- Associated Press - Saturday, September 10, 2016

PITTSBURGH (AP) - They often hide in plain sight, at times difficult to find even with an address, a working GPS and a keen eye.

One is a converted fire station, a two-story brick building south of Brookline with a musty, low-ceiling basement and a garage door that, when opened, provides an exit for pain-induced grunts rather than firetrucks. Another is a 100-plus-year-old, three-story barn on a grassy hill in Plum, where it once housed a police station inside its chipped, white painted walls.

But while covert, Pittsburgh’s boxing gyms display the tangible heartbeat the sport still has for many in the city, a pulse felt across neighborhood, racial and socio-economic divides. Some see the sport as their opportunity to get rich. Some pursue a professional career to merely make a stable living. For others, it’s a ticket out of a troubled neighborhood.

The action is frequent, such as the Steel City Boxing Association’s Northside vs. The Outside event Friday at the Priory Hotel. The sport, however, is not for everyone.

“There’s only a small percentage of the population that can go through this and keep doing it,” said Matt Leyshock, a fight promoter for Pinnacle Promotions and a trainer at the Conn-Greb Boxing Club.

It caters to a different breed of athletes and trainers, and Pittsburgh is home to many.

‘It’s another level’

Paul Spadafora, a 40-year-old McKees Rocks native and former world lightweight champion boxer who now trains boxers at the Pittsburgh Boxing Club, bluntly described what it takes to be a successful boxer.

“You have to have the Holy Spirit, you got to be a (expletive) devil, you got to be a demon, you got to be intelligent and you got to be a con artist. All them in one. You add that together, now you got a real guy.”

Mike McSorley, the owner of the Conn-Greb Boxing Club in Oakland and a trainer of professional and amateur boxers, was holding training mitts for professional boxer Dustin Echard in January when one of Echard’s punches slipped and detached McSorley’s left retina. McSorley almost lost his eye and half a year later he had only roughly 70 percent of his vision.

“It’s another level,” Spadafora said, “and you have to be a different type of individual.”

Aaron Quattrocchi, a 26-year-old professional boxer who goes by “Q” and appeared in the Pittsburgh-filmed boxing movie “Southpaw” as Keith ‘Buzzsaw’ Brady, drives across state lines to Pittsburgh from his home in Follansbee, West Virginia, just to spar.

Boxing requires sacrifices, not only physically, but throughout life, from one’s diet to social life. It’s almost as much a lifestyle as it is a sport.

“I want some ice cream … and I want to go have sex but I can’t do any of ‘em,” Quattrocchi said. “So I’m mad, I want to fight. That’s what it translates to. I’m a boxer, 24/?7.”

Serving many purposes

Jimmy Cvetic has founded and directed boxing gyms for so long that he has lost track of how many years he’s been involved in boxing, but the number is north of 40. Cvetic, the founder of the Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League, has eight gyms in the city, but he considers Boyce Gym in Plum to be the mecca of them all.

For the grandfatherly, sage-like Cvetic, keeping local children off the streets and out of trouble is as big a priority as any of their boxing-related accomplishments.

“If it wasn’t for him, I’d probably be dead or in the streets,” said Lacey Thomas, a 45-year-old trainer at Boyce Gym.

For Amonte Eberhardt, 25, of Boyce Gym, boxing is an avenue to provide him with a full-time career that allows him to support his family.

Eberhardt (5-0), who juggles boxing with his job at Washington Chevrolet and his commitment as a reservist in the United States Navy, aspires to be a full-time professional boxer after he began boxing when he was on house arrest at 15 years old. A counselor saw him hitting a punching bag and recommended the teenager try out the sport.

He was an amateur boxer for eight years, a stretch that saw him win several tournaments and medals, but now he’s a father, and professional boxing offers rewards in the form of checks, not just medals.

“Each fight, more opportunities come and (there’s) more money involved,” he said. “Basically I want to get to a point to where I’m able to support myself with just boxing. Right now I’m going to enroll back in college and I’m in the Navy basically for financial reasons to support myself and my kids.”

Other boxers have no intention of making a career out of the sport. Boxing is simply a catalyst to enhance their lives in some other way.

Caresse Schweitzer falls into that category. She participates in boxing classes at Wolfpack Boxing Club, which has been in business since 1994. Gym owner and trainer Jeff Mucci purchased the gym from former Steelers guard Craig Wolfley.

Schweitzer, who grew up in Wexford before graduating from Northern Arizona University and moving back to Pittsburgh, takes boxing classes partly for fitness but also for self-defense. After working in local government, she founded a company called Couture Conceal and developed a concealed carry product, the TACH-M, that allows women to securely carry firearms in their designer purses.

“I was looking for a fun and interesting way to work out and get in shape as well as gain other skills,” she said, nearly out of breath. “This is great, as a woman, to be able to protect yourself and be strong and know what you’re doing.”

Mucci’s gym’s membership has grown “exponentially” to almost 300 members and it caters to the average Joe who wants to learn how to box but doesn’t necessarily want to compete, he said, offering a boxing alternative to fight-first gyms.

On the rise?

Be it for fighting or fitness, the Pittsburgh boxing community is confident the sport is on the rise.

“Right now, it’s really booming,” McSorley said. “There’s a lot of new gyms, with the rise of Sammy Vasquez and all the televised fights that he has had and his exciting style. It has really brought a lot of new fans in. A lot of new fighters have gotten involved in the game because of him, which is great.”

Trainers at the Wolfpack Boxing Club and Boyce Gym have noticed more boxers training. Leyshock said Conn-Greb, which doesn’t actively seek more boxers, is full all the time and could be filled “wall-to-wall if we wanted to.”

“It’s a talented town,” Echard said. “Pittsburgh’s a boxing town. … You’ll go into some towns and they’ll say that boxing’s dead and other towns, it’s got a heartbeat alive as can be.”

Vasquez, a Monessen native who is 21-1 as a professional welterweight, is arguably the best active boxer from greater Pittsburgh, but many gyms in town have one or two boxers who have won an area championship and are loaded with potential.

Ted Mrkonja and John Brunick, trainers at the Citiparks-sponsored Pittsburgh Boxing Club, believe they have the recipe for developing Olympic-level female boxers. They coach Tika Hemingway, 29, who finished as the runner-up in the past two Olympic Trials finals at the middleweight level, and they believe they have two more promising teenage prospects: Ally Bates and Jordyn Helgert.

“My ultimate goal is to get someone into the Olympics,” Brunick said. “I see an opening, the talent that we have. In three years when the trials come up, these girls are going to be competitive and they’re gonna qualify to compete in the Olympic Trials. There’s no doubt in my mind.”

Until the last week of July, the gym displayed a gift Brunick received from Ms. Hemingway - the headgear she wore when they first met. It was slightly too small for her head and she had painted the year “2016” on the front with yellow, glittery nail polish - a public acknowledgement of her dream of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. While she came up short of her ultimate goal, she has still inspired young female boxers.

“Every time I come up here, I look at that (picture of Tika). … I hear she’s a beast,” said Ally Bates, 16. “And I’m like, ‘Hey, if she can do it, then I can do it.’ There’s a lot of female boxers out there, but there’s always that one person that just sparks an inspiration in you and I think Tika’s kind of mine.”

Ally Bates and Jordyn Helgert fought in Allentown, Pa., earlier this year, where they both knocked out their Philadelphia opponents - Jordyn in the first round, Ally in the second. Afterward, the head of officials walked up to the Pittsburgh Boxing Club contingent and said, “They don’t fight like girls.”

“They don’t train like girls,” Mrkonja said.

“We train them like fighters,” Brunick added.

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Online:

https://bit.ly/2ckuh8f

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Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com

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