“Jab!” A trainer barks at five kids lined up in a boxing ring — four boys and a girl. They step and punch, moving in unison toward the ropes.
“Jab!” They step. “One!” They punch. “One-two!” This is a dance of arms and feet.
It’s early evening on a recent Friday at the Austin Boxing Club/ABC, a novelty that arrived in the West Side’s Austin neighborhood two months ago. The place is packed with youth ages 8 to 13, enjoying free after-school boxing training.
Their parents watch, some clearly tickled.
The pint-sized fighters later clear out at 7 p.m. so kids 14 and older, and young adults, can take their turn.
The nonprofit boxing club is the dream of an area businessman who had shown promise in the ring in his teen years, but traded the sport for a life of crime.
“My story with boxing goes back to growing up in Albany Park, hanging out at this gym, River Park. I had the skills, but didn’t have the dedication, so I got caught up in the streets,” says 41-year-old Salah Ahmed, who spent time behind bars for his involvement with gangs and drugs.
“What I’m trying to do with these kids is get ’em off the streets. I’m not going to sugarcoat who I was. As a teen, I heard the streets calling, and went and did what I was going to do, the gangs, the drugs. And I did time for it,” he recounts.
“Back then, I didn’t know I had skills. People I was sparring with did not want to get in the ring with me. But when they told me to jump rope, I thought jumping rope was for girls. I said, ‘I’m not going to do that. If you don’t have no sparring, I’m not in it.’ ”
Ahmed and his three brothers inherited the nearby Sunset Liquor, at 5921 W. Division, from their father, who passed away in 2001. Mohamed Ahmed had run it since 1983.
The boxing club, at 5915 W. Division, just east of Austin Boulevard, is the siblings’ effort to give back to the community.
On a recent day, a young boy pulls on Ahmed: “Sal, can I go in the ring?”
“No, go practice the bag,” he tells him.
Another boy comes to complain: “Sal, he’s been up there for two rounds!”
“Hey, finish that round! He’s up next,” Ahmed yells to the boys hogging the ring, who comply.
Naser Ahmed, 31, Salah Ahmed’s realtor brother, is the business mind behind the endeavor — a $100,000 investment in this community.
The family’s relationship with the Austin community is notable, given some longstanding resentment in the black community over the proliferation of Arab-American-owned businesses and liquor stores, and the dearth of businesses owned by African-Americans.
Naser Ahmed shrugs off those issues, saying his family business has been a responsible neighbor, and his father worked hard to build a solid reputation in Austin, by helping the neighborhood in many ways over the years.
“The place is full every day of the week, and there’s been tremendous support from the community,” says Naser Ahmed. “We thank God we’re able to bring this to a community that’s been our second home. We’ve been thriving in this area, so why not give back? We have right now a staff of four, and everything is out of pocket, so this is something that’s truly from our hearts.”
Along one wall, young boys jab upward at small punching bags hanging from the ceiling. Soon, they’ve got a rhythm going.
Other youth punch at eye-level bags suspended between ceiling and floor; while some older boys hold steady some bags the weight and breadth of a human suspended from the ceiling, as the younger ones practice their jab.
“I really appreciate they’re giving the kids something to do after school,” says parent Andre Wilson, 32, as he eyed his son, Kierre, 7, being taken through the paces. “We don’t have a lot of positive things around here for the kids to get into. I let him test it out and he liked it, so I keep bringing him back.”
“I love it,” says Kierre. “It’s kind of fun to box other people.”
The new fight club, which opened on Sept. 16, has gotten huge support from the boxing community.
Volunteers this night include noted boxing world names out of Chicago: Fres Oquendo, Derek Zugic, Derek Drey. Others, like Nate Jones, David Diaz, David Estrada and Mike Jimenez, come in and out.
“This is just a great project my man Sal is doing for the youth,” says Oquendo.
Oquendo grew up in the Chicago Housing Authority’s Lathrop Homes, has challenged three times for the world heavyweight title, and is scheduled to shoot for the title again next spring.
“When I was their age, it taught me a lot of discipline. All the energy they have reserved at this age, it helps to take it out on a heavy bag or speed bag. Growing up in the housing projects, it kept me from joining the gangs, getting into drugs, et cetera, et cetera,” he says.
A girl in barrettes and ponytails sits on the edge of the ring, lifting small purple weights up and down above her head. Another girl is in the ring, jabbing at Drey, who playfully waves off her gloves with spongy tubes.
“This is saving a lot of kids from the neighborhood,” says parent Larry Jones, 31, whose son Brendan, 11, has been coming since it opened. “It keeps him busy, keeps him from being in front of the TV all day, keeps him from going astray. I wish they had this in our neighborhood when we were growing up.”
Outside the club, the block is bustling. Families go about their daily lives, as drunks and drug addicts stumble down a nearby alley.
Austin is among the city’s toughest communities, with some of the highest stats for gun violence.
Salah Ahmed knows a lot of people in this ‘hood. He knows the good folks, and the gang members, too. He’s what they call in the ‘hood an “Old G,” someone who’s left the outlaw life behind, and has respect of the ‘hood’s both good and bad elements.
“My father used to drag my butt over here to work on weekends, to keep me out of trouble. I went to Taft High with a lot of these brothers. I can’t walk up and down these streets without knowing somebody on any one of these blocks,” says the married father of seven.
On the walls of his club, there are the familiar posters: “Stop the Violence.” “Put the guns down.”
“Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of lives lost over here, and one thing I know: If there’s nothing for kids to do, the streets will give it to them, and it tends to be machoing out, hard-coreness, pistol-toting, whatever they call themselves rough and tough with,” Salah Ahmed says.
“A lot of people are talking with guns. Anyone can squeeze a trigger, but not everyone’s got the heart to get under these ropes,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anyplace more macho than a boxing gym. You think you’re tough? Come show me you’re tough in here.”
Two boys walk up and ask him to spar with them. “You two get some gloves,” he says, heading into the ring. They step, punch: “Jab! Get your elbows up!”
The program wraps up as Drey takes the youth through push-ups, now jumping jacks, chanting of positive messages, and the ending fist bump.
“Boxing teaches dedication, hard work, confidence,” Salah Ahmed says. “I just want to get them off the streets, and whatever God has in store for them after that is whatever it is.”