By Jack Firneno
Bill Smith has always been a fighter.
Now he’s got a ring for it.
The longtime head of Wardogs Athletics, Smith unveiled his latest labor of love, the Wardogs Boxing Club, in May.
The ring in question, of course, is a boxing ring. The Wardogs one is 22 square feet. Larger than regulation size, it nearly takes up the entirety of the club’s floor in a rented space in the back lot of the Plaza 13 Shopping Center in Bristol.
But this month the club moving to a larger facility in the front of the same strip mall as one of the boxers who trains there is poised to win an amateur title in Philadelphia.
Smith isn’t in business for the money he can earn from members, or the prestige of housing a champion pugilist. In fact, he sank a great deal of his own money into a project he just hopes will break even. Why?
“Last December we went down to Florida for national championships, a [football] team I was coaching won national championships,” he said, “Then within about six weeks of coming back, I had three teenage players in jail for various things.”
A longtime Bristol resident, Smith readily acknowledges chronic problems in the area. “It’s unfortunate that in the communities where these kids come from, when there’s someone who shows potential, there are many more people interested in knocking them down instead of bringing them up.”
That’s something he’s always fought against with the Wardogs. For Smith, organized sports is a way to boost confidence and keep kids focused on productive endeavors.
“They’re good kids that make dumb decisions and fall in with the wrong crowd when they have too much time on their hands,” he said of the players who were recently arrested on mostly minor charges.
Like the Wardogs’ football, basketball and baseball teams, Smith uses the boxing club to provide positive reinforcement and mentorship to area youths. But this sport is different: it’s year-round, more inclusive, takes immense dedication and builds camaraderie in ways even Smith didn’t expect.
“Kids who didn’t know each other three months ago are now all coming in together to train,” he said. “I thought if I got in the ring I’d have some ill will toward the guy punching me. But these guys push each other as far as they can, then they’re hugging after the round and talking about what the other one could have done differently.”
It’s not a big money-maker — “I’ve found that generally the better the boxer, the less money they have,” he laughed — but Smith is hoping that the lack of other clubs that cater exclusively to boxing will bring more fighters to the Wardogs.
“Some of the boxers here now were becoming a little disenfranchised when the gyms they were going to began branching out to MMA and crossfit,” said Smith. He keeps the price low so as to not exclude anyone, and also has boxers who can’t always afford the monthly membership helping out by training beginners and watching the gym.
The model is working, attracting people like Jose Antonio Rivera who may have literally been praying for a place like this. Rivera, from Puerto Rico, doesn’t speak much English. But one day he noticed a young member walking home from the Wardogs club.
“All of a sudden, this guy starts following [the member], and started doing this,” said Smith, miming punches. While the member worried Rivera was looking for a scuffle, it turned out he recognized a fellow boxer.
And, when Rivera was introduced to the club, said, Smith, “He literally dropped down on his knees and started kissing his cross, saying ‘thank you’ because he finally found a place to box.”
Now Rivera is on his way as an amatuer fighter. The club is nationally certified to have their boxers compete for amatuer and professional belts. That means people like Rivera, who work with seasoned trainers Bill and Michael Kane, have found a place to train and pursue their goals, one round at a time.
In fact, that’s what Rivera has been in doing last week: As an amateur competitor, he advanced through three out of four brackets in the Lucien Blackwell Tournament in Philadelphia by the time the Wire went to press.
And, he’s not the only rising star at the Wardogs. Smith said one 16-year-old boxer, for instance, is doing well except for one thing: “People don’t want to fight him, they say he’s too good.”
But that’s not a concern for everyone in the club. In fact, many members don’t even want to compete. Smith said their boxers range from people with professional aspirations to people who want to spar at the club without competing, and even those who want an intense workout without ever stepping into the ring.
Boxing’s a great workout, and along with waistlines the sport also tends to trim down egos.
“You see people come in, we know they’ve got street cred, but after three minutes in the ring they’re heaving over the side,” laughed Smith.
He admitted there could be a risk in teaching kids who sometimes fight on the streets how to do so better. But, the trade-off is instilling a sense of passion and purpose in them, one that keeps those kids in the gym and out of trouble.
“We hope they’ll think twice about doing something that will get them arrested because they don’t want to stop coming in here,” he said.
For information, visit www.wardogsathletics.org.