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Born fighters

East Palo Alto Boxing Club — down for the count?

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On a hot, late-August evening, the air in the gym felt thick with sweat and perspiration; the heat elevated an already difficult workout into the realm of painful. The young boxers were struggling to breathe, to see through the sweat, and yet their hands seemed always to hit their mark.

The struggle is an integral part of boxing's historical lore; the young kid from the wrong side of the tracks finds a mentor and uses his new-found discipline and dedication to overcome obstacles. It's a cliche, yes, but a cliche must come from somewhere.

The East Palo Alto Boxing Club, run by former amateur boxer Johnnie Gray, could be the poster child of the struggle central to the typical boxing story.

But it also has its successes in the kids that pass through the ring, that find themselves within the artistry of boxing's dance, that thrive on the hard work and discipline.

Fatima Alcantar, a 19-year-old flyweight, is the gem of the place. She's had stories written about her before; there was even a short film called "The Champ" made about her by a Stanford graduate student.

If you listen to her story, it's easy to tell why the petite, dark-eyed beauty became a focal point for not only the media, but for the other kids as well.

Her childhood on the streets in Mexico wasn't just rough, it was damaging. When she came to the United States, it was hard to slough that skin. She held a deep anger that manifested itself as street fighting.

"I was a fighter on the streets," she said, explaining how she first ended up at Gray's gym. "My sister brought me here; she thought it would be good for me to have someone kick my butt. No one has, yet."

But she has learned how to fight correctly and safely, how to harness and guide her energy and how to use her size and strength to her advantage. It's knowledge that acts as a healthy gut-check for a girl who never walked away from a fight.

"I know what my body can do," she said. "I know what damage I can inflict, so I don't fight."

She loves boxing; she loves the finesse, the speed and the self-awareness it requires.

"You have to use every part of your body from your brain to your toes," she said, ducking out of the way of the madly swinging speed bag.

Recovering from some dislocated ribs, she doesn't get in the ring as much as she used to or would like. But she's been coming to the gym every evening to help train some of the younger kids, and recently she got the all clear to don her gloves.

Alcantar clearly rallies the group; she leads their weekly runs, she cheers them on in the ring, and she pushes them during workouts. Her laughter fills the room and her energy courses through it.

The walls of the gym are decorated with large, impressive paintings that are the works of Santiago Capistan, a 22-year-old handyman who has been coming to Gray's gym for three or four years.

He works out with the group, but admits his heart isn't in competing. His art is his world, but art and boxing aren't as different as they might seem. They both take dedication, heart, creativity and a delicate touch.

Capistan has been able to focus his drive and create some wonderful pieces; Gray has given him support and discipline inside and outside the ring in addition to the space to display his work.

"Johnnie always pushes me to do more and to do better, both with boxing and my art," he said. "He's always there for you at any time."

And he is; it is clear that Gray would do anything for these kids. He might just have to.

Like every good boxing story, the protagonist hits a rough spot just as things start looking up. In the case of the boxing club, that rough spot is funding.

Originally housed in the city's Bell Street gym, it was kicked out along with other city programs when the gym was demolished in 2005 to make way for the new YMCA building.

The city helped find a temporary facility, but in 2007 when Gray moved into his current warehouse space, the city stopped directly paying the bills.

At the time, the city scrounged for some stopgap funding, City Manager Alvin James said. "Last year the City Council decided to give him a one-time grant of $45,000. The city manager's office was directed to cobble together the funds from all sorts of places."

Gray's dream is to expand the hours beyond the current four two in the morning and two at night and to be able to pay some of his staff, and possibly himself, for their time.

"If we were to pay our volunteers, it would cost around $150,000 a year to run the gym, which would include the longer hours," Stephanie Johnson-Gray, Johnnie Gray's wife and the gym's accountant, said.

In hopes of receiving funding similar to last year's grant, the club submitted a request for that $150,000 to the city council.

This month, the council should be prepared to accept grant proposals from local nonprofits for Measure C and the transient occupancy tax (TOT) funds. James said Gray should resubmit his proposal then.

"We are asking the city to contribute regardless of the funds they're getting from TOT or Measure C," Johnson-Gray said. "We want them to put us in their budget, to give us money every year."

According to James, that just isn't going to happen.

"He has not acknowledged that the council has a process," he said. "You can't run a city with earmarks written into the general fund. Our first obligation has to be municipal functions."

"We're going to city council meetings to get money from the city," Alcantar said. "It's hard; they aren't really responsive. Johnnie's doing something positive that helps people; why not support that?"

As the money continues to dwindle, the kids will start holding car washes to raise some money, and Johnson-Gray is on a mission to get donations and grants from foundations and other groups.

The recent establishment of a police activities league in the area gives her some hope. In his announcement of the league, Police Chief Ronald Davis singled out the boxing club as a possible recipient of funds, and the group has been working with the league to get a $35,000 grant.

At the moment, there isn't any fat to trim from the club's budget, she said, adding that, if need be, she and Gray would dip into their own personal savings to keep the program afloat.

But Gray won't give up; neither will his wife. And the kids? The kids are born fighters.

We need your support now more than ever. Can we count on you?


Like this comment
Posted by Sharon
a resident of Midtown
on Jan 2, 2009 at 1:40 pm

Would not basketball, fencing or yoga be better?

Boxers risk terrible brain damage early even without concussions, later they are at high risk of Parkinson Disease, like Ali.

Like this comment
Posted by Big Al
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Jan 3, 2009 at 9:06 am

I had trouble reading the story-
so much hype-
How about a computer room-
It is the 21st century you know-
and while it physical activity may be healthy-
perhaps this whole boxing thing is a little over
rated, esp. when/if you gotta get somebody else to
float the bill- like the local government.
She sounds real tough though- could probably beat up
anybody if she wasn't a girl!

Like this comment
Posted by Shelby
a resident of Stanford
on Jan 4, 2009 at 8:56 pm

I think this is a very positive way to get kids involved in something. Boxing is a great sport, not just physically but mentally as well. It seems that there are a lot of people who don't understand the sport, and base their judgements on fear. Boxing used to be a common sport in most inner cities for young kids who didn't experience any signs of brain damage after the fact. In fact, it provided structure and discipline for young kids. Something that parents today have a trouble instilling in their kids. I hope that the gym continues to run and that the city continues to support it in some way or another.

Like this comment
Posted by Bambi
a resident of Downtown North
on Jan 6, 2009 at 1:17 pm

I loved this story and video. This is a such a great program for kids and allows the physical outlet they need. we should better support this type of prpgram here in East Palo Alto/Palo Alto for our kids. With physical education being cut out of so many schools today programs like this are needed. We need less kids sitting behind a computer and playing those dumb computer games.

Like this comment
Posted by ana
a resident of Monroe Park
on Jan 6, 2009 at 2:22 pm

I love !!!!! the story and the video it is great

Like this comment
Posted by Ray
a resident of another community
on Jan 7, 2015 at 9:43 pm

I love boxing and having experienced it first hand I think it's a great sport. Also, I think that it teaches you about dedication, courage, discipline, and hard work. Getting up every morning before school or after a hard days work and pushing yourself to the point of exhaustion is difficult for most people. However, the experience of exhibiting your hard work in a ring with someone else who has also struggled as hard as you have is indescribable. I know that from a spectators point of view it looks like just two people trying to punch each other out, but there is a lot more going on in there than that. Until you've actually stood face to face with another athlete in a ring, you don't know what it's like. The control of your emotions, the sizing up of your opponents, the strategizing of how you will over come the challenge that is in front of you. It is like no other sport. You do not have a bunch of team mates around you and you cannot run and hide. You have to think quick under pressure. I happen to think that boxing is the only natural sport because it reflects real life. You are born fighting, you fight your entire life for all kinds of things, such as identity, grades, approval, jobs, and freedom. I know that I'm probably alone on this, but I think the communities where these clubs exist should fund them just like they would any other organization that gives and provides a great service. Corporations like Google, Apple, as well as franchises, small local stores and local neighbors. Keep up the good work, perhaps some day you will be recognized for your contribution to your community.

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