Seduction of the Fighter

Cleveland boasts some of the country's best young boxers. But the real battle rages outside the ring.

Common, with Gang Starr and Floetry Agora Theatre, 5000 Euclid Avenue 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 5, $27.50 advance/$30 day of show/$50 VIP, 216-241-5555.

It had the ambiance of a medieval torture chamber. But that humid, blood-spattered room on the second floor of the Fairfax Recreation Center was where boys became boxers.

Ruling the room was Alvin Jones, a man of wiry build, sharp cheekbones, and welcoming grin. Jones never hunted for boxing talent. The boys found him.

The staccato popping of fists on stuffed bags lured them from the basketball courts to the doorway, as did the sight of boxing gloves, swollen faces, and bloodied, muscled bodies. It looked like a riot -- and seduced like one.

Juan McPherson was a skinny eight-year-old when he first followed his two older brothers into that room. McPherson begged Jones to let him box. Too small, Jones told him. But McPherson came back each day. Finally, Jones said, "Put 'em up."

McPherson raised his little fists in a left-handed stance. Jones knew he would be a southpaw. The boy's training had begun.

On the day eight-year-old Aaron Williams first appeared at the door, Jones noticed the boy's wide shoulders; he could see in them a future heavyweight. Jones ordered Williams to "put 'em up." Another boxing career was born.

For the next decade, McPherson and Williams would train under Jones's tutelage free of charge. Before long, the two were earning their places among the best young fighters in the world. Insiders saw in McPherson a young Tommy Hearns. Williams drew comparisons to Cassius Clay. Today, both are favorites to make the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team.

Their success is the sweetest professional reward Jones has ever known. A former dope addict, he kicked drugs, found God, and dedicated himself to training young boxers. The sport, Jones believed, could save a poor boy's soul.

But his is a bittersweet triumph. Even though Jones groomed some of the best boxers Cleveland has ever seen, some of his old Fairfax team abandoned him for the glamour of big-time boxing. Today, the city's boxing talent has splintered into factions, with some of the best deserting Cleveland altogether. Jones presses on, loyal still to the boys whose careers he helped build, hopeful that those boys will remain loyal to him.

Jones could always teach the sport of boxing. But four years ago, he was still learning the business of boxing.

That's when he met the legendary trainer Emanuel Steward, shepherd of heavyweight champ Lennox Lewis.

Steward sponsors amateur fighters through his Detroit-based Kronk Gym chain. In October 1999, just two weeks before Steward would work the corner in Lewis's second fight against Evander Holyfield, Jones brought four boxers to Detroit to face off against four fighters who trained at Steward's gym.

McPherson and Williams were among the Cleveland boxers. By this time, both had won national tournaments, but they had never fought before boxing royalty like Emanuel Steward.

McPherson and Williams both won, as did Jones's other two fighters. "Steward walked up to me afterward and says, 'Man, I didn't know Cleveland had such quality boxers,'" says Jones.

Steward invited them all to dinner. It was a surreal moment for Jones, who knew all too well Steward's storied career: trainer for 29 world champions, including Julio Cesar Chavez, Naseem Hamed, Oscar De La Hoya, and Tommy "The Hitman" Hearns.

At the dinner, Steward marveled at McPherson's resemblance to Hearns, who was also a tall, sinewy welterweight. It was high praise; Hearns was a world champ by age 21.

Steward was also complimentary to Jones: "You remind me of myself when I was trying to raise Tommy up," Jones recalls him saying. The trainer, a multi-millionaire today, spoke of the days when he and a teenaged Hearns slept in a station wagon and dined on bologna sandwiches. The remark seemed to imply that Jones, too, could reap fame and fortune for his devotion to his fighters.

But the two trainers lived in different worlds. After dinner, Steward went home to a mansion and a collection of Rolls-Royces. Jones drove back to Cleveland in an old minivan.

He didn't need Steward to give him lessons in dedication and sacrifice. During most of the 1990s, Jones awoke to his job at the Cuyahoga County Jail, where he rolled a cart full of lukewarm breakfast through halls that reeked of unwashed criminals. Some days, after he finished serving lunch, Jones drove to the East Side for an afternoon of collecting trash with a pack of volunteer schoolchildren who rode in the bed of his pickup truck, part of a program launched by the ward councilman. From there he would go to the gym, providing free boxing lessons from 4 to 8. He barely had enough money to live on.

"Three jobs -- and it almost killed me," says Jones with a weary smile.

Still, he felt lucky. As a boy, Jones abandoned school and boxing for booze and drugs. Addictions stalked him through his 20s and 30s until finally, he says, "I made a deal with God. If he helped me, I'd follow up on what I always said I'd do. And that's work with kids." In 1992, he volunteered to coach boxing at the Fairfax Rec Center.

Jones saw himself in the boys who came through the door. Many came from single-parent households, and Jones was the closest thing to a father. "Not long after I began coaching Aaron [Williams], I learned that he had never laid eyes on his father -- and my heart went out to him."

Jones offered his minivan to the boys as a free taxi, shuttling them back and forth to school, the mall, the gym, basketball games, and parties.

Between that taxi service and three jobs, there was little time for the fund-raising necessary to pay the Fairfax team's way to national tournaments. Jones talked to city council members about public grants and got donations from churches and businesses. People who believed in his cause wrote him checks. Jones often contributed his own money.

If his boys took home tournament trophies, it gave them another reason to stay in the sport and off the street. So Jones vowed never to let the lack of money cause them to miss a tournament. "We've made it all these years," he would remind them, index finger pointing heavenward, "through faith."

And once they arrived at a tournament, the Fairfax boys punished the opposition.

McPherson won his first national tournament in 1994; Williams's first came in '97. They dominated new weight classes as they grew. But Fairfax wasn't a two-man team. Other boxers won national championships of their own. By the late 1990s, it was apparent that Jones had developed a gold mine of amateur talent.

The team certainly made a lasting impression on Steward. About a month after Jones's trip to Detroit, Steward called to say he wanted to build a Kronk Gym in Cleveland. He wanted Jones to run it.

Under the arrangement, Jones could pick the location, and Steward would cut the check. Jones's team could train for free. And Steward would pay the team's travel expenses for tournaments. In exchange, Jones would allow Steward to establish relationships with his boxers. Since Steward was arguably the greatest trainer of his time, this hardly seemed a bad thing.

Jones saw it as another fortuitous turn on his divine path. Yet it would prove to be a detour.

Jones took a scholar's approach to boxing. Before he even began coaching at Fairfax, he hauled home piles of books from the library. A favorite was the autobiography of Gene Tunney, the heavyweight who beat Jack Dempsey in 1926. Tunney preached the merits of defensive boxing. Deflect the opponent's punches, and he'll become frustrated, abandon his game plan, forget about his own defense. That, Jones taught his fighters, is when to strike.

He also studied anatomy, learning the way the muscles and the cardiovascular system might interact to create the ideal boxer. His conclusion was that a boxer is only as strong as his legs. Those muscles are the most intensely stressed in his workouts. And nearly every exercise his boxers perform is similar in motion to one they would make while fighting, in time increments similar to those that occur during a match.

A.J. Liebling, a mid-century reporter considered one of the sport's most eloquent writers, argued that boxing greats make poor trainers. Past triumphs leave them less hungry for new ones. Better are the former boxers who never realized their own ambition, who begin to train young boxers as if to resolve their own regret. "The man with the little gym," Liebling wrote, "wants to prove himself vicariously."

Cus D'Amato had a one-room gym on 14th Street in New York, where he would first train Floyd Patterson, who won the heavyweight title in the 1950s. Long after Patterson had come and gone, D'Amato was still around to train a young Mike Tyson.

Before Angelo Dundee trained Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, he brought a middleweight crown to Brazilian Carmen Basilio.

For Jones, Williams and McPherson looked to be fighters whose success might earn him a place among these elite trainers.

Nearly every member of Jones's team held promise as a future pro. But Jones says that, in the beginning, Steward concentrated his interest on Juan McPherson.

It was the way he won -- not with brute strength, but with almost effortless precision -- that marked McPherson as a potential world champion. He seemed perfectly balanced, while his opponents were always lunging and missing, exposing themselves to counter-punches. He could land two punches in the same time it took an opponent to throw one. McPherson won his first 35 amateur bouts.

Steward had seen these same qualities in Tommy Hearns in 1978. Hearns was 17 then and, in Steward's estimation, had reached his physical peak. The original plan had been to showcase Hearns in the 1980 Olympics, but Steward wanted Hearns to turn professional, forgo his Olympic eligibility, and begin chasing the world title immediately. It was the right decision. The U.S. would boycott the 1980 summer games in Moscow. Hearns won the welterweight belt a year later.

The more Steward saw McPherson, the more he was convinced that the youngster should follow Hearns's path.

"He would always say, 'Juan reminds me so much of Tommy,'" says Jones. "He was sure that within two years, Juan would be champion of the world. That's fine, but that's not this kid's dream. His dream is to win a gold medal and stand on the top of the podium someday. That means more to Juan than any amount of money."

At the time, this remained but a mild disagreement between the two trainers. Their partnership looked to be helping both men. Jones's boxers won matches, which lent prestige to Steward's Kronk chain. And with Steward footing the bill, Jones didn't fret over money.

With his own gym, Jones was attracting more talent than ever. Two featherweights, Mickey Bey and Miguel Gonzalez, joined the team and soon began winning national tournaments. The boys who started at Fairfax were maturing into powerful sluggers --none more promising than Aaron Williams, who was displaying a penchant for knockouts at just 14 years old.

But Steward's favorites were McPherson and Anthony Brown, another Jones-trained boxer who had generated a buzz in the amateur ranks. They were the only members of the team to receive boxing trunks emblazoned with the "Kronk" emblem, which marked them as Steward's chosen few. And they were the only fighters invited to spend time with Steward.

"He didn't know anything about Aaron," says Jones of Steward. "I would express to him, 'I have another kid. You might want to send him some uniforms, because he's going to be good.'"

Williams craved recognition and begged Jones to lobby Steward on his behalf. But Steward rarely visited Cleveland and was too busy to attend amateur tournaments. It wasn't until Williams won the Silver Gloves Championship in February 2001 that Steward was convinced. The maroon-and-gold Kronk uniform arrived in the mail soon after.

It was a uniform that the nation's amateur boxers learned to fear. The Cleveland Kronk team dominated nearly every weight category it entered. Winning tournaments became so easy that the boys worried more about the way they won, a knockout being the preferred method.

McPherson won the Junior Olympic title in 1999 and 2000, at the ages of 15 and 16. Fighters can compete in the Junior Olympics only twice, and there are few repeat champions. Roy Jones Jr. won just one title. Oscar De La Hoya won only once. Mike Tyson and Pernell Whitaker were among the few to win two. Aaron Williams would also win two.

As McPherson dominated his amateur competition, Steward renewed his argument that turning pro was smarter than waiting for the Olympics.

But to Jones, there was a more important question: "What does the kid want?" And McPherson wanted to remain an amateur, box in other countries, and prepare for the Olympics. He would turn pro after the Athens games in 2004.

"The Olympic program is like the Harvard of boxing," says Jones. "You get to see different styles of boxers. Every time we return from international competition, you can just see a different level of boxing with Juan."

Jones suspects that Steward's opinion was tainted by the promise of a payday. "He had been putting money into Juan, and I think he decided it was time he got some money out," says Jones.

One of the most delightful kids I've ever met." That's how Jones describes Aaron Williams. For years, he was the baby of the Fairfax team -- and also its prodigy.

Williams grew up near East 83rd Street, never having met his father. This is the reason, Jones believes, that he and eight-year-old Williams grew so close. "He was with me more than he was at home."

Williams still remembers the first time his coach watched him in the ring. "He told me I did good, that I had the heart to box."

At age 10, Williams announced his career goal: to be the next Muhammad Ali. He searched libraries for books on Ali. He watched documentaries on Ali's life. He meticulously studied Ali's punching. Williams was obsessed.

"He asked me to show him how to box like Muhammad Ali," says Jones. "I did my best, started showing him certain movements and styles. And he truly started adopting [Ali's] form."

Williams was also winning like Ali. His fists rained down on opponents with a power and fury that belied his age and quiet disposition. But Williams was far too shy to assume Ali's bombastic demeanor outside the ring. "'Gentle Giant,' I used to call him," says Jones.

To McPherson, Williams was like a little brother. The two were in different weight classes, so they rarely sparred. There was little chance for a sibling rivalry to develop. They shared afternoons at the Fairfax and Kronk. They critiqued each other's form. They slept like sardines in cheap hotels during tournaments. They could relate to each other's spartan lifestyle of strenuous dieting and training. Individually, they were bashful. Together, they were boisterous.

Theirs were the same dreams that stoke all young boxers: championship belts, notoriety, wealth. These possibilities began to manifest themselves early last year, when boxing observers began to recognize Williams and McPherson as two of the most promising talents in the sport. That's when Emanuel Steward intensified his pursuit.

"He offered me $75,000, a condo, and a car," says McPherson. Included in the package was enrollment at a private school and a promise that, even if McPherson elected not to turn pro, Steward would pay the young man's college tuition. All he had to do was move to Detroit and accept Steward as his new mentor. But it also meant abandoning Jones.

Just 17 years old, McPherson rejected the offer. "I don't let nobody come between us," McPherson says.

In Williams, however, Steward found a more receptive audience. Williams was struggling at Collinwood High, and the promise of a new school in Detroit appealed to him and his mother. He was also excited about joining the ranks of champion fighters who perfected their craft under Steward.

At about the same time, Jones began to notice a sudden reticence in Williams. He missed practices. He disappeared for days with no explanation. The other boys spotted him wearing new FUBU clothes and expensive shoes that he couldn't have purchased on his own.

In March 2002, Jones cornered his wayward boxer and asked him why he hadn't been around. Williams told Jones that his old training methods were holding him back; he was thinking about getting a new coach. Jones listed all the honors Williams had won during his eight years of training in Cleveland. But by that time, Jones believes, "It was too late."

Shortly after, word reached Jones that Williams had moved to Detroit. He was living in a house paid for by Steward, whose nephew had taken over Williams's training. Jones was devastated. "He was like a son to me."

Miguel Gonzalez, whom Jones trained for two years, and Wilbur Torres, whom Jones trained intensely for eight months, also defected to Steward's camp.

Steward "was working on them," says Jones. "Things were already in progress. He had conversations with the parents and the kids. He was making derogatory statements about me and my coaching."

Still, with Steward holding the purse strings and the deed to the Cleveland Kronk Gym, all Jones could do was warn his fighters about Steward and hope that they didn't succumb to temptation.

McPherson stayed true to Jones. By April, he was fighting deep into the amateur national championships in Las Vegas. Nonetheless, the headline in USA Today read, "Steward prospect McPherson reaches semis." Steward was quoted as McPherson's trainer. Jones wasn't even mentioned.

"That," says Jones, "was the final straw."

Soon after the tournament, which McPherson won, Jones pulled his team out of Kronk. It would mean another round of boxing through poverty, but at least Jones and his remaining fighters would have their independence.

Emanuel Steward doesn't like the topic of Alvin Jones. "I don't want to get into that, because it's not worth my time," he says.

While a superstar trainer has time to recruit amateur boxers, his schedule provides scant time to feel bad for those left behind. Lennox Lewis requires constant attention. Steward is also a frequent commentator on HBO. And last summer, he spent two months training actor Wesley Snipes, who was boning up for a boxing role in the upcoming movie Undisputed.

Besides, Steward is sure that, even if he has deprived Jones of three promising boxers, it is for the best. The greater beef between the two trainers, says Steward, is that Jones "didn't share my attitude about education."

While still in Cleveland, Williams and Gonzalez had both dropped out of school, as had McPherson. The boys' traveling schedules made it difficult to keep pace with class assignments, and since all looked like they could be professional boxers, Jones thought it best for them to pursue their careers, getting their high school lessons from personal tutors instead.

Steward, however, says that Kronk-sponsored amateur boxers must stay in school. Upon arriving in Detroit, Torres turned pro, while Williams and Gonzalez were enrolled in a private school. Steward says he also promised to pay Williams's way to college, whether or not he continues fighting. "I thought it was better for his career and his education," says Shirley Williams of her son's move to Motown.

And if more schooling doesn't win over a boxer, Steward offers plenty of material incentives to boot. He pays his amateurs a weekly allowance of $100. He gives them their own room, television, and telephone in a quarter-million-dollar home down the block from his own mansion. He purchases a used car for those who, by their 17th birthday, show particular promise.

Steward insists he didn't steal the boxers from Jones. Rather, he believes he rescued Williams and Gonzalez from their own grim fate. "These kids told me point-blank: If I hadn't done what I did, they wouldn't have been in boxing," says Steward. "They had no jobs, had a lot of financial problems, and no education whatsoever. They would have just dropped out of the sport."

Instead, Steward says that Williams, age 16, and Gonzalez, age 18, are training for the 2004 Olympics.

Williams has been sparring with Devin Vargas, a 22-year-old Toledo native who is among the top-ranked amateur heavyweights in America. According to Steward, Williams already has the edge. "He moves like Ali and punches like George Foreman."

Williams says he isn't homesick and has had no second thoughts about leaving Jones. "When I was down in Cleveland, I was training, but I wasn't being taught well. Emanuel, being a Hall of Fame trainer, he can teach you a whole lot more about boxing. I think I've improved a lot."

Steward doesn't sign amateur boxers to contracts. His training and sponsorship come with no strings attached, he says. He only hopes that, when amateurs are ready to turn pro, they consider keeping him as their trainer.

"It's free enterprise," says Steward. "If some of the kids want to sign with me, fine. If they don't, I just have to deal with it."

Of course, by virtue of his relationship with the young boxers, Steward has a considerable advantage over other trainers. He cooks meals for his charges. He is their benefactor, their instructor in both sport and life. Steward's nephew does nearly all of the actual training, but Steward himself still makes a profound impression. In Williams, at least, Jones is already a fading memory.

"It's a blessing to have him in your corner," he says of Steward. "I learn a lot from him, even outside of boxing. Just from talking to him, he teaches you how to live. He's like a father to me."

Williams's departure was a sharp blow to McPherson. "They were like brothers," says Jessye Brown, McPherson's mother. "I never thought anything could come between those two."

"We traveled together, we sparred together, worked out together, hung out together," McPherson says of his former teammates. "We don't really talk anymore. Since they moved away, it's just different."

There was no sign that McPherson was distracted in September, when he arrived at the World Amateur Championships in Havana. It had been 15 years since an American boxer of any weight won the gold medal in that tournament. But McPherson edged out a Cuban fighter to win the championship.

"I got on that [medal] platform, and I was just so proud," he says. "I thought about all I had gone through to get there."

But it's the Olympic platform that fills his thoughts. Every time McPherson is tempted to take a day off, he imagines an opponent in the gym, outtraining him.

McPherson knows he could turn pro tomorrow, hire a manager, and schedule his first professional fight, which would surely bring a hefty purse. He is still young, but he burns with ambition. "I want to fight the best," he smiles. "The Top 10 in my weight class -- I want to fight them all. Line 'em up."

But he also says that he's come too far to give away his Olympic dreams -- a pursuit he traces back to his days as a skinny eight-year-old. McPherson is the No. 1-ranked amateur welterweight in the world, favored to win the gold medal. It would put him in the company of Patterson, De La Hoya, Holyfield, and Foreman, who ended their amateur careers with Olympic golds and went on to become legendary pros.

McPherson admits that he thinks about the pros every day. The topic makes him break into a wide grin, one that has promoters thinking he'll be as marketable as De La Hoya and Sugar Ray Leonard. "It makes me happy to think that, one day, I might own some big building."

For now, though, he spends more time thinking about the intermediate steps -- qualifying for the Olympics, winning the gold medal. "I don't want to rush nothing," he says. "I've got to go straight. It's all timing, and I want it to be right."

McPherson can expect to see familiar faces at the Olympic Trials. Williams will be there. So will Mickey Bey, one of the few boxers to stay at Kronk after Jones's departure; he has emerged as a top amateur featherweight. The supervising coach of the Olympic team is none other than Emanuel Steward.

Jones and his wife refinanced their house so that he could afford to launch Top Notch Boxing, a gym that opened in February. It doesn't look like it rose from the ashes of Cleveland Kronk. From the outside, it actually looks like ashes -- an old brick warehouse on East 55th. But it does have a large room in the back, which once served as the production floor of a glass factory.

McPherson is dressed in the warm-up gear he was given in Cuba. His shirt is untucked, which bothers Jones, since a photographer has arrived. "I've got to give you a tuck -- because you're Juan McPherson now," says Jones.

"Who was I before?" McPherson asks.

"You were Kiki," answers Jones. It's the nickname the trainer gave McPherson as a child. To see them together, it's hard to believe they're not father and son.

Jones also spends time with a younger set of boxers. In 14-year-old Eric Stevens, Jones sees a boy whose precocious talent surpasses that of Williams at the same age. "He hits like a grown man," says Jones. "When he lands a punch, it's scary." Many of Stevens's matches are over while the opening bell is still ringing. His amateur record is 50-4, with 35 knockouts.

Terrell Hampton, 17, sports a 20-1 record. Michael Moore and Cortez Rucker, both 16, are new to the team but are developing quickly. All come from the Broadway-Kinsman area.

Then there's Brandon Lidtke, who at age nine is already entering his fifth year of training. He will begin competing in national tournaments next year.

Anthony Brown, who was one of Steward's favorites, dropped out of boxing after losing part of a finger when a mugger shot him. Still only 18, Brown has talked to Jones about coming back to the gym. An "electrifying" fighter, in Jones's opinion, Brown might still have a pro career.

But McPherson's star is rising the fastest. Longtime Cleveland trainer Johnny Avon Jr. calls him the LeBron James of boxing. Don King, Lou Duva, and Sugar Ray Leonard have also talked to Jones about arranging post-Olympic fights.

The loss of Williams still stings Jones -- he can't say his name without a melancholy expression. But Jones also knows that his toughest days are behind him. He will remain McPherson's trainer/manager into the pros. Whatever he makes from being in McPherson's corner will go back into his boxing program. "It will probably be a big relief for some of the financial strains that we have," he says. "But it's funny. When you start off with these little kids, you never think in terms of financial success."

Last Wednesday, Jones took a call from Detroit. It was Miguel Gonzalez, who was not happy with the training he had received from Steward's people. He was worried about being in shape for next year's Olympic Trials. If he came back to Cleveland, Gonzalez asked, would Jones still train him?

The very next day, Gonzalez got off the bus in Cleveland, where his old coach greeted him with that same generous grin before driving him away in that same old minivan.

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