A hidden treasure lies inside the sprawling landscape of a park in San Francisco – a small, narrow space filled with a spirit of joy and commitment.
The Ring of Fire Boxing Club is a miracle of a place where four heavy bags hang in an empty ring, roughly half the size of a regular squared circle, awaiting its next competitors.
Founded almost seven years ago, the gym is the dreamchild of former local amateur boxer Jimmy Ford who wanted to give kids – rich and poor – a place to go.
“I used to box,” said Ford. “I had a gym to go to when I was a little kid.
“Someone gave to me and mentored me when I was young, so it was time to give some of that back.”
Ford was something of a Mozart with boxing gloves, attaining the highest ranking of any boxer at age 12. He boxed through his teen years, eventually capturing the San Francisco Golden Gloves title.
After recovering from some personal battles outside the ring, Ford laced up the gloves again to raise money for a new boxing establishment.
“I had a beautiful career,” he said with a wry smile. “I made it to the nationals and won the Golden Gloves in 1992. It’s been a real journey. I’ve been in this game since I was 10 years old.”
In his 30s now, Ford never gave up on the idea of starting a gym near his old stomping grounds. With the help of his former trainer he began working with kids. While roaming the grounds of the giant complex known as Crocker Amazon Park, he discovered a storage facility and asked if he could arrange it to train his students there.
“I came in here and it was a disaster,” he said of the rundown venue.
“I was working for the city parks and recreation at that time, so I unloaded everything, bought some boxing equipment from World Gym and got the ball rolling.”
Ford trained his students six days a week, until, nearing exhaustion, he asked trainer and former boxer Miguel Rios for help with the kids. Rios readily agreed.
John Fuentes soon joined the team as the gym manager. The San Francisco Fire Department graciously donated money and merchandise.
For Fuentes, just finding the small gym was a challenge. He once had his own gym in the city and trained such local fighters as Shantile Jordon and undefeated contender Karim Mayfield. But he saw the powerful potential of the place he would baptize “The Ring of Fire” when he took on a troubled kid who had been in 21 different foster homes.
“I took him under my wing and he started boxing,” Fuentes said. “He turned out to be a six-day-a-week, so I had to be here. I saw something in him.”
What Fuentes saw was the real deal, as the talented kid with problems went on to win the Oxnard novice division title and made it all the way to the Golden Gloves finals.
“I tell all the kids that if you quit here you quit somewhere else,” said Fuentes, who knows about the temptation out on the streets.
“I tell them, you can’t come here and be in trouble. If you love this, don’t do that.”
In the long history of boxing, many of the greatest fighters began their careers in places similar to The Ring of Fire gym. Joe Louis discovered boxing at the Brewster Recreation Center in Detroit, Mich. Small, cramped, and ugly to some, Brewster’s became the home away from home for Louis and another youngster by the name of Walker Smith Jr. (later known to the world as Sugar Ray Robinson).
It’s a sobering thought to consider that without Brewster’s, the boxing world might not have witnessed the amazing exploits of Louis and Robinson.
Without the place, the hope dies.
Ford, Rios, and Fuentes find the team aspect of The Ring of Fire one of the most rewarding things they do. It is exciting times when the boxing team hits the road.
Fuentes sums it up the best, “Kids that have never left the city are getting on airplanes and flying to the Midwest.”
Each RFBC fighter competes in a different weight class before traveling to different locations to fight.
“They get a sense of team, they hang out together,” said Fuentes.
The tournaments have been in Oxnard, Calif., Kansas City, Mo., and in Reno, Nev. The results have been favorable for the participants of the little gym that could. The success of The Ring of Fire boxing team attracted kids from in and around the Bay Area.
The team has produced national amateur champions Charley Sheeny, Joe Gumina, and Nick Chamoun. The popular Gumina joined the professional ranks two years ago and currently holds a 4-1 record with two knockouts.
Unbeaten junior welterweight up-and-comer Karim Mayfield has known the RFBC team for over 10 years.
“Since my amateur days they have always showed love to me,” Mayfield told RingTV.com after a workout at Virgil Hunter’s gym in Hayward, Calif. “They helped me get a sponsor.
“If they need anything from me, I’m there. I’ve gone to shows and supported the kids.”
Mayfield, a San Francisco native who is coming off an HBO-televised decision over tough fringe contender Mauricio Herrera, is getting close to landing a significant fight against one of the top 140-pound contenders.
As much as Ford, Diaz, and Fuentes revel in the success of Mayfield, it’s the kids that drive them. When the size of their gym was making it more and more difficult to maneuver, they searched for a larger facility and found a dilapidated auto shop in Brisbane. In a matter of months, with the help of many friends, it was transformed into a working gym with a full-size ring in the center, a locker room nearby and a balcony overhead.
One day soon, The Ring of Fire kids will be fighting here – in their own gym.
But Fuentes makes it clear that the original gym, marked with grit and character, will not close.
“The Crocker gym will always be open and free,” he says, smiling.
And in doing so, three men, all with full-time jobs, continue to give their time and their souls to young adults who may strive for the impossible and just might achieve it.
Donations are always welcome:
SF Fire Department, FLAME Program
525 Judah St., SF, CA 94122
Phone (415) 753-0703
Tax ID #946000417
Please write “boxing program” in check memo
Email John J. Raspanti at firstname.lastname@example.org