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Boxing Tue Jul 16 2013

Youth Boxing a Knockout with Chicago Park District

Boxing_Ring.jpg Former Chicago Golden Gloves heavyweight champ Thomas Hayes looks on while a group from the Chicago Park District constructs an outdoor boxing ring smack dab in front of the Picasso in Daley Plaza. Sweat drips down his face as the morning sun beats down heavily on his brow while directing traffic and unpacking boxes.

"K.O. Time," as Hayes has been known inside and out of the squared circle, hung up his gloves a few years ago after sweating and beating brows for almost nine. His fighting résumé has him well-traveled along the West Coast and throughout the Midwest, including a WBC Continental Americas Heavyweight shot against Chris Arreola, his second and final loss in 29 fights, all while training under Kevin Rooney.

But before Hayes walked down aisles in arenas, he walked his way to high school at Leo on the south side. One of those trips to school resulted in a gunshot wound from a .22 caliber, which would change the course of his life forever.

Hayes healed, played football for Leo, and began to box for both the high school and the Chicago Park District system. He learned the hard way how to get back up and shake hands with his enemy with hard work, dedication and will to overcome the pain and fear of having been shot. It's what pushed Hayes to winning the Chicago Golden Gloves heavyweight title at the tender age of 20.

Now years later, Hayes is giving back, donating his time and effort in training kids to box through the Chicago Park District. He's only been involved the past eight months, but his time and effort are already paying dividends.

"The discipline I learned through this program is what I want to pass along to these kids," Hayes said, with gleam in his eye. "I came up through the same system when I was 18, 19 years old."

Boxing_Girls.jpg The event for which Hayes and his co-workers were setting up was a public exhibition of youth fighters, through the Park District, ranging between the ages of eight and 17 years old. Passersby in suits and other business attire walked by the downtown ring during their power lunch, stopped, took out their ear buds and looked on with a smile -- some even motioning with body language from power shots as controlled fury from persistent training was on display.

Boys and girls from the north, south and west sides are joining these boxing programs, from Brooks Park on North Harlem to Ogden Park on South Racine. Each of the 20 locations offer free seminars, which includes practicing technique from experienced instructors.

"There's been a big push recently for boxing at our parks locations," said Tim O'Connell, assistant director of recreation through the Park District. "You get to see the discipline of young men and women inside the ring. Offering more training for our staff has helped the program grow."

In fact, each instructor at every location is licensed by the U.S. Amateur Boxing Federation with group and individual coaching for those interested. The ever-expanding program also includes a local and citywide tournament with top-notch boxing equipment for use, including gloves and head gear. Those interested can check with their local Park District location or by calling (312) 742-PLAY (7529).

Boxing_Ivan.jpg After each match (three one-minute rounds), a winner was announced with each junior boxer receiving a trophy of decent size. After exiting the ring and hugging their respective parents, a high-five and hug came to Hayes.

The reward of a win was on the mind of each youth at this event, as the steady crowd of between 100-200 looked on as the outdoor heat increased. Never once were any haymakers or out-of-control punches thrown in order to score a victory through nerves. These kids kept their cool and displayed the discipline Hayes and company preach at each seminar.

"I've always wanted to box," said 17-year-old Ivan Rios before his match. "My sister mentioned I should look into the program a few years ago. I went to an event and loved it."

Rios, whose favorite boxer is Juan Manuel Márquez, already has molded into a promising young fighter with quick footwork and even quicker hands. His two years in the program have proven their worth.

Whether these youngsters got into the ring to escape something personal by finding an out, or are looking to get into better shape by dropping the gaming console, is unclear. What is certain is that Hayes, O'Connell and the rest of the Park District's efforts in teaching the sweet science that is boxing, has found a way into the hearts of hundreds of kids across the city from those who are paying it forward.

Even if the current crop of young pugilists doesn't make it as far as Hayes did in the ring, the only thing that would matter is if they go as far as his efforts outside of it. Then, boxing, and the future of the youth in this city, will be even brighter by way of knocking out fear and shaking hands at the end.

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