Youth Saviors?

Many troubled kids find a safe haven in boxing programs

The opportunity to lace 'em up and show your stuff brings some positives into the lives of youth, especially inner-city kids, according to those in the industry.

Since 1923, amateur boxing has offered an opportunity for thousands of underprivileged and disadvantaged youth to get off the street and out of potential trouble, while learning self-control and life skills through boxing.

Golden Glove programs from New England to Hawaii currently attract more than 22,000 male and female athletes (some as young as 8 years old), taking them out of trouble spots and keeping them engaged physically and mentally in the hope that crime, drugs and gang-related activities will hold less appeal.

Bernard Hopkins is one of the many poster boys for this hope. "I come from four generations of fighters, so it's a tradition in my family," says Hopkins, a former Philadelphia street thug who became a world champion. "My mother raised seven kids by herself, and we had to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But I made some bad choices and spent five years in a penitentiary for armed robbery as a result."

While incarcerated, he decided to turn his life around by focusing on boxing. "Most fighters come from poverty areas, and boxing saves them. If I hadn't had boxing to learn discipline and steer me on a straight course, the odds of me repeating illegal activities would have been great." During his time behind bars, Hopkins won the national penitentiary middleweight championship three times before turning professional 15 years ago.

His partner at Golden Boy Promotions, Oscar De La Hoya, came from one of the poorer sections of East Los Angeles, turning away from gangs and turning to gyms. He is included on a long list of Golden Glove champions with very familiar names in the fight world: George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Thomas Hearns and Sugar Ray Leonard. One of the missions of the Golden Glove Association of America is to provide a safe environment and an activity that promotes and enhances development of both physical and social skills. Lessons learned within the unforgiving world of a boxing ring bring self-discipline, and advocates maintain that what young pugilists take out of the ring is confidence in themselves as human beings.

Some young men such as Uganda native Kassim "The Dream" Ouma, who fought Jan. 27 at Desert Diamond, never had a chance for a childhood. Kidnapped from a boarding school at age 6, he was turned into a child soldier and taught how to kill. Now 27, Ouma spent 10 years as a captive of the National Resistance Army, with long workouts in dank gyms to develop his boxing skills. Within five years, he had amassed a 60-3 record and an invitation to fight at the World Military Games in the United States. Instead, he defected and turned pro. In the last several years, he has run his record to 23-2 (15 by knockout).

While the fight game belongs more to youthful contenders, some of the old-timers have yet to hang it up. The 33-year-old De La Hoya is scheduled in the ring for a WBC world junior middleweight contest in early May. His business partner Hopkins, who knocked De La Hoya out in the ninth round of a title contest just two years ago, is also scheduled to fight another bout--his last, he says--this weekend against Roy Jones Jr. "It may look like two old men with walkers entering the ring, but I have one good fight left in me," says the 41-year-old. "Then you can stick a fork in me. I'm done."