CHICAGO (AP) — As a promising young boxer, Olympic hopeful Theon Davis knows how to bob and weave. He has also had to learn how to juggle.
The 21-year-old Davis might be working his cashier shift at a Circle K any given night. Some mornings, he can give 2-year-old daughter Harmony a kiss and get one in return as he drops her off at daycare.
Just about every day, he’s dripping pools of sweat. He spends hours sparring and hitting the bags and lifting weights and running laps around a basketball court at a recreation center in Garfield Park, the neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side where he grew up.
It’s a grueling routine. He has no doubts about it.
“I was born to do this,” he says.
Davis, ranked No. 3 at 176 pounds by USA Boxing, was one of 470 fighters with dreams big and small who added their names to a piece of history this spring. They entered the 100th edition of the Chicago Golden Gloves tournament, a storied event that counts Joe Louis, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali — when he was Cassius Clay — as past champions.
This year’s setting for the largest and longest-running non-national boxing tournament in the United States was Cicero Stadium, a rec center with quite the history. Al Capone used to hold court in a banquet room that looks straight out of Bavaria with original cypress beams and sconces. The building has tunnels, now sealed, from the Prohibition era.
The fights were up one flight in the creaky gym, where the vibe was decidedly old school. Boxers crowded into a corner to find out their opponent on a handwritten schedule.
For Davis, the march to the championship fight was expected. When the opening bell rang, he hustled to the middle of the ring, eager steps on a challenging path he hopes takes him to boxing’s biggest stages.
Davis and other fighters can chase big money and fame in boxing without the Golden Gloves. But those two words still carry prestige.
Recent winners in Chicago include former WBC lightweight champion David Diaz and Michael Bennett, who both grew up in the city and competed in the Olympics. A women’s division was added in 1994.
Chicago Tribune sports editor Arch Ward, credited with creating baseball’s All-Star game 90 years ago, started the boxing tourney in 1923 with 424 fighters from around the city. The goal was to sell newspapers. It became wildly popular and dozens of regions still run Golden Gloves tournaments, with nationals every year including next month’s event in suburban Philadelphia.
Like boxing in general, the Chicago event has faded a bit from the headlines. It has gone from Soldier Field and Chicago Stadium to smaller venues in and around the city.
For 19-year-old Julian Lugo of Rockford, Illinois, it’s still important. He has Olympic hopes of his own, and he came away from this tournament with the title at 139 pounds.
“It’s important to me because I want to get my name out there,” says Lugo, who started boxing when he was 9. “I want (the boxing community to know) who I am.”
Davis has been training for four years under George Hernandez at the Garfield Park Fieldhouse, a near-century-old facility with a gold-leafed dome and ornate two-story rotunda. It is a bit rough around the edges these days, like the neighborhood it serves.
The boxing gym — down a hallway in a room that was once a police department — is hardly a fancy operation. Some floor tiles are chipped. The paint is, too, in spots.
It’s not unusual for Hernandez, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran and the sort of good-humored and no-nonsense character that would fit in a “Rocky” movie, to pay out of pocket for equipment that isn’t donated so his boxers can be on more level footing with their competition.
He bought a 24-by-24-foot ring to replace the smaller one supplied by the Chicago Park District. And through a connection with Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s company, he got the red canvas with “Mayweather Promotions” in the center donated.
Hernandez has been involved in the sport as an amateur fighter and trainer since the 1960s. He says thousands of boxers — male and female — have passed through the program at Garfield Park in the 36 years he’s been running it. That includes Olympians and pros like Bennett, and Davis could soon join that list.
Hernandez screams “Push! Push!” as Davis and other fighters run laps in the bowels of the fieldhouse for 45 minutes in late March.
“If you’re not in shape, you’re either gonna get in shape or die trying,” Hernandez says.
A garbage pail is placed in one corner in case, well, you know. It gets plenty of use. To cool down, they play basketball. The next few hours are spent upstairs in the boxing gym, hitting the bags and lifting weights. Other days, they spar.
“This gym, it kept me away from everything bad that happens in Chicago,” Davis says.
SUCCESSES, GRIM REMINDERS
The walls are lined with pictures and banners and posters and newspaper clippings documenting the successes of boxers who have come through the program. There are sobering reminders, too.
The gloves, Chicago flag trunks and vest above the center of the ring belonged to Ed Brown, a promising welterweight from the neighborhood who died at age 25 in December 2016 after being shot while sitting in a parked car with his sister following a late workout. Hernandez, who considered Brown the son he never had, hung the gear following his funeral.
At least 48 of the fighters to pass through the program have wound up dead. Hernandez stopped counting a few years ago. He used to display photos and funeral programs and newspaper obits on a wall but eventually ran out of room, so he keeps them in a drawer.
“This is the other side that people don’t talk about,” Hernandez says. “We’re a boxing gym, blah, blah, blah. No. But for everyone that we don’t save, look at all the ones that (we do).”
Davis lives with his mother, Donna Weatherly, in the Belmont Cragin neighborhood, about five miles from the gym. He uses his bike and public transportation to get to the fieldhouse and his job, which is five miles in a different direction from home. Weatherly says Harmony, who turns 3 next month, stays with them three to five nights a week. It’s not easy, but they manage.
Davis grew up in a three-bedroom apartment in Garfield Park with his mother, twin sister and older half-brother and half-sister. The fieldhouse was a big part of his childhood, from summer camp to sports leagues.
“When I went to work, I just always had him signed up for some type of activity,” says Weatherly, a Chicago Transit Authority bus driver.
Davis started training for boxing to get in shape to play college football, but he didn’t have the grades for that. When he found out he was going to be a father, he decided to stay home. Family, work and boxing keep him busy.
“I’m not the only one with a child to look out for, care for,” Davis says. “I’m not the only one that wants better for themselves. That’s the main thing that’s on my mind. I’m sure it’s on their minds, too. It’s a conversation we always have — this is what we want for ourselves and what we want out of this game of boxing. Boxing is not forever. All good things are gonna come to an end. We’re trying to stay on course, keep our mind on the positives.”
The title bout for Davis pitted him against Eduardo Camacho, representing Chicago’s Unanimous Boxing Gym. As the third round came to a close, Davis raised one arm as he danced away from his opponent and then raised the other, confident victory was his. Confirmation came moments later, with a split decision giving him the championship.
Davis was all smiles afterward. Hernandez seemed relieved. Both said the fight was closer than it needed to be.
Hernandez needled his protégé for showboating, saying, “You need to look good, you had to have flowers on you.”
“Nah,” Davis replied. “It wasn’t about looking good. I was trying to have some fun.”