Immediately upon entering the Jersey City Recreation Boxing League, you forget that you are in a back room of the Franklin Williams Middle School (M.S. 7) on Laidlaw Avenue. A regulation sized boxing ring stands majestically in a room lined with punching bags, weight machines and other boxing apparatus while young men and women between the ages of 8 and 17 jump rope and shadow box. Accompanying the scents you might normally find in a boxing gym, there is a strong sense of camaraderie, community and dedication.
In the middle of all of this organized fury is Luis “Mosquito” Gonzalez, a life long Jersey City resident who is slowly but surely realizing his dream of opening up a free boxing gym in the city. One of the founders of the Roberto Clemente Little League in downtown Jersey City, as well as a community organizer with a long history of giving back in Jersey City, Mosquito launched the boxing program in Jersey City two years ago with the help of volunteers Jason Cruize, Robert Rosario and his son Luis Gonzalez, Jr.
“Money,” he begins, “we didn’t have it. I started going to different locations, and getting the kids involved, just putting on gloves, to see how far we can go. I brought up the idea of a boxing program to elected officials, council members, and the mayor, and they loved the idea,” Mosquito explained.
The modest roots of the program are born from a long history of boxing in Jersey City, inspired by the likes of Jimmy Dupree, the former light heavyweight champion who ran a boxing program in Greenville. “I wanted to follow in his footsteps,” says Mosquito.
While Mosquito is speaking, his eyes are all over the gym, monitoring drills and combos, motioning to some boxers to move their bags off the ring, to another young boxer to pick up a hoodie off the floor. The young boxer hesitates, but only for a milli-second before picking up the hoodie. It’s evident in the way the all volunteer league runs that the notion of “that’s not my job” does not exist here.
Through talking to and soliciting advice from established boxers in Jersey City and Puerto Rico like Tito Trinidad, Miguel Cotto, and Jose Rosario to name a few, Mosquito learned the ropes of making the program “legit” or getting certified through the proper channels. Some of the young boxers have their books which allow them to compete in tournaments.
“What I’ve learned in this program is about putting your hands up, making sure that you don’t twist your foot or bend down too much because if you punch, you’re not gonna get the right direction of punching,” explains Rahul Rahim, a 10 year old who has been in the program for a year. “And when you’re fighting, you can’t push the person too hard. If you push the person too hard, you’ll knock them to the ground.”
The coaches are all volunteers. Brendan Montenegro, helps out where ever Mosquito needs him and his wife, Karen Matos tutors students who are struggling academically. Brendan started volunteering after training with Mosquito for a charity boxing competition. A month later he brought in his son Ethan, who, after less than a year in the program, is going to compete in the 2016 Silver Gloves Nationals in Independence, Missouri, representing the east coast region, on February 3rd, 2016.
“The first time I was in the ring, I was scared and nervous,” confessed Ethan, 9 years old and a member of the program since May 2015. Named “Kid Thunder” after Arturo Gatti, another Jersey City boxing champ, he said, “I thought I was going to die. Now I feel like I could beat up everybody.” When asked where he sees himself in 5 years, he says, “probably on tv a lot, boxing and on talking shows about boxing.”
The program is open to the public, and right now trains about 60 students from the area. Jennifer Diaz, 13, joined in September after she learned about it from a friend, Covadonga Insuasti. When asked if she was intimidated to go to a predominantly male work out area, she says, “I didn’t care about boys, I want to know how to defend myself in case someone wants to fight. In the ring, I feel a little nervous, but I’m like, ‘you can do this.’ I know that if I get hurt, everything is going to fall away.” After Jennifer joined, her mom signed up her little brother, Luis, who is 9 years old.
“If I fail a test, or if I’m mad at someone, I don’t punch somebody, I just use this as a way to get my anger out,” she added.
Covadonga, a 13 year old who spars like she’s been in the program much longer than 6 months said, “I wasn’t nervous because of the male dominance, I was nervous because of the fighting. I still get butterflies, but if I don’t win, I don’t win. I’ll get better next time. Mosquito or Roland, people that volunteer, they support you. If they see that you’re doing something wrong, if you’re not punching right, they always show you how to do it correctly.”
“The street is a different game,” laments Mosquito. “Many years ago, we used to fight in the street. We all used to shake hands at the end of the day. Now you can’t even look at any kids in the street, kids don’t want to fight one on one, they fight in groups.”
Mosquito and his team of volunteers are looking for a way to get their own space so the gym can be open 6 days a week, all day long. Currently, the gym is hosted at M.S. 7, but, as it’s housed in a building run by the Jersey City Board of Education, the gym is subject to being open only during certain hours, which at this point, doesn’t include weekends. “I see all this young people,” said Mosquito, making a motion to include the neighborhoods throughout the city. “We could save their lives using this gym.”
Fabio Cruz, a life long boxing fan, enrolled his son in the program in September. He cites discipline as one of the many things his son learns. “He’s only 10 right now, but I see kids his age walking outside at 8 or 9 pm instead of being at home or being productive, they start at a young age on the streets. This is a great program.”
“On the streets you’re not really learning anything, you’re not even learning how to defend yourself. The ways these kids are learning to defend themselves these days is with weapons,” says Montenegro. “There are a few kids in here who were hotheads, they didn’t want to listen to anybody. Now they come in, they’re respectful, they look everyone in their face, they shake hands, which is exactly what we want in life for these kids.”
As a small business in Jersey City, Honey and Moon Photography is proud to sponsor the Jersey City Recreation Boxing League and be a small part of the tremendous work Mosquito and his team are doing. Honey and Moon Photography is looking forward to helping the program raise funds and encourages other residents and small businesses to help the program continue the tradition of boxing in Jersey City.
“At the end of the day, we may have one or two kids who will go pro, one or two kids who will become champions,” explains Montenegro. “But every last one of them walks into this gym, as long as they stick with us, even if they’re not a world champion at boxing, they’ll be a world champion at life.”
To help the Jersey City Recreation Boxing League continue to grow, please contact the Department of Recreation at 201-547-6886 or 201-547-4392.