A Fighting Chance

A Fighting Chance

It was fight night in Dixwell.

Last Saturday, organized by Elephant in the Room (EIR) Boxing Club, 12 pugilists from across the city and state gathered for the second annual “Spring Bang” showcase inside the Wexler-Grant School gymnasium.

Whereas the big recent title bout between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao felt bloated and hungerless—two securely established fighters making an overhyped cash grab before heading off into the sunset—it was just the opposite at Wexler-Grant. Feet away from the old “Q” house, a still, empty community center abandoned over a decade ago, the school gymnasium was raucous and joyous, young fighters gloving up for amateur bouts as music blasted courtesy of New Haven’s own DJ AFX.

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Devonne Canady is the owner of EIR, which sits on Henry Street two blocks from Wexler Grant. Like boxing gyms across the county, Canady’s club plays defense against forces outside its walls which seek to do her boxers harm. Keeping them off the street and in the gym is as delicate and precarious as the dances the fighters do in the ring. “It’s an outlet. It’s something to keep them inside. It’s a safe haven.” Outside. Inside. Jab. Dodge. Counterpunch.

The warmth and strength Canady exudes makes it easy to listen to her, and to do what she says. So does her pedigree: she used to be a boxer herself, and a world champ at that. Her pragmatic attitude helps, too. “My job is to fatigue them. So when they leave they just go home and go to bed. There’s no going home and taking something that doesn’t belong to them or picking up a gun or that kind of stuff,” she says.

On Saturday, there were six fights of three rounds each, with kids as young as 14 ranging up to men in their 30s, all amateurs. In amateur boxing, the gloves are thicker and the fighters wear head gear, putting as much leather as possible between fist and target. The sounds of leather hitting leather are squelches, slaps, squishes, with powerful booming undertones.

Maybe because they’re amateurs, the fighters usually hugged each other at the end of each fight, and they seemed to mean it. This was more than simple respect showed to an opponent; it was appreciation, an acknowledgment of common experience, of similar journeys intersecting. The various trainers, meanwhile, acknowledged fighters that weren’t their own. “Good fight,” the other guy’s trainer would say, with a strong clap on the back and a look in the eye.

It takes discipline to show that kind of sportsmanship, and to train up for ring-readiness in the first place. State senator and photographer Gary Winfield was ringside, watching and snapping shots for Elephant in the Room. “Devonne really focuses on discipline and academics in order to box,” he says. “So these young men who may or may not have had that in their life, now have that in their life.”

In At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing, George Kimball points out that unlike other sports, no one “plays” boxing. It’s not quite a game. The weight behind the various pieces of boxing language that’ve slipped into broader usage—“go toe to toe,” “throw in the towel,” “have someone in your corner”—are testimony to how apt a metaphor the sport is for broader struggles. It’s also a sport where, even after taking rounds’ worth of punishment, the underdog always has a chance to land a knockout.

Maybe that’s what makes the sport so riveting, even during a mismatch. The biggest cheer Saturday night happened late in the second round of the third fight, between two 17-year-olds. Stratford’s Luis Hernandez had been out-boxing EIR’s Shiquan Lacks. The wiry Hernandez must have had six inches of height and another six of reach on the more compact New Havener. Hernandez showed better combination punches, speed and footwork, too.

But Lacks had a brawler’s spirit and the hometown crowd. So it was that late in the second round, with Hernandez clearly in the lead, Lacks landed a looping right with a dense rubbery thud easily heard from the back row of the bleachers.

The New Haven crowd squealed and screamed for their fighter and his big hit, and while Hernandez continued getting the better of Lacks, going on to win the match, the latter just kept coming forward, always forward, taking his licks but refusing to back down until the final bell had rung.

Boxing Gyms in New Haven
Elephant in the Room | Boxing in Faith | Ring One

Written by Michael Lee-Murphy. Photographed by Dan Mims.

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