The One That Got Away

Over here, in the corner, is Charlie Hatley, whaling away. "Unhhhhhhhhhhh," he groans, jaw slack. The boxing dummy bucks, sways, threatens to fall over from Hatley's blows. The kids outside the ring stare, saucer-eyed. They love Hatley, 19, the superstar of the place, ranked second in the nation at 141 pounds and a seven-time national champion so good, so quick, so ferocious, the guy Hatley was supposed to fight for the gold at an international amateur tournament in Puerto Rico three weeks ago instead backed out.

Eberto Medina, a champion from Ecuador, simply wouldn't come out of the locker room. The official line was "stomach cramps," but other coaches and judges and fans in Puerto Rico believe Medina had seen too many of Hatley's qualifying bouts. That's why he opted for the silver.

"Let's WORK. Let's WORK. Get you some rhythm going," says Greg Hatley, Charlie's dad, the only coach Charlie's ever had, walking with that slouching slide of his behind his son, glancing here, blinking there at all the fighters of the Oak Cliff Boxing Club, Greg's club, which, truth be told, is not in Oak Cliff but in Lancaster, next to a dude ranch on North Houston School Road. The club is 15 acres of tennis courts and prairie and a gym as big as a barn, built by Todd Wagner, a dot-com billionaire from Dallas who believed in Greg's mission of taking in all that the streets of Dallas turn out.

Yet in January of last year, the Todd Wagner Foundation quit funding the gym. It wanted Greg to take on even more kids, teach them how to box, help them with their homework. Greg couldn't do that. Because what had started as an after-school program--which, for Hatley, was an all-evening program--had developed into something more: Greg Hatley had future pro fighters in his club.

There are four of them in the gym tonight. Charlie Hatley and his older brother, Greg Jr., a national champion himself, taking turns with Charlie on that poor, pink boxing dummy; James Hines, over by the bench press, a 17-year-old 106-pounder ranked sixth in the nation; and Big Greg Corbin, up in the main ring, shadow-boxing, the 2005 National Golden Gloves Super Heavyweight Champion.

"It's uncommon for any gym to have four national champions," says Sugar Hill, the head coach of Kronk Gym in Detroit, home gym of Thomas "The Hit Man" Hearns and perhaps the most famous amateur gym in America. To have four national champions, he adds, at a gym where the coach himself is the primary funder? "That's big."

So big, Ringside magazine calls Greg Hatley "the magician coach," and Chris Howell, a documentary filmmaker and native of Dallas, spent a year following the club and its fighters for The Sweet Science, a film Howell shot, directed and is now editing. "These guys, if you go on the national scene, they're very well-known," Howell says. "They're better known nationally than locally."

For instance, there's a punch, a step-back cross to the chin, known the world over--no joke--as "The Hatley." Then there's the reputation Greg Hatley's fighters have for "switching up," which means to box with either hand leading--the equivalent of, say, shooting equally well from the three-point line with the left or right hand; it's as uncommon in boxing as it is in basketball.

Finally, there's the sense of tragedy surrounding this club, filled as it is with kids whose parents can't raise them right or, worse, don't raise them at all. Tragedy that manifests itself in the fading silhouette of Charlie Hatley's best friend, the one man who's driving him to greatness, driving him even tonight, as Charlie works through his combinations; a man who personifies, more than any other, the "heart and soul of the boxing club," Greg Hatley says.

He is the one man who is not here tonight.

His name is Dominic Littleton, and before he was the heart and soul of anything, he was a common thief. At 13, he tried to steal a puppy from Greg Hatley's neighbor. Hatley saw the whole thing from his front porch. Before Littleton could take off, Hatley yelled at the kid. Dominic could have bolted: A wiry, natural athlete, he undoubtedly would have made it. But Greg Hatley has a pull with kids. Maybe it's his stature; he is of slightly less than average height--not a whole lot taller than a young teen--and has, in middle age, an average build, albeit one with less paunch than most men.

Maybe it's his voice. Unless provoked, it's without tension, without that tone of didactic scolding many adults favor around youths. Or maybe the reason Dominic Littleton didn't run away that day, why instead he marched over to Hatley's house, was because Hatley had coached Dominic five years earlier when the boy played peewee football with Hatley's middle son, Charlie.

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Paul Kix