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1) Four bags hang from silver metal chains. They are evenly spaced in the dimly lit room, and it is cold and dark because construction isn’t yet finished. There is no flooring. On one wall, an old speed bag, almost deflated, hangs from its platform. The walls are mostly white, and columns support the huge black beams that span the ceiling.
There is a mirror on the ground, waiting to be installed. It will cover one wall, so the boys and girls who practice here will see themselves, correct their form. Someone has knocked out panes from the leaded glass windows — the building was abandoned for 27 years. (It was a gas station.) Through every window, you can see the barbed wire fence covered with dead ivy.
Devonne Canady has been working to build this gym, called Elephant in the Room, for over two years. She puts out her hand to lean against a bag. “If you want to steal one of these,” she says, “you’re going to have to carry them out over barbed wire. And if you can, that’s the kind of guy I want in the gym.” She laughs. Within a few weeks, the room will be a boxing gym for underprivileged youth in Dixwell. The toughest delinquent will make the best fighter, but he will also need the discipline of boxing the most. That is the reason for the gym’s existence, its best justification, and the basic truth of Devonne’s joke.
2) The New England Nightmare — that is the name of Devonne’s women’s football team. Like boxing, it is full-contact. “We all have jobs,” she tells me, “so we only practice a couple of times per week.” Defensive tackle is a tough position, but it keeps her in shape. One game, she got three sacks. “Rip move, spin move.” Philosophers have long written about sports as training for war. As sports go, boxing and football both seem to me like especially good preparation.
Philosophers and psychologists also wonder whether violent sports make us more or less aggressive. (There is no clear answer.) These questions about the nature of sport do nothing to illuminate the life of Devonne “Da Bomb” Canady, the women’s heavyweight boxing champion, but they will be essential to how one evaluates her work, to get kids off the streets. Will her program attract the kinds of people who might commit crimes? If so, will it keep them from violence? This past year, there were 34 murders in New Haven. Devonne explains: “This is a problem that, if we’re being honest, is primarily to do with young black men.”
The new gym is called Elephant in the Room, because Devonne believes violent crime is one issue in the black community that no one seems to be talking about.
3) The boxing gym is on Orchard Street in Dixwell, three blocks east of Ingalls Rink. Although murders happen just about everywhere in New Haven, a lot of killing happens in Dixwell — just this past year, four people were shot to death within about a block of the gym. Two days before I meet with Devonne, a man in his mid-20s, Dallas Boomer, was killed less than a mile away. Boomer — a Hamden resident — was visiting his aunt when 15 or 20 bullets were fired at his back. Police found him in his car, his head resting against the steering wheel. Devonne stops to remind me: “This is not a middle class neighborhood.”
Devonne grew up in Westville, but attended Hillhouse High, about a block away from the gym. Her dad worked for the housing authority, and her mother raised four children. (Devonne was the oldest.) Devonne’s dad is her step-dad. She has never met her biological father and has never felt like seeking him out. She shrugs. “His loss.”
Although her home life was stable, Devonne dealt with the same challenges that young women in Dixwell still face. “I was in that area of teen pregnancy,” she tells me. (She was 15 when she became pregnant.) After graduating high school, Devonne went on to Quinnipiac University, where she learned to become a respiratory therapist. She has had her job at Yale New Haven Hospital for 17 years. Her daughter, who has since moved to New York, is 26.
Devonne’s trainer, and her partner in the new gym, is Gary Smikle. He is Jamaican, and he went to the Olympics for boxing in 1988. In her late 20s, Devonne was walking home from work, when she stopped in to visit an existing boxing gym, a few blocks south of Yale- New Haven, called Ring 1. She thought it was a good idea to lose some weight. Under Gary’s supervision, she began training. Deltoids and biceps and triceps and obliques. Soon, she went to her first tournament in Augusta and won first place — Devonne found out that she was good at boxing.
In 2001, Devonne, who by then had gained her nickname, “Da Bomb,” won the inaugural AIBA (International Amateur Boxing Association) women’s world boxing championship in Scranton, PA. Women’s boxing is now an Olympic sport, but Devonne won’t fight anymore. (“I’m a little too old.”) Does she think she could win? “Look at this bicep. Is that a normal person’s bicep?” No. Which is to say, Devonne thinks so.
4) I meet Devonne outside of the new gym. “We are gonna be moving along very quickly this week, Will,” she tells me. The plumber is there. He needs to do a lot of work, he says, and Devonne is reluctant to believe that his work is necessary. After some argument, she is convinced but still not happy: “$375, really? Damn. That’s steep.” (Money, much of which has been given by Lowe’s, some donated by local residents, and more still from Devonne’s own savings, needs to be reserved for the ring.) The plumber pauses for a moment, and then says that he can charge her less. “You’re doing a great thing,” she tells him.
Devonne wears tinted sunglasses and carries a Louis Vuitton bag. She is big, bigger than me, and wears Puma athletic gear over a white V-neck T-shirt. Around her neck there is a necklace with two charms — one is a pair of boxing gloves, the other is the Egyptian ankh, a cross with a loop on the top that Devonne tells me represents life and fertility. To me it looks like the Venus symbol — maybe because she wants to train a girl.
Before now, Devonne has only ever trained one young man. He was the kind of guy that she hopes to get in to her gym — someone who needs ways to occupy their time, someone who might otherwise commit crimes. After training with Devonne, he won his first fight, took the prize money. Then, that young man told Devonne it was all too much for him, and he disappeared with his prize money. “He had a kid,” Devonne says. “He was going be what he was going to be.” It was too late for the discipline of sport to have any impact on his life. She doesn’t know where he is now, and she is not optimistic.
Now, aside from the boys she hopes to train (to get them off the streets, she says), Devonne wants to train a girl, to go to the Olympics. “I’m okay with not going myself,” she says. “To be alongside a young girl is good enough for me.” It is clear that Devonne’s desire to train young women is not only to train a winner, but also to empower and counsel young women.
For young men, the goal is still guidance, but it is also keep them busy and tired — too tired to fight on the streets, too tired to join gangs, and too tired to do drugs. “I’ve been so tired after workouts,” she says, “That I can’t even lift my hands to the steering wheel driving home.” Idle hands are the devil’s tools. (Tired, jabbing, slugging, and punching ones are Devonne’s.)
5) Training a boxer requires total investment: the coach must always be there, telling the boxer which punch to throw, when to shuffle back, instructing the fighter what choices he or she should make. Without this guidance, without the discipline of training and the benefit of technique, the fighter’s ambition will turn into frustration and arbitrary punches and basically indiscriminate acts of violence.
I think that, with these demands, Devonne might get spread thin between all her students, but she doesn’t worry about it. “I want kids to be independent,” she says. “Here’s what I say. ‘Okay, you keep throwing that jab 200 times for five rounds.’ You see someone doing something incorrect and then you correct it. They go out, practice.”
Devonne envisions a list of rules on the wall:
One: Dress properly.
Two: No running in the gym.
Three: No swearing.
Four: ‘Respect each other.’
After the first few, which are primarily disciplinary, I imagine that eventually there’ll be a rule, “respect the boys from the Hill and from Westville and from Fair Haven.” This, after all, is one of Devonne’s biggest goals — to get boys from Dixwell to go to tournaments at the boxing gyms in other parts of the city. Still, I wonder if competition between local boxing gyms will build trust between different areas, or serve to reinforce dangerous rivalries.
6) Devonne’s message: “This is your weapon.” She shows me her fist. She pauses, then proceeds, “You cannot hit people with these.” (Not on the streets, at least.)
Still, Devonne seems to think that fist fighting would be a better alternative to shooting people. “We used to have backyard fights. Now, if somebody has what they call beef, they shoot them … Nobody fights fair.”
7) I am with Devonne and we are in the car, driving south on Dixwell Avenue. She points out to me the place across the street from the gym, where men congregate every morning and wait for the liquor store to open. Down the road, the Dixwell Community House, known as the Q House, remains closed for now. Devonne tells me that it was bankrupt for years. “Adults misuse money,” she says. “And you see what happens.”
Nearby, young men are sitting on a porch. A few of them are arguing — I can’t tell how seriously. There are some old men hanging around, but they are alone with their bottles. Devonne points to the young men. “They could go either way,” she says. True or not, this is one facet of what Devonne and seemingly everyone else believes to be a fact about young men in bad areas — that, unoccupied after school, they will join gangs to fill the minutes.
8) At the Metropolitan Business Academy, just past State Street, the Elephant in the Room program has been running all year. (Devonne, along with her trainer, Gary, began working in public schools as soon as she had the idea to start a gym.) A boy comes up behind one of his friends, grabbing him, as if he has a knife at his throat. They’re just pretending. To me, it adds to a sense of unease at a school where students enter through a metal detector. Part of the unease is that of any high school — the boys here are growing up, they compete to impress girls, and they avoid boys from other areas. One boy tickles a girl, and she falls back onto a table, away from him. She screams. “You just went a little too far.”
The main cafeteria of the Metropolitan’s new postmodern building has big windows that look out on the highway. Nearby, there is industrial space. Metro is a magnet school, meaning it draws bright students from across New Haven. It’s mostly girls who show up to the program. Here, the goal has to be in that category of empowering young girls, keeping them fit. (Prospective gang members don’t do after school programs.)
Gary is running the program on this particular Tuesday. He wears athletic gear, is very muscular, and has some white stubble on his chin. When I offer my hand, he slaps it several times, as if creating our own personal handshake the moment we meet. He begins to instruct the one boy and three girls who show up. They do some stretching. “If you’re brave, I cannot coach you,” he says. “If you’re afraid, I can coach you.” This criterion, combined with Devonne’s profile for a good fighter, suggests something strange about who they want to get in the gym: they must be tough, and the kind of teenager, who, I imagine, commits crime from a place of fear. Gary explains: “I need people who are afraid to get hit.”
One of the girls is wearing pink boxing gloves, and all four are wearing skate shoes. Gary stops and calls out: “Feel comfortable. Look stupid. Get an attitude.” One of the girls is named Kaylee. She is an eighth grader from East Haven and wants to go into a criminal justiceprogram. She comes to the program because she thought boxing looked cool. The boy is named Rico. He boxes because he wanted to try something new instead of karate lessons.
One of the girls, a senior, the one in the pink gloves, loves the program and comes every week. “It’s a good way to stay in shape,” she says. She explains something about the program to me:
“The people who stay after school are from smart, intelligent backgrounds.” She also explains why the program doesn’t attract the kids who are likely to join gangs. “A lot of those kids like basketball.”
The after-school training is supported by Boost!, a group that works in several of New Haven’s public schools to strengthen programs according to the school’s needs. All three of the girls told me they would train with Devonne to become serious boxers. They seem already to have a sense of direction for their lives.
9) “Boxing gyms are usually not this beautiful,” Devonne tells me. “Usually, they’re a kind of refuge.” If boxing gyms are a refuge, they are a very strange kind of refuge — they protect fighters from fear of trouble in the streets by creating another kind of fear, within the ring. This is one defining aspect of sport, that it is a distraction from everyday conflict. Still, boxing is a violent distraction — it is a kind of war that you can choose to enter into. As Gary reminds me, you can choose to be a boxer. Having the choice, I think, is what you might call empowerment.
Devonne relishes creating fear. “They used to fight until they were dead,” she says, “I think we still have some of that in us.” It is true — I think the success of “The Fighter” serves to confirm that gladiatorial impulse. Devonne demonstrates to me how, before fights, she gets in a wide stance, swaggering back and forth. She jumps around and waves at her opponent to come forward. Then, she scrapes one foot, leaning forward, like a bull ready to charge. “I’m sure people are afraid of me. They’re like, ‘I’m going to die. I’m going to die right here.’”
10) A s of our last meeting, construction of the gym is going well. John DeStefano came for the groundbreaking ceremony. Devonne’s mom couldn’t come, but she promised she would be at the grand opening. Devonne is saving up for a boxing ring, the “meat and potatoes” of the gym. Most rings come without the wooden flooring, but the one she’s looking at — a used one from Kansas — already has the wood, as well as the turnbuckles and corner poles and ropes. It’s 20 by 20 feet, and it’s a competition size, so they can have shows and events. Lowe’s and Home Depot have donated materials for construction (insulation, new windows, the mirror). A police officer has donated $1200.
In the middle of the room, hanging from the ceiling, there is a bag called the Teddy Atlas, named after the boxing trainer who put a .38-caliber handgun to the head of Mike Tyson — then 15 — for touching the behind of Atlas’s 12-year-old niece. There are numbers on the bag as targets: 1 and 2 are jabs. Below them, on either side, are 3 and 4 — Devonne tells me you have to move your whole body for the hook. 5 and 6 are upper cuts, and on the top, there is 7. (“Powerful, maybe a haymaker.”)
Devonne calls out to me while I punch. “1-2 … 1-2 … 1-2 … 2, 2, 2 … 3-4.” I move my whole body for the hooks. “3-4.” Shuffle forward, shuffle back. “When you get hit, it’s only because you realize their hits aren’t effective,” she says. “This is your weapon.” She shows her fist.