Before it enters the dark tracts and inner veins of the city, the number Four train moves slowly past the non-descript buildings of the Bronx.
Scraping noisily past Lehman College, it winds down Jerome Avenue. The grating rhythmic clatter floats into the open window of the Worldwide Boxing Gym. As the train passes, the only sound to be heard within the paint flecked walls is a bell. It rings ten times. The crowd, fighters and officials stand still – heads bowed.
On 16 August 2008, Ronny Vargas, a three time New York Golden Gloves champion boxer and promising professional was fatally shot in his neighbourhood in the South Bronx. A month after the two year anniversary of his death, a day of amateur fights was staged in his memory. The event is aimed to not only highlight the love that the community had for ‘Venezuela’ – as Vargas was affectionately known, but to also emphasise the role that boxing gyms play in the lives young people.
“I remember seeing him [Vargas] in Boxing Illustrated, listed as one of the best prospects,” explains Edward Murphy, head trainer of the Atlantic Veterans Memorial Gym in Shirley, Long Island.
“Ronny was a great guy, and today’s we’re just trying to say that they’ve got to stop. How many people have got to die before somebody gets up and does something about it?”
Murphy, a coach who has trained numerous professionals and top-ranked amateurs thinks that the violence that many young people face in their neighbourhoods can be avoided with boxing.
“It keeps kids off the streets, off drugs and away from the roaring street gangs. Many of them come from broken homes and single parent families. They realise that they can lean on us. I even have two bunk beds in my gym.”
As Murphy is talking, one of his young protégés, Cletus Seldin, 17, is warming up for his bout later that day. Supervising his preparations is Adam Willett, another promising boxer affected by violence. An alternate on the 2008 Beijing Olympics team, he is making his first appearance at a boxing event since recovering from a near fatal gun-shot wound to the chest.
“When the kids realise that the boxing gym is a family, it’s a family they stick with. In the gym we have Hispanic, black, and white fighters but when they are in the gym it’s either boxers or non boxers. It’s a fraternity.”
One of the last fights on the bill today involves Ronniel ‘Venee’ Vargas, younger brother of Ronny. He is boxing today in memory of his brother, but is quick to point out that he himself might not be here if it had not been for boxing.
“When I was around 6 years old, my brother was already in boxing. My brother used to pick me up from school and he used to train while I would do my homework. Then when I was eight I just started to box rather than just do my homework,” explains Vargas.
Sitting on a bench, drenched in sweat he exited the ring after losing a close decision. When the referee mistakenly announced him as the winner he handed the winning trophy to his opponent before the mistake was rectified.
“From thirteen to fifteen I stopped boxing and my grades dropped. I started getting into trouble. I was suspended for fighting. When I came back to boxing I had more of an opportunity to stay out of that. Boxing has the power to keep kids off the streets.”
But boxing events such as these have long been under threat. For years a terminal decline of gyms in New York has meant that fewer fighters have been produced. More importantly the more gyms that closed the fewer places there were for young people to get off the streets. But according the Edward Murphy one of professional boxing’s greatest threats could actually be amateur boxing’s saviour.
“When I came into boxing in Long Island in 1999 there were five boxing gyms. Today there are twenty two. More and more gyms are catering to Mixed Martial Arts and part of that requires boxing skills. Now there are gyms that have a mix of boxers and martial arts fighters.”
Bryan O’Connor a young fighter who won the Golden Gloves in 2006 and a finalist in 2007 explained the impact that a gym closure had on his career.
“The gym where Ronny [Vargas] and I trained was closed and they kicked us all out. After that I stopped boxing and got into trouble.”
His break from boxing led to an arrest and imprisonment for 18 months on gun charges. While he was in prison, he heard about Ronny’s death. Upon his return he vowed to return to the sport that promised him a bright future. He intends to go win the Golden Gloves once more before going to the nationals. Even the Olympics may be on the horizon.
“I want to win the Golden Gloves once more, and then go to the nationals. I’m taking boxing seriously now.”
Ronniel meanwhile is adamant that his future in boxing rests on the need pay respect to his late brothers legacy.
“I made a promise to win a belt for him when I turn pro. I don’t want to say I want to be better, but it’s not for me. I want take it off from where he left off. I can’t promise I will do as well but I will do my best.”
As the twelfth and final bell rang in memory of ‘Venezuela’, his father Hernan stood straight, looked ahead into the distance with tears streaming down his weathered face. Beside him stood a trophy in his son’s memory, to be awarded to the winner of the evening’s best fight. Talking later he had one thing to say.
“When people talk about Ronny they always talk about love. When Ronny was a little boy, before he could say any other words, he knew how to say boxer. That’s all he wanted to be. “I want to be a boxer,” is what he said to me.”
Photography by Taylor Hallman.