smith speaks highly of Clark and credits a good part of his success to Ring One. “In this gym, we play chess,” Smith, says. “In others, they play checkers.”

Ring One Boxing
790 Congress Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon-Fri 5:30-7pm
(203) 376-0940
www.facebook.com/Ring-One-Boxing…

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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Daniel is an aspiring novelist. He owns a Yale sweater he will never wear and takes his Faulkner with vermouth and his vermouth with an orange wedge. An avid traveler and retired hooligan, he was kicked out of the largest club in Africa for breakdancing, joined an Andalusian metal band and, while in Istanbul, learned to read the future in his coffee grinds. Despite the omens he finds at the bottom of his morning joe, Daniel continues to write.

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