Oddchester: ‘I hope people never forget that place’

February 27, 2019

Five years ago next month marks the closing of the Fourth Street Youth Boxing Gym (by then it had moved to First Avenue Southwest, next to the YMCA). It had been around, in one form or another, for nearly 20 years.

The place served as a who’s who of Rochester boxers training for everything from Golden Gloves Nationals through the pro ranks. Freddie Moore trained there. Scotty Ball trained there. Jack O’Connor coached there. Raphael Butler trained there.

More importantly, it served as a gathering place — an after-school hangout, a safe house sometimes — for the rotation of 200 or so kids who signed up for the program.

During after-school hours and Saturday mornings, the gym was filled with dozens of boxer-wannabes — boys from 8 to 18, mostly, plus a few high school girls and a half dozen adults.

Five days a week, the place would be filled with the dull thuds of the heavy bags and the rat-tat of the speed bags and the slaps of jump ropes on the concrete floor.

And the sound of coaching. And mentorship. And father figures. And friendship.

On Saturday mornings, a dozen people would show up for hour-long Bible studies before boxing workouts.

The gym opened in 1997, with the backing of Dan O’Connor and partners including Pat Capelle, Tom Leonard, Mark Anderson, and Chuck Lunde.

Dan and his brother Pat (who was ranked in the top five light-heavyweights in the world in 1972) were raised to be boxers.

“I started boxing at 2 years old, hated it by 10, despised it as an adult,” Dan said. He won the Upper Midwest Golden Gloves championships and was undefeated as a pro. “I won my only pro fight,” Dan said. “Then I retired.”

Then, he said, he “got screwed up with drinking and other things. Then God got me back into boxing by helping those kids. God brought me full circle.”

After work, for years, Dan and others (including son, Shaun) would open the doors of the gym, which relied on a combination of regimen and religion for kids in need of guidance.

“If we can motivate kids in the gym, we can motivate them in life,” Dan told us, not long before the gym closed. “A lot of these kids don’t come from the best backgrounds. But when they come in here we teach them to respect themselves and others.”

Those coaches volunteered their time, spent their own money, mopped up floors and cleaned that 20-by-20-foot boxing ring that was the centerpiece of the gym. They did it until they couldn’t afford to do it any longer.

By 2013, the gym cost $48,000 a year to run ($45,000 of that was building expenses and property taxes). Volunteers paid for most everything else.

The building was sold in early 2014. It was demolished — in just two hours — in mid-April of that year.

“I had a group a few years ago. Gang kids who were in here acting like gang kids,” remembered Dan, just before the gym closed. “So I went up and told the leader, ‘There’ll be none of that in here. You’ll respect this place or you’ll get out.’ And they left. The next night I was alone in the gym and four or five of them walked in. I’m alone and I’m thinking ‘Is this how it’s going to end? Are they going to stick me with a knife and I’ll bleed to death here?’ It’d be fitting, I guess. I started here, I’d end here.

“They came up and stood in front of me. Then one of them said, ‘Mr. O’Connor, what do you need us to do now? What can we do to get back in?’ That kind of stuff makes it all worthwhile, to know you reached these kids somehow.”

The gym may be gone. The legacy remains.

The now-retired Raphael Butler — who once worked his way up to the top 70 heavyweights — was one of those kids. He was from tough inner city neighborhoods (Chicago, then Minneapolis). He learned to fight, literally, for survival. It looked like he was going down a dangerous path.

But then, at the age of 15, Butler moved to Rochester and found the Fourth Street Youth Boxing Gym. “That gym — and Dan O’Connor — saved my life,” Butler told us in 2014. “It probably saved a lot of kids. I hope people never forget that place.”