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New Haven Boxing Gym Trains Kids, In An Effort To Keep Violence In The Ring

Life in some low-income neighborhoods is often hard and sometimes violent. One woman in New Haven is trying to prevent violence on the streets, by containing that aggression in a boxing ring.

“Ropes up! 100 revolutions! Lets go!”

Devonne Canady barks orders at about a dozen kids, who spin jump ropes around them while standing on wooden pallets in the parking lot of a boxing gym.

Directly across Henry Street from the fenced-in parking lot is the Orchard Market, where a clerk was shot and killed last year in a possible robbery attempt. This is the low-income, predominantly black New Haven neighborhood of Dixwell. More than one-in-five households here live on less than $10,000 a year.

The jumpers are all between the age of 8 and 12. Some of them are better at jumping than others. 10-year-old Ethan Freeman jumps like a pro.

“What a double jump basically is, you have a single rope, but then you have to go high, so it can go twice around you,” explains Freeman.

It looks kind of fun, but Freeman says this is work.

“We’re on the work so we can be able to spar each other in the ring without doing any baby stuff. Crying or nothing," Freeman says. "She’s teaching us how to go through the pain in the ring.”

They start in on ab exercises.

Other than the coach, Jornell Cunningham is the only girl here.

“I don’t really care if I’m the only girl,” she says. Cunningham says she started coming because it looked fun. And, she says, it is fun.

“Sometimes I get tired and sometimes it hurts my abs, so I get like stronger.”

Canady walks inside the former gas station she’s converted into a gym, and proudly points to a 20 square foot boxing ring, surrounded by punching bags, hanging from the ceiling. She’s got a lot of experience hitting bags like these. She won the Golden Gloves in 2000, and several other titles since then. She was hoping women’s boxing would be included for the first time in the Olympics in 2008.

“Absolutely, no doubt in my mind I would have gone, and won," she said. "I would have won.”

Credit Craig LeMoult
Devonne Canady helps a young boxer with his padded helmet at the Elephant in the Room Boxing Club

She didn’t get the chance. The Olympics didn’t open up boxing to women until 2012, and by that time she was 42. She says she still would have won. But instead she decided to focus her attention on introducing her sport to young people in her hometown.

 “I grew up right here," Canady said.  "And unfortunately, the children in this neighborhood, this particular neighborhood, there isn’t a lot for them. There isn’t a rec center. There’s barely parks. If there’s parks, there’s no swings.  There’s not a soccer field.”

And when kids don’t have anything to do, she says, they get in trouble.

“So the name of the gym is Elephant in the Room Boxing Club," she said. "And to us, the elephant in the room is things or issues in this neighborhood that a lot of people are aware of and a lot of us aren’t doing anything about. And one of them, in particular, is gun violence. Gun violence. So we are here to do something about it.”

She says she’s giving them something else to focus on.

In addition to the older boxers she trains, every weekday from 4 to 6, she opens up the gym to kids aged 8 to 12.

“A lot of these kids are growing up without their dads. So what I do is I team with their mom. And I ask mom, ‘how is he doing in school? How’s his grades? Is he respecting you? Is he respecting himself?’ All those things.”

As she talks, 17 year old Isa Hyatt walks in the door and says he wants to talk about signing up for training.

“So how long have you been thinking about boxing?" she asks him.
Hyatt says it's crossed his mind from time to time. "But something just tells me I need to start boxing.”

Canady says she knows Hyatt’s street, and it’s a tough one.

“Are you getting in trouble down there?" she asks him. Hyatt says no.
"No? Good. Because once you start kin the gym, you understand, you represent the gym,” says Canady.

She tells him if he signs up to train, he can only fight in the ring.

12 year old Jordon Cunningham says it feels good to hit the bag, because he had a bad day.

“Something actually happened where I wanted to hit somebody but I didn’t," said Cunningham. "I didn’t because I can’t use my fighting for revenge.”

And it’s not just for punching bags. After all that training, it’s time to head into the ring.

“At the bell, Ethan and Jaydein go,” calls out Canady.

As he waits for the bell, 10 year old Jaydein Coles says he has a strategy.

“Pretend like this is a pro fight. And pretend like I’m fighting for the championship.”

The bell rings, and the boys dance around the ring wearing padded boxing masks, gloves up, and staring intensely at each other. The other young boxers watch quietly from just outside the ring, as Canady calls out instructions.

“Stay in your stance, stay in your stance and use your jab.”

They jab with the left, sometimes connecting with a shoulder or totally missing, sometimes connecting with a right to the head. This is the real deal, and these kids are definitely hitting each other.

The bell rings and the spectators applaud.

"Good!" says Canady. "What do you think you should be doing better?”

For Canady, that’s the point. Keeping these kids disciplined, and always focused on what they can and should be doing even better.

“Will this save them all?" she asks. "No. But if you save one, it’s good enough.”

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.