The good fight

Thirty years ago, Curtis Cokes was the world-champion welterweight. Now, he trains young boxers and just wants to be recognized in his hometown.

Finally. But it's only the semi-colon in his career, not the exclamation point at the end.

Cokes is a trainer now, has been ever since he hung up the gloves a quarter century ago. He has his own gym now, his own fighters to train, his own champions to build.

They are men with names like James "Pearl" Harbor and Marquez "The Master" Reed or Alex Bohema, who was once the national champion of Ghana. They're hopefuls looking to make a little history of their own in a professional sport threatening to drown in its own alphabet soup--today's WBC champ is tomorrow's IBF contender is yesterday's NABF chump. The fight game just ain't what it used to be when Cokes was champ.

"You can talk about heroes," Doug Lord says. "But Curtis was one of the greatest."

The young fighter shuffles around the ring, ducking punches and throwing his own. With each jab, each right-right-left combination, the fighter--clad entirely in black, from his shorts to his skin, with sweat dripping from him like running water--emits a short, sharp cry: Pah! Pah! Pahpahpah!

Every muscle is tense; he stares straight ahead.
Pahpah! Pah!
His cries echo through the gym, where a handful of other young hopefuls attack punching bags in silence, ignoring the sounds. He keeps throwing punches even after the electronic bell rings, signaling the end of each round. There's no one to complain--on this afternoon, 21-year-old Marquez Reed fights only an imaginary opponent. He wins every round.

"That's good," offers Curtis Cokes, still in shape after all these years. "But when you turn, do it like this."

Cokes wears glasses, a T-shirt, and sweat pants, and he stands in the ring beside his young fighter and shows him how to pivot on his right leg, ducking and bending as he turns, keeping his fists ready. It takes Reed a few moments, a few faltering tries, before he learns the move. "You got it," Cokes says. "That way, you'll be ready to punch." Then the bell inside Reed's head rings again, and he returns to his solitary battle, beating up on air.

Cokes imagines a day when Reed will contend for the junior middleweight world title. Reed, after all, is the reason Cokes and his business partners--one of whom is David Wells, Reed's guardian and the private investigator who gained local notoriety in 1996 as Michael Irvin's "personal assistant"--built this gymnasium in Oak Cliff. It's the house that Reed built, where he works out every day in hopes of winning a shot at the title in a few years, before Cokes retires at 65 and spends the rest of his life on the golf course.

"It's a big responsibility," Reed says. "The pressure alone motivates me. Some people work good under pressure; others don't. I do. I like the fact that all eyes are on me. I think about that every morning when I get up and come to the gym. In the ring, it's just me and that other person, and if something happens, who else am I going to blame?"

Reed's story resembles that of so many boxers who take refuge in the Home of Champions. It's the age-old cliche of a child who escapes the projects by putting on a pair of gloves and doing his fighting in the squared circle. It's a tale about a kid who could have made a wrong turn, but instead made the right one through the doors of a gymnasium, where he could battle his demons three minutes at a time. At any given point during the day, you can find a handful of kids like that working out in the Home of Champions, sparring with punching bags and lifting weights and jumping rope. Cokes might well dream of training another world champ in Marquez Reed, but he also provides asylum to kids who will never see a fight outside his gym.

Cokes points to one 17-year-old boy battling a punching bag and says he was a young brother who used to smoke pot outside the Home of Champions until Cokes invited him inside, but only if he put out the joint, went back to school, and got his shit together.

"He was goin' bad," Cokes says of the kid, who went to live with his grandmother after his mother skipped off to Mexico or God knows where. "But he saw something he could do and enjoy, and it was boxing. When I taught him how to box, he stopped doing that other stuff. He's got a job. He got his own car. He's in high school...I promised him if he stayed in school I would turn him pro, and he reminds me of that every day. On his birthday, I went out and bought him a big bag to carry his equipment in, and it cost about $200. He almost cried. Nobody had ever given him anything."

Cokes figures if nothing else, the kids who enter his gym carrying an equipment bag full of trouble leave too exhausted to go out and make mischief. "When they're done here, they go home," he says, laughing. "They're too tired."

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