MSU boxing club coach helps give inner-city kids their best shot in and outside the ring
Out of the intense calm of a gym in Lansing, a green light switches on from a box in the corner. Coming in over the music, a loud beep sounds and it is time to get to work.
One young boy attacks the heavy bag, alternating hard drives into the leather with his fists, another boy is doing pull-ups while a third drums on the speed bag hanging above his head in a smooth rhythm. Another beep and the yellow light in the middle turns on — time to pick it up, finish strong. A final beep and the red light illuminates — take a rest, one round down.
It is another night of practice, another night to get away from it all under the watchful eye of Coach Ali Easley, MSU and Lansing Community College faculty member and coach for the MSU boxing team.
The athletes at Crown Boxing Club know about hard work. They are in on a Thursday evening, while many of their friends are home eating dinner. The garage-like door of the center is open, and the rain is trickling down onto stacks of pallets in the background as they continue to work in the 72-degree gym.
Growing up in Morocco, Easley got started in boxing after a family member convinced him to leave martial arts behind and try the difficult sport. He began competing around age 12, the same time his family moved to the United States, spending time in Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“It’s a very offensive-minded sport,” he said. “You’re basically competing against yourself every time you get into the ring.”
To master the sport, Easley said boxers must be well-rounded athletes in top physical condition.
After a car accident put an early end to his competing years in his late 20s, Easley decided to spend more time helping kids learn to box, something he enjoyed doing before.
“I decided to dedicate my time to running a facility to help kids,” he said. “I know it gave me a lot of direction in my life.”
After spending time at other gyms, he ended up at Crown in 1992, a club that has existed in Lansing since 1976, at their new facility at 1010 Ballard St.
The gym fits the stereotypical elements of a boxing facility — mirrors on the walls, two rings formed by ropes, workout equipment.
But there is a feeling and an attitude floating in the atmosphere of the gym. Posters from fights dating back to the 1960s cover the walls, trophies and belts are displayed on a shelf high above the floor, and the hallway into the gym is covered in framed photos of the boxers and news clippings. It is like walking into a family home, with proud pictures of relatives on the walls, an escape, where everyone is welcome and everyone is on the same team.
To get in the ring
Using money from donations and his own salary from MSU, Easley said the kids are only left with an annual fee of $35 to obtain a license, a cost which they try to get sponsored. As a 501(c )(3) nonprofit organization, the gym is partnered with USA Boxing, based in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The membership with USA Boxing also provides insurance — which could otherwise be out of reach for some of the kids — guaranteeing regular doctors exams, and treatment in case of injury.
It is because of these donations that Easley is able to take the students around the country for competitions in places like Kansas City, Mo. and Marquette, Mich., an experience they might not otherwise get.
“A lot of these kids are impoverished — many of them have never been more than a couple miles’ radius from their homes,” he said. “We had a kid who had never seen a cow before. It never ceases to amaze me every day.”
The gym holds classes Monday through Friday in which Easley instructs students from LCC and MSU.
Students from MSU must complete his class to become members of the boxing club. For them, Easley said the class is focused on conditioning, and exposing them to the workout and lifestyle of a boxer.
“By the end of the class the kids may not be able to fight, but they know how to handle themselves in a gym,” he said.
The class covers the techniques of proper jumping rope and combination throwing, as well as some abdominal work.
Brandon Larvadain, who graduated from MSU with a degree in packaging in May, signed up for the one-credit class when he was age 20, looking to get back in shape.
“I’ve always been really competitive. I heard boxing was a real good workout,” he said.
Kyle Sztykiel, a mechanical engineering senior, heard about the class from friends and decided to sign up.
“I’ve really liked it. It’s been kind of tough, but it’s really fun,” he said. “It’s a hard class, but it’s not too hard.”
Sztykiel said Easley “doesn’t hold back” during the class, giving students a realistic look at a boxer’s routine.
“He’s a nice guy — he expects you to do what he tells you to do. If you don’t do it he makes you do it over again and makes you do it the right way,” he said.
The gym is open to amateurs from 4:30-7 p.m. Monday through Friday as well, with 15 to 30 kids typically showing up each night to box.
In order to be a member of the club at Crown, Easley said all the kids must be in school, keep solid grades, stay out of trouble and interact well with their fellow boxers and the staff.
Among the club’s accomplishments, the gym has produced three champions for each of the past three years out of 5,000 entrants at the National Golden Glove Championship.
One of the club’s champions is 10-year-old Angelo Flores, a two-time world champion in the uppercut challenge. He began coming to the gym when he was five years old, after hearing about it from his family.
“It’s cool, a fun place to be,” he said. “You’ve got friends here.”
This team mentality can be seen as the boys spar in the ring. A few of the others, including Larvadain, can be found standing around the ring, calling out direction and encouragement.
Flores said he enjoys the challenging bag drills, which help build stamina. He hopes to take what he has learned to the professional level, eventually going into the Navy, or perhaps other professional sports, like basketball.
Flores also enjoys his time with Easley.
“(Easley’s) pretty cool. Sometimes he can be hard on you. Most of the time he is really cool, makes us laugh, takes us out to eat,” Flores said.
Trisha Nylund, a 2004 MSU graduate, took Easley’s class while in college. A lifelong athlete, Nylund stuck with boxing, eventually competing and becoming a coach at the gym.
“I love the workout. It is not your basic aerobics class, it is a bit more challenging,” she said. “It makes you think.”
Living in Lansing permanently now, Nylund credits her newfound awareness to her time at the gym.
“It’s a real eye-opener. I come from a small town. You just really don’t see this part of the world sometimes,” she said.
While she said Coach Easley was a serious instructor, he works well with the kids.
“He’s got one of the biggest hearts I have ever seen in a person,” Nylund said. “He’s in it for all the right reasons.”
Cody Varnadore, 21, has been coming to the gym for 12 years to train.
“I’ve got a good team here, a good coach,” he said. “He always looks out for us.”
Varnadore said he plans to go pro by 2009, a goal he said can be accomplished with hard work and dedication to your talent.
“There’s only certain people that can handle it. It’s a good experience,” he said. “It is an honor to be able to box.”
Larvadain also said he plans to continue boxing. He said it has also been a good experience, teaching discipline. So far, he has competed in 15 fights.
“I’ve improved over time,” he said. “It was really tough in the beginning. If I could get a chance to turn professional and do something with it I will.”
In the future, Easley hopes to expand the gym, in order to help more kids see their potential, and make the center a fixture in the community. He is also limited in how many students he can take on trips. Holding classes through MSU and LCC, he said, has brought awareness to the program.
He has seen kids come and go, and the effect the program can have.
“The most challenging thing without a doubt is raising the money to continue the program,” Easley said. “Sometimes it just takes that one trip.”