by Gautham Nagesh
WASHINGTON, D.C.—It started almost 20 years ago in a storage room at Lincoln Multicultural Middle School in Northwest Washington. A friend told Barry Hunter the school had set aside a small space for boxing. Hunter, a carpenter by trade, agreed to pitch in, dug out his old equipment, and headed over to share his lifelong passion: the Sweet Science.
"I didn’t go to stay, I went to help a little bit." said an emotional Hunter on Thursday at Bald Eagle Recreation Center in Ward 8. But once he met the kids and saw their need, he couldn’t walk away.
"The ride I got on, I couldn’t get off."
So Hunter stayed to teach the kids boxing, and more than anything, to show them that someone cared. There have been plenty of ups and downs since, from training world champions and amateur stars, to skipping a national tournament and using the funds raised to pay for a kid’s funeral.
But few days could be better than today, when the District of Columbia finally repaid Barry Hunter by opening the new Dr. Arnold McKnight Boxing Annex. The magnificent 6,600-sq. ft. facility is attached to the Bald Eagle Rec Center, one of the original homes of Hunter’s acclaimed Headbangers Boxing Program, which has produced 100 national amateur championships, two professional world titlists, and saved countless young men and women from the wrong path.
"I am so happy, so elated," said Hunter, paying tribute to the fighters and kids along the way that didn’t make it. "This has been our fight for so long."
"I love it. I always dreamed about having a gym like this," said colleague Patrice “Boogie” Harris, who has been with Hunter and Headbangers since the start as both an amateur fighter and trainer.
"It’s a really nice gym, especially coming from a storage room," said 140-lb titlist Lamont Peterson, who with his brother Anthony has been Hunter’s greatest success to date. “I think we’ll be here for a while.”
The Peterson brothers are more than just fighters to Hunter; they’re like his children. Hunter started training the two brothers when Lamont was just 10 years old and Anthony slightly younger. They were homeless, and he soon became a father figure to them and many other local youths. Lamont credits Hunter for helping mold him into the man and champion he is today.
"He raised us to be good kids and to be good adults," Lamont said. "It wasn’t just boxing, it was going to school, being good people."
Hunter has spread the same message to hundreds of other children, with varying success. But his effectiveness as a trainer is beyond dispute. In addition to the Petersons, Hunter currently trains a host of local pros including heavyweight contender Tony Thompson, Dominic Wade, Alantez Fox, Danny Kelly, Raymond Serrano, and David Grayton. He is also a noted amateur trainer sought by everyone from the U.S. Olympic team to the region’s most promising prospects.
The new gym should make his job even easier with two elevated rings, new treadmills and workout equipment, a gauntlet of heavy bags, more space for shadow-boxing, and basically anything you could want to train for a fight. I’ve visited my share of boxing gyms and I think it’s fair to say this is the nicest I’ve seen to date. Both Lamont and Harris surmised the new gym could fit as many as 100 kids training at once, negating the need to send youngsters elsewhere.
Both Mayor Vincent Gray and councilman Marion Barry took part in the ribbon-cutting along with local luminaries like former heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe. Marion Barry took credit for personally shepherding the $7.3-million project through the City Council, while a number of local fighters and civic leaders were on hand to show their support.
"It’s a great day for Ward 8," Gray said, emphasizing the importance of boxing to D.C. Gray said he would like to see Washington join Las Vegas and Atlantic City as capitals of the fight game, and paid tribute to Dr. McKnight, the former chairman of the D.C. Boxing Commission and a professor at Bowie State.
Barry, known locally as “Mayor for Life,” related his own brief amateur boxing career, which spanned 18 bouts at 115 and 118 lbs. A pair of particularly hard-hitting opponents convinced young Marion to give up boxing while still a student at Booker T. Washington High School, a decision he has never regretted. Barry later named his eventual wife Cora Masters Barry to head D.C.’s boxing commission, making her the first woman to do so.
The afternoon took a bizarre detour when Marion Barry welcomed his son, a local contractor who worked on the project, up to the mic to speak. Barry’s son wore paint-splattered boots and trousers, as if he had just finished work. He gave a rambling speech during which he credited the Peterson brothers for being role models and held up his ability to secure contracts from the local government as evidence that programs aimed at encouraging small and minority business owners are working. Only in D.C. are actions that would be considered graft in other cities held up with civic pride.
But the politicians and their sycophants couldn’t distract from the true stars of the day: Barry Hunter and his Headbangers team. Hunter has gone from carting his fighters around in a nine-year-old pickup truck, all fighting for the front seat, to lording over a state-of-the-art facility that would make Freddie Roach jealous.
"I’m like a kid in a candy store," said Anthony Peterson with a bright smile.
Hopefully there will be more like kids Peterson, whose lives are changed immeasurably for the better thanks to the new gym. If and when that happens, the reasons why will be clear, as local ANC Commissioner Marvin J. Lee put it best: because we have the best boxing program in the region, and because of Barry Hunter.