Local program gives tykes from 3-13 a taste of the ring
It was the best Good Friday that 5-year-old Ryan Adduci ever had. He got to wear massive 16-ounce boxing gloves and a silk bathrobe with "John P. McKeon Post" written on the back. He got to have Vaseline smeared on his face and fight in a real boxing ring with 500 fans in attendance. He had a grown-up trainer in his corner shouting instructions and even got to spit in the bucket between rounds.
"I'm not even nervous, I'm brave," said the 40-pound dynamo before the fight. "It doesn't matter if you win or lose. It's a sport. The best part is you get to go in the ring."
His father Jack, a Boston Police officer, admitted to being nervous before the bell but said learning to box was great for his son and not at all barbaric.
"It instills gentleman qualities," said Jack Adduci. "They learn respect. They are taught to only throw punches in the ring."
Young Ryan Adduci fought his friend, Brian Flynn, whom he knocked down once in the three one-minute rounds. At the end of their bout, the referee raised both fighters' arms. It is always that way.
"There are no losers here -- all are winners," said Peter DeLuca, cochairman of the 42d Golden Gloves Boxing Exhibition held at Dorchester's Florian Hall. The 23 bouts are the highlight of the 12-week Saturday morning programs for boys aged 3-13.
But for some, they are traumatic.
Four-year-old Cole Meaney was scheduled to box in the opening bout in the 35-pound category. But in the makeshift locker room, Meaney got butterflies and didn't feel like stinging like a bee.
"I don't want to do this," he said over and over.
Meaney sat out the first two matches and then decided he wanted in. Apparently, there was a bribe involved.
"I think it was a soda or a dollar or two from his Dad," said DeLuca.
Eventually, he climbed into the ring. The referee was State Auditor Joe DeNucci, who has been a guest referee for 20 years.
DeNucci, a former fighter himself who lost two very close decisions to former middleweight and welterweight champion Emile Griffith in 1972 in Boston Garden, was on his toes during the entire bout. Meaney seemed to be having fun in the ring, so much fun that he spent part of each round looking for his parents at ringside. DeNucci stepped in several times to make sure the youngster didn't get decked.
"I tried to get his hands up and his chin down," said DeNucci. "I was afraid he was going to get it. But he was tough. If I fought Griffith looking into the crowd like that, I would've been in the crowd."
The youngest kids don't wear headgear because it can shift and block their vision. They don't wear mouthpieces because they are too young, DeLuca said. With the oversized gloves -- double the size of the ones the pros use -- injuries are rare. And unlike Mike Tyson, none of the fighters bite.
By the time they are 8, they are on their toes and dancing. Bobbing and weaving and throwing crisp punches. The mothers in the crowd seemed proud of their kids. Flashbulbs go off and video cameras record every moment. Fight moms laugh off questions of brutality.
"In the real world, you have got to be prepared for everything," said Roberta Zaremski, mother of 8-year-old Jack.
Another mother -- who didn't want to identify herself and embarrass her son -- said the program turned her son's life around.
"My son was bullied at school," she said. "He's a shy kid and this program has given him the confidence to stick up for himself."
"It's a neighborhood program," said DeLuca. "Their fathers and uncles have boxed here. It's a little overwhelming at first, but we tell them, `The kid you face doesn't have four arms and two heads. He's just like you.' "
The 14 instructors make sure the fighters are evenly matched.
"If there's a mismatch, we stop it," said DeLuca. "The worst thing that can happen is a bloody nose. In football or soccer, they take more hits. We teach them to avoid being hit."
But enrollment is dwindling. The program used to reach 250 kids in the late 1960s and early '70s but attendance has stabilized now at 120. The entire training program, sponsored by the McKeon Post in Dorchester, used to cost $1 a year, but is still a bargain at $5. At least eight Golden Glove champions are alumni.
Though some feel the program is promoting violence among children, DeLuca smiles at the criticism. He has heard it since he stepped into the ring as a youngster in the mid '60s.
"Boxing is not for everybody in society," he said. "But we try to build conditioning and self-esteem."
According to DeLuca, no one ever has gone to the hospital since the program was started in 1961 in memory of war veterans Thomas Keohane and Thomas Leahy. His biggest concern is not the kids but the parents.
"Once you turn your kid over to us, you can sit and watch," he said. "There's no yelling, no talking to the kid. They are not allowed to interject or intervene."
A beaming Jack Adduci, video camera in hand, kissed his son when he came out of the ring.
"I can't wait to watch the replay," said Jack. "You never stopped smiling."
"That was awesome," said Ryan of his three minutes of fame. "The only bad part is you don't get to keep the robe."
© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.