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Putting up a fight

Short on cash, long on willpower, the Newburgh Boxing Club endures

A cold and dark winter’s night is falling over Newburgh, but the Newburgh Boxing Club on the corner of Route 9W and Broadway is filled with light and heat.

A steady stream of kids between the ages of 8 and 18 pass through the door hauling massive gym bags, some as big as themselves. Those already inside are joking with one another; their laughter occasionally drowned out by the percussive, staccato thrums of punching bags and the salsa music of Victor Waill blasting over the loudspeakers.

Teens inside the club’s elevated boxing ring shift so fluidly between jumping rope, dancing and sparring that it’s sometimes difficult to tell what exactly is going on at any given moment. Everyone is loose, relaxed and carefree.

All that changes when the door opens and Coach Ray Rivera walks in.

‘We came here to fight’

Rivera is the owner and founder of the Newburgh Boxing Club, but even for those who don’t know him, it’s instantly clear who’s in charge. With a wide barrel chest, arms like dock pilings and a steely-eyed gaze, he quiets the room down just by looking at it. Rivera then saunters over to three teens in street clothes who have been silently slouched in chairs for an hour, and locks eyes with the tallest one. “You come here looking to fight, man?”

“Yeah, we came here to fight you.” Somehow, the room gets even quieter.

“Well, you better get more than the three of you down here if you want to fight me, man. You better get the whole heights down here.”

The two stare at each other for five more seconds before the kid cracks, smiling. Then Rivera’s face blossoms into an impossibly wide smile accompanied by the thunder of laughter. The whole club joins in, the music turns back up, and Rivera works the room, checking up on kids. A sense of normality returns, something that’s missing from the lives of many of the kids training here.

Murder capital of New York

For all of the hard-won progress Newburgh is continuing to make, the city still leads the state in homicides. (The unflattering moniker of “The Murder Capital of New York,” bestowed upon the city by New York magazine a few years ago, hasn’t exactly helped matters either.) The odds are that Newburgh kids on the street will end up involved in gang violence sooner or later — either as a perpetrator or a victim of it. Rivera is trying to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Rivera grew up in the South Bronx and started boxing when he was just 9 years old. He loved the discipline, the hard work, the dedication. The local boxing clubs held fights every Saturday. It was fun.

Now he’s trying to give that same experience to the kids of Newburgh who don’t have anywhere to go after school, and to keep them away from the temptations that come from hanging out on the corners outside. Discipline. Hard work. Dedication. But also a shot at something bigger.

There are other afterschool programs run by the city, some of which even offer boxing. But Rivera’s club offers something the others don’t. “The majority of the people running those programs don’t really know what they’re doing,” he said. “And I’m religiously down with USA Boxing so I don’t like to bend the rules.”

The road to turning pro

USA Boxing is the national governing body for Olympic-style amateur boxing, and Rivera wants club members to learn how boxing really works. If a kid shows promise, Rivera takes them down to New York City so they can fight in actual amateur tournaments. Which may lead to kids turning pro. Which may lead to big payouts, a thriving career, a better life. And, just maybe, the chance for Rivera to keep training more kids.

A few of the kids that Rivera has trained in the club’s 15 year history have turned pro, and as their manager Rivera shares in their success. His share of the winnings are funneled straight back into the Newburgh Boxing Club. It’s one of the only sources of revenue the club has.

Rivera asks that all club members pay a modest monthly membership fee, but the irony is that the kids who most depend on the club are the ones least likely to afford it. So Rivera doesn’t push the issue. Kids who can pay, pay. Those who can’t, don’t. Rivera only turns people away if he thinks they want to learn how to fight so that they can cause trouble, instead of helping themselves to stay out of it.

Lack of funding

The lack of steady funds coming in means that the club’s future is constantly in doubt. Sometimes the phone is in service and sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the club is open when it’s supposed to be and sometimes it isn’t. The space itself is donated; The club doesn’t pay a dime in rent. Rivera is up front about the fact that without such generosity, the club wouldn’t exist at all. But the phone company and power company can’t be expected to be as altruistic as his landlord.

In the club’s 15 year history, including the club’s 12 years at its previous location on Washington Street, there have been a few extended funding droughts that have led to short term closures, leaving the kids at the mercy of the streets. As a consequence, some of those kids ended up in jail or the hospital — or worse.

Rivera works odd construction jobs when he can get them. Anything to keep the heat on, the doors open and the kids in the ring. As a nonprofit entity, Newburgh Boxing Club is eligible for tax-deductible donations and grants, but Rivera has neither the time, manpower or expertise needed to navigate the complicated world of institutional funding and attracting big donors. So construction it is, even if a full day’s work building things for someone else drains him of the energy he needs to help the kids at Newburgh Boxing Club rebuild their lives. Or so he claims.

“I’m doin’ nothing here today, man,” he says as he slumps down in a folding metal chair ringside. “I just got off work and I’m tired.” Fifteen seconds later he is back on his feet, yelling out instructions to one boxer in Spanish, to another in English, then across the ring for a pep talk to a third teenager. “I got you a fight scheduled. End of January.” The stern tone of his voice portrays his seriousness; the booming volume makes it clear that the pep talk isn’t just intended for the kid he’s talking to.

Rivera admits later that for all his guidance, in the end it’s up to the kids themselves.

“I give them the opportunity,” he said. “If they don’t take advantage of it, what can you do? Once they turn 18, 19, they’re grown men. They do what they want to do.”

Still, even with bills piling up and some kids who turn away from the club and into the arms of the local gangs, Rivera and his volunteer trainers keep at, six days a week. There’s always the next kid who needs a place to go. Another pro fighter waiting to be discovered, to be given that chance.

“We got a 6-year-old who comes in here,” says Rivera with a smile, “and he’s determined to do it. So we work with him. Every 10 years, there’s one like that. A kid who walks through the door who’s determined to make it no matter what. I think that’s him.”

And with that he turns back to the ring, barking out encouragement in Spanish, his voice drowning out the sounds of punching bags, of feet shuffling in the ring, and the sirens outside.