The Distance

Under the watchful eye of Barry Hunter, his coach and mentor, Shaborn Ryals works the heavy punching bag at Bald Eagle Community Center in Southwest Washington.
Under the watchful eye of Barry Hunter, his coach and mentor, Shaborn Ryals works the heavy punching bag at Bald Eagle Community Center in Southwest Washington. (Scott Robinson)
By Michael Leahy
Sunday, December 4, 2005

At the Bald Eagle gym in Southwest Washington, trainer Barry Hunter is focused more on making a difference than he is on making champions. But in Anthony and Lamont Peterson and now Shaborn Ryals he's made champions anyway

Short at 13, Shaborn Ryals cocks his head to meet my gaze. "You ever seen kids fight?" Shaborn asks, studying my reaction to what is happening in front of us at this moment, which is mayhem -- two 10-year-olds, each weighing about 65 pounds and wearing headgear and boxing gloves, beating the hell out of each other in a ring. One of the kids, nearly toppled by an uppercut, falls against the ropes. Shaborn shouts at him: "He's backing you up. Go forward. You gotta get yours now."

He is preparing for his own sparring session on a scorching summer day, readjusting the protective red hand-wraps over his knuckles, pounding his right fist into his left palm to test the cushioning. "These hands are my future, and you gotta take care of your future. Look," he says, whipping his hands through the air, the red of his wraps a blur. He makes a hissing sound as his hands land on an invisible head: "Ish-ish-ish-ish-ish. Bam." The imaginary foe falls. Shaborn raises his hands triumphantly. "Dude out."

"Sha-Sha is bad," another kid teases, giggling.

"You showing off, Shaborn?" his coach interrupts.

"Just gettin' ready, B," Shaborn answers. "B" is Barry Hunter, who coaches Shaborn and the other members of the boxing team known as the Headbangers, who train in this cramped little gym at the Bald Eagle Community Center, on a dead-end street in Southwest Washington. Hunter agreed to work with Shaborn two years ago, when the youngster showed up at his gym chubby, at 130 pounds, and blessed with fast hands but no real boxing skills. Hunter has since guided Shaborn's education inside the ring and stuck with him during his troubled times outside it. Some of the troubles have been of Shaborn's making, such as when he got kicked out of his D.C. junior high school late last year for what was described as a "physical incident" and was exiled to an alternative school in the District.

"You can't ever give up on a kid, especially when he's as promising and works as hard as Shaborn," says Hunter. "This kid has a chance to be a star. He has blossomed faster than any fighter I've ever had."

In February, only 15 months after Shaborn showed up at the gym, Hunter sent his raw 5-foot-3 prospect to an amateur competition in Independence, Mo. There, in stunning fashion, Shaborn captured the Silver Gloves National Championship. Shaborn won in the 112-pound weight class for 12- and 13-year-olds.

"It just makes you wonder," Hunter says. "What do we have here? How do we keep him safe?"

"Ready, Sha-Sha?" Hunter calls out to him.

Shaborn slips a mouthpiece between his lips and bounces into a ring speckled with dried blood spots the size of dimes. "Just watch this," Hunter murmurs under his breath. Shaborn moves with that stylized light skip of preening boxers, high up on toes that barely seem to brush the canvas, boxing an older, bigger kid who is stronger than Shaborn but not as fast. Shaborn tags him in the first seconds, showing off a stiff jab and a short, jolting right cross. The other kid, not to be shown up, lands a hard face jab that Shaborn absorbs unflinchingly. "That can be intimidating -- nothing bothers Shaborn," Hunter whispers, and then shouts out: "Okay, don't trade with him, Sha. He's got heavy hands. Box him, Sha-Sha. Make him miss, and then you get yours."

They have been sparring no more than 30 seconds when Shaborn lands a long left hook and then pulls back, grimacing. "That shoulder bothering you again, Sha-Sha?" Hunter calls out. When Shaborn doesn't answer, the coach yells: "Stop! That's it. No more sparring today. Get out of there, Shaborn."

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