The One That Got Away

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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.

Hatley told Dominic to hand him the dog. The boy did--and only then did he run away. But a week later, here came Dominic on a mini-bike with his brother Antoine, a mini-bike that looked similar to the one the Hatleys' neighbor up the street owned.

"I didn't steal it," Dominic said when Hatley stopped him. Hatley didn't believe the boy. He ran into the garage and brought out a pair of boxing gloves.

"This is what you need right here," he told Dominic. Hatley had fought since he was 11. The sport disciplined him, humbled him; he loved it and wanted others to love it, too. It started with his own boys. At Greg Jr.'s birth, Hatley held the baby before the buzzing artificial light of the hospital room and declared, "This is my 2004 Olympian"--and he meant it. Greg Jr. and Charlie--two years younger--started training when they were 3, boxing when they were 8. By the time Dominic drove by on that stolen mini-bike, Greg Jr. and Charlie were accomplished junior fighters.

Hatley told Dominic the boys trained back there, in the garage. Would Dominic join them?

Yes, he would. And after his second day with the Hatleys in that muggy, 20-by-20 makeshift gym, Dominic stole Charlie's bike.

At 14, Shannon Buard gave birth to Antoine; at 16, to Dominic. At 18, the Dallas Police Department charged her with theft; at 19, with prostitution; at 20, with possession of a controlled substance; at 21, with prostitution again; and at 22, with evading arrest.

Antoine and Dominic were placed in the Buckner Foster Home in Dallas. Antoine was 7, Dominic 5. Antoine had a thinner, longer face than his brother and a lighter complexion. Indeed, a decade later, the guys at the Oak Cliff Boxing Club called Dominic "Cold Black"--which, as one fighter, Larry Givens, explained it, meant "black as soot."

Dominic had never met his father. Antoine didn't know his all that well.

Two years after they were placed in foster care, Angie Littleton of Oak Cliff, an elderly woman and foster parent for some 20 years, adopted the boys, had them take her name and brought them to her yellow, one-story house a mile from Greg Hatley's on 56th Street.

The boys liked music, and they loved beats, so Littleton put her adopted sons behind the drum set at church. They liked sports, gravitated toward the violent ones, so Littleton enrolled them in peewee football and sent them to the Hatleys, where Greg Sr. coached both Antoine's and Dominic's teams. The Littleton boys ended up in the same age bracket as Greg Jr. and Charlie, respectively. According to Antoine, he and his brother played in their school shoes. Angie Littleton didn't part with money easily.

That pissed off Antoine. But he found a way to fix the problem. In South Oak Cliff, good neighborhoods run hard against bad ones and, on the right night, bleed together. In 1992, when he was 9, Antoine says, he started dealing drugs.

"Quit hanging around the street folk," Clarence Littleton told him. Clarence, now 54, is Angie's biological son. He raised the boys with his mother. But neither boy listened. Why should they? Soon, Antoine brought home clothes for Dominic, Air Jordans for Dominic, everything he and Dominic wanted.

The truancy started in junior high. The boys left for school every day at 7 a.m. but never went there. Letters from the Dallas Independent School District poured in. Each time Clarence got one he'd ask Dominic if he had skipped. The boy would say no; Clarence would produce the letter; Dominic would 'fess up. The denials and confessions became routine.

Antoine had drifted. In and out of police precincts and juvenile detention centers, he says the Littletons kicked him out at 14. Clarence says Antoine left by his own choice. In either case, throughout Antoine's teenage years, "my job was hustling," he says.

Dominic fared better. Sure, he was in the streets; he knew its language. Greg Hatley years later would say he could walk with Dominic down any boulevard in Dallas and feel safe. But for whatever reason, Dominic stayed out of trouble. Clarence Littleton remembers him serving only community service for his truancy. Making curfew was Dominic's problem.

This is where the Littletons were cruel, Greg Hatley says. Lots of times, Hatley would take Dominic home after boxing practice. If it was after 8:30 p.m., the Littletons wouldn't unlock the front door. Clarence denies it ever happened, but both Hatley and Antoine concur: Many nights Dominic had to sneak in through a window.

If all the windows were locked, Dominic slept in a car.

Through his pickup truck window, on the way to work, Greg Hatley would see one kid after another wander the streets, maybe without food or parents or a home, but always without prospects for a better life.

Greg Hatley had a better life. Fourteen years with the Dallas Fire Department, a wife, a house, three sons, a daughter and six years removed from a pension that could have allowed him to retire in his early 40s.

But those kids. Right here in Oak Cliff. He couldn't stand it, driving to the fire department, looking at all the lives he wasn't saving. So in 1998, he quit his job, quit six years before the health benefits, the retirement package, everything kicked in. Greg's wife left him. Charlie cried a lot--he missed his mom. But Greg had found his calling: Through boxing, he would try to change lives.

Dominic's was the first. But it wouldn't be the last. Soon, word spread through Oak Cliff: Some former firefighter had turned his garage into a boxing gym, taken the wildest and least disciplined kids around and turned out young men who ended each sentence with yes-sir or no-ma'am. Word spread to Jon Edmonds, the president of the Foundation for Community Empowerment, a nonprofit grant maker in Dallas. Edmonds stopped by the garage, saw Hatley, his sons and about five other kids training. Edmonds gave the club a $5,000 grant. Word spread even to Todd Wagner, after he and his business partner, Mark Cuban, sold Broadcast.com to Yahoo.com for an estimated $5 billion in 2000. The Dallas entrepreneur wanted to give back; he called Don Williams, the founder of FCE, asking for a list of the programs and organizations that changed lives. Williams took Wagner straight to Hatley's garage.

"It was one of the most inspiring things I'd seen," Wagner says. "You could sense that he was a father to all of those kids...It still gives me chills."

In 2001, the Todd Wagner Foundation decided on a remote swath of land in Lancaster for Hatley and his fighters--a grove of trees to the north, prairie to the south and open sky above--and built the new Oak Cliff Boxing Club and gave it an annual budget of $250,000, according to The Dallas Morning News. (Neither Hatley nor Wagner will discuss the former budget.)

Now Hatley had all the resources he'd need. Now Hatley would really reach kids. First, he talked to Dominic.

"Take me to where the other Dominics are," Hatley said.

That would be 1900 Highland Hills, now the Estell Village apartment complex, better known as the Pinks for its pink-sided government-subsidized housing. Yet there was nothing effete about the place, just hardened men and women, mostly black, and the children who sometimes went neglected. Hatley pulled up every day and took 15 kids to practice, the majority of them sitting in the back of Hatley's pickup. Then more kids wanted to come, Lil' Chris and Scarface and Binkie and Lil' John and kids from not only the Pinks, but the surrounding complexes. Soon, Hatley needed a van and three or four trips to get all the kids to the club. Soon, 200 children called the Oak Cliff Boxing Club their own, 50 of them working out on a daily basis.

Some of them just wanted to eat. The after-school meal at the Oak Cliff Boxing Club might be their only meal of the day. It tore Hatley apart. He'd visit a kid at home and find a jar of pickles in the fridge and nothing else, or rats crossing the floor, or a kid's mother on the couch smoking weed.

Best, then, to redouble the effort. Drive around area schools to make sure his fighters were there. Demand that they bring report cards to the gym. Stay until dusk, stay until midnight, stay beyond that, helping kids with homework. Then get up at sunrise, shake out of bed Greg Jr. and Charlie. and set them out on their morning jog, because Greg Hatley not only had beginners at the Oak Cliff Boxing Club; he had in his sons Olympic hopefuls.

Maybe Dominic would be one, too. A freshman in 2001 at A. Maceo Smith High in Oak Cliff, he'd have to first quit challenging the entire football team to a fight, quit smoking weed in the locker room at school, quit missing class, quit throwing temper tantrums at the boxing club, quit pouting, start acting more like a man or face yet another spanking--yes, a spanking--by Hatley before the rest of the boxing club.

But Hatley never gave up on him. There was no reason to; Dominic was too talented. "The slickest, probably the smoothest fighter I've ever seen," Hatley says. It may be important here to say that Greg Jr. and Charlie Hatley are four- and seven-time national champions, respectively. "Dominic was the most talented boxer I've ever seen," Hatley says.

But that doesn't explain it all. You want the real reason Hatley never gave up on Dominic Littleton? Everyone else already had. The Littletons had. They sent Dominic to various apartments in Oak Cliff and Hatley's house in Kaufman rather than their own. Dominic's brother had. Antoine didn't graduate from high school; he instead got his GED, and got it from the Texas Youth Commission, the state's juvenile detention agency, his new home. Dominic's mother had. Shannon Buard in 1998 killed a man over $3 and a dice game; she was sentenced to 85 years in prison.

"Dominic was the first one where, boom, I just felt--I knew he needed me," Hatley says. "And I just grabbed him."

"Go get him some clothes he can wear," Hatley told his son Charlie. The clothes were for Dominic. He had worn the same thing for about a week.

It was a Saturday night in 2001, and Dominic was once again staying at the Hatleys' place for the weekend. That night, Dominic, 16, and Charlie, 15, were going out--admittedly, to a roller skating rink; this is what passed for fun in Kaufman. But it really wasn't that bad. There would be girls there.

Charlie ran upstairs. He came down with an outfit from the back of his closet.

"No, he's just like your brother," Greg Hatley said. "Go up there and get him something he can wear."

Charlie came back with Air Jordans, Sean John shorts and a FUBU jersey.

There's a theory in psychology that says giving aid to someone inherently draws you closer to that person, makes you like him more. Maybe that's what was happening here. From that night on, and without his father demanding it, what was Charlie's became Dominic's, and that extended well beyond his wardrobe. The two boys, who had been friendly toward each other for years but never great friends, became inseparable.

It didn't hurt the friendship that Dominic stayed in Kaufman every weekend. And every summer. Was invited to every Hatley family outing. Spent holidays with the Hatleys. Became, in essence, a Hatley--Dominic was "like a son" to Greg; to Charlie, he was "my brother." Dominic saw things he wouldn't have seen were it not for boxing and the Hatleys. He stayed in New Orleans. He visited Niagara Falls. He hung around white people.

His junior year his school attendance improved. By that point, Dominic was so far behind, he would be 20 before he graduated from A. Maceo Smith. But he now intended to finish school. This, from a guy whose family did not have a high school diploma among it; this, at a school where the assistant principal, David Welch, says 400 freshmen enroll every year but only 175 seniors graduate. And the strange behavior continued for Dominic. He joined the school choir. "He had this beautiful bass voice," Welch says. He made friends, stopped urging people to fight him. He found a girlfriend--and a white one at that.

About the only thing that didn't change were his workout habits. When he was at the boxing club, he was a sweaty mess, and the best training partner Charlie ever had. But he wasn't there that often. Dominic relied on sheer athleticism to win bouts; he could elude punches well enough and punch hard enough that he seldom worried about his endurance.

But then he lost to Jose Orozco, a talented 132-pounder from Fort Worth, in the 2003 state Golden Gloves tournament. It wasn't a humiliating defeat; Dominic had suffered worse. But he couldn't shake this feeling of Charlie Hatley passing him by. Charlie, after all, had won the 141-pound state title. Charlie had developed a punch--a left to the body--notorious in boxing circles for its ability to drop opponents to the canvas. Charlie had the eye of Chris Howell, a filmmaker from Dallas shooting a documentary on the club.

No more screwing around, Dominic thought. He trained harder than he ever had, and five months later, in August, at the Fran Jones Under 19 National Championships, made it to the title bout but lost to Miguel Gonzalez of Cleveland, 19-13. Suddenly, USA Boxing had Dominic ranked second in the nation at 132 pounds. A month later, he faced Orozco again at the National PAL Championships. Dominic beat him 8-3.

Orozco told Greg Hatley afterward, "That's the toughest fight I've ever fought in my life." He had never seen a boxer change so much.

Drug dealers drove Dominic to the gym on a few occasions. They were proud of him, Hatley says. Dominic was the talk of the Pinks, where he lived during the week with a kid from the gym named Binkie, and Binkie's mother. No one drew a bigger contingent of fans in 2003 at the club's annual tournament than Dominic. Maybe 100 people from his neighborhood showed. The people there wanted to see him make it. Get out. Live large. Of course, there were other people who didn't, who flashed before Dominic their easy money and their big cars. These people didn't train like Dominic. These people didn't go to school.

At the worst time, in the months before an Olympic year, Dominic drifted again. In January 2004, one month before the Western Trials, the last opportunity to make the Olympic Trials squad, filmmaker Chris Howell rode shotgun with Greg Hatley as he tried to find Dominic.

Hatley knocked on Dominic's door. Knocked again. Knocked a third time and walked away. "It's not the first time," Hatley told Howell, a grimace working on his lips. "It's like the 200th time I've done that."

Moments later, coach was on the phone. "You know where he at, man? Ain't nobody at the house."

He then stopped at Antoine Littleton's apartment. "You don't know where he at?"

Antoine sat on the couch, the late-afternoon sun pouring in behind him. "Man, it's just hurtin' me," Antoine said. "Don't give up on him."

"He's got one month," Hatley said before shutting Antoine's door. "I ain't going to spend no [plane] ticket on Dominic if he ain't ready, man."

Dominic, Howell says, returned to the gym a couple of weeks before the Western Trials. He worked himself into shape but was nowhere near as ready for the Trials as Charlie or Greg Jr. or Big Greg Corbin, the super-heavyweight now training at Oak Cliff who went to the finals of the National Golden Gloves the first year he entered it.

A win at the Trials meant more to Hatley than a chance at the Olympics. A win at the Trials meant perhaps the Oak Cliff Boxing Club would stay open for another year.

The Todd Wagner Foundation quit funding the club at the start of the year. Hatley says the foundation wanted "numbers, numbers, numbers," wanted more kids at the club, all the time, more than he and Lavonne Williams, his assistant, the only full-time employees there, could handle. Even if he could handle them all, would that leave time for the four potential Olympians he had? For about a year and a half, Hatley says, he and the foundation argued about the direction of the Oak Cliff Boxing Club.

But a win at the Western Trials, and then another at the Olympic Trials, would raise the club's exposure. Who knew what backers might come calling then?

As it turned out, no backers would call. Dominic lost in the first round to Vicente Escobedo, the No. 1-ranked 132-pounder; Dominic led after the first round, stayed with Escobedo in the second but then tired. In the fourth and final round, the referee stopped the fight. Dominic, in protest, threw down his mouthpiece, blew a stream of blood out of his nose and left the ring without shaking Escobedo's hand. It was a temper tantrum worthy of his former self.

Greg Jr. lost in the semifinals. Big Greg Corbin thought he got robbed in the championship bout--and perhaps he did. But Charlie didn't. Dominic Chavez outboxed him in their championship duel.

"C'mon, shut it off," Greg Hatley said to Howell's camerman after Charlie's loss.

Howell spent a year shooting The Sweet Science; he has more than 300 hours of raw footage. "And that was the only time that coach told me to shut the camera off," Howell says.

Dominic called Hatley last December, 10 months after the Western Trials. Dominic had drifted again. He stopped by the gym now only on rare occasions, carrying 20 pounds more than his fighting weight. But he called Hatley to say the drifting days were behind him. He'd be back.

He was 19 and still on track to graduate in May 2005.

According to a police report, on December 20, 2004, Dominic and three others, who aren't identified, drove to a grocery store. On the way there, Dominic pulled out a handgun, put it to his head, said he was a "gangster" and, one witness claimed, pulled the trigger.

But nothing happened.

That night, at 10:42, at Dominic's apartment in the Pinks, the three witnesses said Dominic was in his room, alone, when they heard a gun blast. They found Dominic on his bed, a yawning gap where his left temple used to be.

No way, everyone thought. No way would a kid as street-smart as Dominic do that. No way would a boxer, with a way out of the Pinks before him, do that. No way would a soon-to-be high school graduate, the unlikeliest of high school graduates, take his own life.

Theories of cover-ups, of white cops not investigating black crimes, started immediately. For one, Dominic's fatal wound was to the left temple, and Dominic was right-handed. So if he killed himself, he did it with his weak hand. Second, Dominic fought often with two of the witnesses, whom nearby residents have identified as twins roughly Dominic's age. Last, there were more than three witnesses at the scene, and not all were contacted.

Homicide Sergeant Gary Kirkpatrick oversaw the DPD investigation. He's aware of Dominic's past and says the investigation looked into claims of murder. The gunshot wound to the left temple gave Kirkpatrick pause. "But that one fact didn't change the case," he says.

The crime lab ran a test called a "hand washing," Kirkpatrick says. It measures microscopic gunshot residue left on one's hand after firing a gun. Dominic and the three witnesses were tested. The residue "was present on [Dominic]...and wasn't on any of the witnesses," Kirkpatrick says.

There's no substantial evidence of a fourth or fifth witness at the scene, Kirkpatrick says. And at the time of death, there was a "significant amount" of marijuana and alcohol in Dominic's system.

Whatever happened the night Dominic died, the police report makes no mention of a suicide note.

"I still catch myself asking, 'Y'all seen Dominic?'" Greg Hatley says. It's six months later, late June on a Tuesday at dusk, and Hatley's driving from the gym to the Pinks to drop off fliers for this year's Black Gloves tournament, still three weeks out.

Charlie quit the sport after Dominic's death. Said it was too painful, too many memories at the gym. A month passed, and then his father asked if he would return; Hatley believed that Charlie's boxing was the best way to honor Dominic's life. "It's like, as bad as I wanted to give it up, that's how bad I want it now," Charlie says. He trains three times a day. He runs in the morning, lifts weights in the afternoon, heads to the gym at night.

In Puerto Rico three weeks ago, Charlie won the gold at an international tournament, The Cheo Aponte. Pinned to his chest as the national anthem played was a commemorative patch for Dominic.

Charlie's not the only fighter excelling at the club. Big Greg Corbin, the 275-pound super-heavyweight, won the National Golden Gloves in May, though he's boxed for only three years. But trouble seems to have stalked another of Greg Hatley's fighters. Last month, Big Greg was indicted as a co-conspirator in a federal case that's tied to a Mexican drug cartel. The trial is set for later this month. Julie Goldsticker, a spokesman for USA Boxing, says she doesn't know if Big Greg can continue to fight.

Greg Hatley doesn't know how long the club will stay open. Rent's $3,500 a month, and most of it's paid out of Hatley's pocket. But help has come from an unlikely source.

"That's Todd's check," Hatley says, motioning with his eyes to the opened envelope lying next to him in the pickup. And indeed it is. Eighteen months after the Todd Wagner Foundation quit funding the club, Wagner continues to write personal checks to Greg Hatley. Today's is for $10,000.

Wagner will later say, "Even though what Greg does may not fit in with [the foundation's goals]...I still support and believe in him."

But fewer kids come to the gym these days. With a construction business occupying much of his day, Hatley doesn't have the time he used to, can't keep track of kids the way he used to. "I'm losing 'em again," he says, driving the pickup through the Pinks, handing out fliers for Black Gloves. Men, women, toddlers and teens stand around with nothing to do.

Hatley drives to another complex, and there, under the streetlight--"There's two of 'em," he says.

His former fighters stare when they see Hatley roll down his window. You can tell that they wonder if they're in trouble.

"Why ain't y'all been in the gym?" Hatley asks.

The skinny kid looks to the bulkier of the two. "'Cause I ain't got no way up there," the bulkier one says.

Hatley grimaces. Maybe if he gets off the job site before 5 p.m., and if traffic's not bad, and maybe if he picks them up just once, it'll motivate them to come back...

He looks at both of them. "All right," he says. "I'll be coming by about 5 to 5:30. You be here."

The skinny one says nothing.

The bulkier boy speaks up. "I'll be there."

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