BR boxers go from modest gym to Russian competition
Surrounded by beauty salons, a bail bonds office and a couple of credit agencies, Best Boxing Club sits in the far corner of a nondescript strip mall on North Boulevard.
Black punching bags hang from the ceiling of the cramped, tile-floored studio where Manjaro Hills Sr. trains a dozen Baton Rouge-area boxers, including sons Manjaro Jr. and Cameron. Various motivational quotes like “Are you a fan OR a fighter?” decorate the walls, as well as computer printouts of Evander Holyfield, Joe Louis and other greats.
Only a few feet from the front door, a small, homemade boxing ring serves as a 16-by-16-foot welcome mat.
“We get a lot of work done in this little place,” Manjaro Hills Sr. said.
Little places like this can lead to someplace grand.
Manjaro Hills Jr. and fellow local John Williams, who grew up in the sport with young Manjaro, though he trains at a gym across town, will make like Rocky Balboa and head to Russia for the most prestigious set of bouts either has seen. Hills and Williams are two of 14 boxers who will represent the United States in the Veles Cup, an international competition for 15- and 16-year-old boxers scheduled for July 16-21.
The event is in Kurgan, Russia, the first trip out of the country for either boxer and 11 time zones from their Louisiana home.
“I’m just kind of nervous about the food,” Manjaro Hills Jr. said. “I would like to know what I’m eating. I wouldn’t want to eat no squid or nothing like that.”
Hills and Williams will be sophomores at area high schools this fall, Hills at Northeast and Williams at Glen Oaks. Both are 15.
Hills placed fifth at 165 pounds last month at the USA Boxing Junior Olympic tournament in Mobile, Ala., and Williams took second at 145 pounds. Spots in the Veles Cup were generally awarded to Junior Olympic champions, but the door opened for Hills and Williams when the boxers who finished ahead of them in Mobile failed to meet the age requirement for the international event and/or could not provide a valid U.S. passport.
Now they will both have a chance to match blows with some of the best young boxers in the world.
Not to mention see the sights.
“I never dreamed (boxing) would take him that far,” John McClendon said of his son, John Williams, going across the globe. “I’m still so humbled and overwhelmed by the entire situation.”
When they throw on the gloves and sport red, white and blue in Russia, Hills and Williams will embark on a journey that conjures visions of a bearded Rocky hauling wood, chopping down trees and pulling sleds .
Thank goodness, there will be no workouts in the snow (the temperature in Kurgan on Wednesday was 85 degrees) and no impending bout with Ivan Drago.
“When I tell people I’m going to Russia to box, that’s the first thing I hear — Rocky,” Manjaro Hills Jr. said with a smile.
Hills and Williams have grown into Rocky-like gym rats since catching the boxing bug early in life.
Hills got the fever watching his father beat on the punching bag Hills Sr. hung from a tree branch in his mother’s front yard. Hills Jr. began boxing competitively at 10.
A few years later, Hills Sr. found the space on North Boulevard and converted it into a gym.
Williams began throwing punches about the time he could stand, as Williams’ grandfather would line the youngster up in the living room and exchange playful jabs.
When he was 10, Williams started boxing under Dennis Combs at the Baton Rouge Sports Academy.
“Now we’re going to Russia fighting,” Williams said. “Look at where it’s taking us.”
On a recent Friday afternoon, Williams joined Hills at Best Boxing Club, where the two answered questions about their upcoming trip and posed for pictures in the ring.
Their fathers talked about boxing as a positive, productive way for the boys to spend their down time. About how staying busy in the ring has kept them from getting distracted outside of it.
Before long, Hills and Williams were doing what they like best.
Chains rattled as the bulky, powerful Hills and the quick, slender Williams unleashed on the Everlast punching bags in the back of the room. The repeated thump of leather brought the stuffy gym to life.
“What boxing does that most people don’t understand is, it teaches you a lot of discipline,” Manjaro Hills Sr. said.
“You’re going to learn how to be patient with things. It just prepares you for the world ahead.”
In the case of these young boxers, the world ahead is nearly at hand.