Tiara Rodriguez is a sixth grader at Jersey City’s P.S. 23.
Eleven-year-old Tiara could be doing things that most girls her age do, like shopping or playing with video games.
But four times a week, Tiara heads to P.S. 7 and learns how to become a boxer.
“My Grandpa encouraged me to join,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez comes from a family of boxers. Her grandfather, Jose Rivera, encouraged Tiara to become a boxer. Her uncle, Benjamin Castro, was a New Jersey Diamond Gloves and Golden Gloves contender in his heyday. So boxing is in her blood.
“It got me inspired to try boxing,” Rodriguez said.
She’s not alone. There are 15 girls, potential “Million Dollar Babies,” regularly participating among the 80 or so aspiring boxers in the new Jersey City Recreation boxing program.
The program, spearheaded by the energetic Lester Albright, is giving kids ages 8 to 18 the opportunity to learn the ropes.
“Just giving the kids a chance to learn about the sport is tremendous,” said Albright, who has been coordinating the program for the last four months. “It’s not just about boxing. It’s about learning lifestyle skills as well. We stay on them with their education, with their report cards. We have to encourage that.”
Not many people would have figured that boxing could be an allure and an elixir.
The sport has lost a little of its luster over the years. Gone are the glory days of superstars of the ring. Most people can’t even identify the champions in each weight division. Sports like mixed martial arts and the Ultimate Fighting Challenge, in which combatants climb in a cage to try and punch, wrestle, knee, and kick their opponents into submission, have become more popular than the “sweet science,” as boxing is often called.
But that’s not the case in Jersey City, which has a rich and storied boxing history.
It’s a place where James J. Braddock fought dozens of times before becoming the heavyweight champion of the world. It’s where Jack Dempsey fought Georges Carpentier for the heavyweight title at a site called Boyle’s Thirty Acres (now the home of County Prep High School) on July 2, 1921, in the first $1 million purse in boxing history.
Sugar Ray Robinson once defended his world middleweight title in Jersey City, and boxing legends such as Gene Tunney, Marcel Cerdan, Max Baer, and Tony Zale all fought here. Muhammad Ali once fought then-Mayor Tommie Smith in an exhibition at the Jersey City Armory. Recently, world champs Mark Medal, Tomasz Adamek, and the late Arturo Gatti all called Jersey City home.
Simply put, boxing has always been a thread in Jersey City’s narrative.
“There’s a great boxing history in Jersey City,” said Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, a boxing enthusiast who trains regularly in the ring.
When Fulop became mayor in July 2013, he wanted to make sure that the children of Jersey City had a chance to learn and enjoy the sport.
“I think boxing is the type of activity that is good for the children,” Fulop said. “It’s an athletic activity that has a little bit of a mental component to it.”
Fulop learned that there was a public outcry to bring boxing to the city’s youth.
“A lot of community members were asking for it,” Fulop said. “I think that’s what started it. You don’t need a lot of equipment. It’s not costly.”
Enter Lester Albright, a former boxer who had a tough upbringing in the Bronx, then moved to Jersey City as a teenager and learned how to box under the old Jersey City Recreation program run by former light heavyweight contender Jimmy Dupree and trainer Mike Shanley.
Albright had a taste of amateur boxing success. He fought in an amateur card in Jersey City’s Audubon Park. But at the same time, Albright ran into legal troubles.
“I had a lot of physical altercations,” Albright said. “I had a lot of issues with that. I was a very angry kid.”
Albright was soon arrested and spent three months in jail, learning the hard way.
“I started to look at my lifestyle,” Albright said. “I prayed a lot. I asked God to deliver me. I began to feel a sense of responsibility. And everything I did was tied to boxing.”
Albright decided that he wanted to change his life by helping to change others.
“I wanted to take it to another level and create a safe haven for kids,” Albright said. “I wanted to be able to keep them away from the streets, keep kids away from the problems that I had. Sports and boxing helped me get my life back on track. I got the passion to inspire the youth.”
Albright started working with the youth of Jersey City in the Boys and Girls Club. In 2010 he started training youngsters in the parks of Jersey City, including Audubon Park and Arlington Park.
“But kids just started to naturally gravitate to what we were doing,” Albright said. “We kept getting more and more kids.”
Sure enough, there needed to be a place for the kids to come regularly, so P.S. 7 became that place.
“I know that the program works,” said Albright, who has had professional fighters come to speak to the kids. “We teach them boxing, but there are other aspects, like bullying issues. It’s an overall package. The kids come all the time. They’re really into it.”
A ring has been set up at the school and several heavy bags—and lots of kids. If anyone thought that the sport of boxing was dead, all they need to do is pay a visit to P.S. 7 and see these kids in action.
Amalio Rosario is only 10 years old, but he’s addicted to boxing. A fifth grader at P.S. 23, Rosario is learning the ins and outs.
“I watched boxing on television and became interested,” Rosario said. “I just decided to go, to see what it was like. And I liked it a lot. I learned about self defense and taking care of myself. I learned to protect myself. It’s also keeping me off the streets. Without this, I don’t know what I would be doing.”
Rosario already has a goal in mind.
“I eventually want to get in the ring and see how I do there,” Rosario said.
Bianca Santos is 12 years old, another girl in the program.
“My dad (Edwin Santos) was a good fighter,” Bianca said. “He showed me some of his pictures. I was interested in boxing and found this program. I was so excited to join. I really like the challenge of it.”
Does she fear getting hit?
“No, I wasn’t scared at all,” Bianca said. “It just gives me more of a challenge. If I’m up against a boy, that would make me work even harder.”
Santos, whose father was a Golden Glove contender as well, has a dream.
“I want to get in the ring,” Santos said. “That’s my goal. I’m getting better every day and I hope I can get there. I’ve had a great chance to learn more about boxing.”
Tiara Rodriguez is happy she’s a boxer as well.
“I think I’m doing pretty good,” Rodriguez said. “I’m having a lot of fun doing boxing. It’s what keeps me fit. I’m inspired to keep getting better.”
“I just need to keep them interested in it,” Albright said. “I think I definitely can.”
One person is certainly glad the program exists—perhaps the most important.
“It’s been a tremendous success so far,” Fulop said. “With that many kids involved, it means we’re on the right track.”
Recently, the kids got the chance to have a meet-and-greet with current heavyweight contender Adamek as he trained in the World Boxing Gym in downtown Jersey City, owned by Adamek’s manager, Ziggy Rozalski. Fulop also climbed into the ring to show Adamek his boxing prowess. Adamek posed for pictures with the youngsters, who realized they were in the presence of greatness.
“I didn’t know much about him [Adamek] before,” Rodriguez said. “But it’s impressive that he came to where he is from: Jersey City.”
Fulop said, “No question about it, we’re going to continue to invest in it and expand. It’s really been an easy win. Everyone is involved, the kids, the parents, the coaches, the community. It’s been great.”
As for the coach?
“He’s really an example of what a true role model is,” Fulop said. “He’s now giving back.”—JCM