Babes in Boyland

Her left hook is suspect, but Darla Johnson is a knockout. Ring rats at The Nuway Athletic Club think there should be more boxers just like her.

The bell rings and Reed jumps out, his footwork fluid; his punches practically flawless. A 1993 national Golden Gloves junior middleweight champion, the 20-year-old Dallas resident is on the brink of going pro, and is one of Cokes' pet projects. If he never earns his 15 minutes of fame, he might at least get three.

While Reed moves around the ring, most of the Nuway staff members go about their business--talking on the phone, puttering with the exercise equipment, shuffling paperwork.

Glenn Lunceford, awaiting Darla's arrival at the gym, has grabbed a wrench to help tune up one of the weight machines.

On slow days like this one, Lunceford, Cokes, and Coke's brother, Ernest--all trainers at Nuway--pitch in and tune up equipment or handle other small chores for Harold Helm, the guy who owns the gym.

Helm is 56, gray-haired, with a lion-sized head and no neck. He wears polyester slacks specked with snags, and a white knit golf shirt clings so tightly to his wide belly that you wonder if it hurts.

Helm has weaved in and out of the boxing world for decades and opened the new gym just last summer. He also has had a piece of any number of other speculative business deals--gold mines in Mexico, part ownership of several strip clubs and restaurants.

But Nuway (an acronym, Helm notes proudly, for Neighbors United with America's Youth) may be his most risky undertaking yet. Most of the space is devoted to free weights, bikes, the ring, and punching bags. But in one section of the club set off off by plywood partitions, a bank of telephones is lined up on desks.

From this corner of the gym, Helm runs Nuway Athletic Club Communication Incorporated, a startup long-distance telephone company. When the long-distance service is up and running, Helm says, the "majority of profits" will funnel back into the gym and into an anti-gang program led by Cokes. The club, Helm says, will offer free membership to any boy or girl younger than 18 who will sign a pledge to remain crime- and drug-free and out of gangs.

"In exchange for their pledge, we'll offer them world-class coaching and we're going to keep the club open nights to help keep the kids off the street," Helm says. He isn't quite so talkative, however, when asked precisely what percentage of the long-distance company's profits will go back into the gym. Helm and his 25-year-old son, Harold Jr., exchange glances and nearly in unison say, "It'll be a majority."

"More," Harold Sr. quickly adds, "than 50 percent."
Lunceford always refers to his boss as "Mr. Helm" and frequently repeats how happy he is to be here, at a place where everyone cares so much about troubled kids. Lunceford, after all, was one of them, but it takes a while for him to flesh that out. Pointing to a framed 8-by-10 photo from 15 years ago of himself and a boxing friend--their gloved fists raised in mock toughness--Lunceford says, "It isn't inside the ring you have to worry about. It's outside that'll do you in. That guy--he's a good friend of mine. He could really box. He's in the penitentiary."

It turns out that Lunceford did some serious prison time himself. It followed a string of petty crimes--things like telephone harassment, misdemeanor theft, and fighting in school--many of which resulted in charges against Lunceford that were later dropped. He really isn't sure what drove him to such wrongheadedness, seeing as how he was born 36 years ago to God-fearing Catholic parents who always taught him right from wrong. His dad was the legendary Eli Whitney "Speck" Lunceford, who trained hundreds of young boxers out of an East Dallas neighborhood and coached for years at the North Dallas Boxing Gym. Speck--nicknamed for a dark freckle on the tip of his nose--died in 1992 after a long battle with cancer.

While the disease ate away at Speck, his only son was doing time in the Coffield Unit of the Texas state prison system for aggravated assault. It was a lesser charge than what the Dallas County district attorney originally sought for Lunceford's 1989 crime. Lunceford, who supported himself, two successive wives, his love of boxing, and a cocaine habit during the mid-'80s as a bouncer at numerous Northwest Highway strip bars--pummeled a man during a drug transaction and left him for dead. The district attorney wanted him for attempted murder, but Lunceford's lawyer pleaded the charge down to aggravated assault.

Lunceford was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He served 18 months and spent another nine months in drug rehabilitation and doing community service. He was released from Coffield Unit on May 5, 1992. Two weeks later, his father died.

"My dad was so disappointed in me; I've never been lower," says Lunceford, pulling off his white Dr Pepper Shootout gimme cap and running his hand through hat-mashed brown hair. In his youth, Lunceford was a quick plug of a guy--5-foot-10 and 160 pounds. He first climbed into the ring at age 4, and his dad was in his corner then and forever after. Lunceford won three Dallas Golden Gloves crowns and at his prime in his early 20s boxed as a middleweight. He boasts of a professional record of 14-1-1, with seven wins by K.O. Today he is softer-bellied and the father of a 4-year-old son. He stretches his words out and halts frequently in midsentence. He uses his hands to register his points, chopping the air or pointing his index and middle fingers in a horizontal "V" directly at his subject.

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