washingtonpost.com
Part I: Keeper of the Flame
From Behind the Scenes, 'Mr. Curtis' Fights For a Young Man's Sport That's Growing Old

By Les Carpenter
The Washington Post
Sunday, May 31, 2009

"Hey Curtis!" A shout across a boxing gym bites at the soul of Curtis Rawlings. It's another reminder that things aren't the way they used to be. In the old days the kids never would have called him "Curtis." It was always "Mr. Curtis," a sign of their respect.

Now that respect is gone. He sees it every day; the way the kids strut to the ring, the muffled hellos, the eyes that don't make contact. Sure, there are still a few young boxers who smile and address him as "Mr. Curtis." It seems to him that these are also the ones who are dedicated, the ones who always win. And to Rawlings, dedication is what's been missing from these gyms around Washington the last several years.

He shakes his head.

He is an old man now, one of those characters you might find only around a boxing ring, thin and hunched with a weathered face. His voice carries the rural twang of a childhood on the Virginia-North Carolina border. A few weeks ago he turned 72, and his back is a tangle of discomfort, a reminder of another lifetime when he worked as a mailman and a dog knocked him off a porch, rupturing three disks in his spine. Sitting is a torture. And he fidgets in his chair chuckling that he's like an old car -- everything has spilled down to the oil pan and it's going to take a long time to get back up again.

For nearly three decades, Rawlings has been Washington boxing. He is a timekeeper, the man who counts down the seconds and then rings the bell. It is an anonymous task, one he has loved for that very fact. The glare of attention never suited him. And yet it seems there cannot be a fight in the area without him, mostly because people have come to trust him, because he has this peculiar obsession with perfection -- double-checking every score sheet, poring through the fighters' record books, rooting out errors, enforcing arcane rules.

Which is why six years ago he was elected to the D.C. Boxing Hall of Fame despite never having thrown a punch. And why this year he was asked to run it. They told him he was the only one they thought would do it right.

If only these young fighters cared as much. Sometimes their indifference frustrates Rawlings. It wasn't all that long ago that boxing thrived in Washington. Back then, he remembers, when boxers from the area went around the country for important fights on the amateur circuit, their presence alone was enough to make opposing fighters tremble.

Now when Rawlings goes to national tournaments -- he also works as the chief timekeeper for the Golden Gloves tournament -- he senses that fear is gone. If a fighter from a place like Cleveland or Cincinnati or Los Angeles draws a Washington area boxer, he is sure the other boxer believes it will be a walkover.

He uses that word: walkover.

Still he pushes on, fighting for a sport he can't let go.

* * *

It is early on a Saturday morning and Rawlings is inside the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center in the Maryland suburb of Palmer Park. There will be boxing on this night, a preliminary round of the Golden Gloves, and he has made the drive from his apartment in Twinbrook to help run the early weigh-in, even though his back is aching and the trip has taken longer because he hugged the right side of the road in his Toyota Corolla.

But he is here, along with two other local boxing officials and a handful of men in their early 20s who represent the future of D.C. boxing. The turnout is not an impressive one. There are only a few boxers, and even though there will be another weigh-in in the evening, Rawlings notes how in the 1970s or 1980s the room would have been filled. The bout sheets for an event like this would have stretched at least a full page. Now they don't even fill one.

Some of this is the fault of the fighters, Rawlings thinks.

"I don't know, it's a different breed today," he says. "The kids 15 years ago were more respectful, in general, than the kids today."

Some of it is because of the trainers in the area, men he calls "wannabe coaches."

"A while ago, a Washington, D.C., coach would have kids ready to fight," he says.

But even more, he is bothered by the way the boxers don't seem to listen.

For instance, the beards. The rules for the boxers at Golden Gloves weigh-ins are simple: show up, don't be overweight and make sure to be cleanshaven, especially around the chin where the helmet straps can injure a boxer if he takes a punch on the jaw. Yet it seems as if more than half the men in the room have come with some kind of stubble on their face, some with nearly full-grown beards.

Rawlings and the other men running the weigh-in are patient with the boxers who have arrived unshaven. They provide disposable razors and wait as each fighter huddles over a sink with the water running, scratching at his chin without shaving cream until enough hair has been hacked away to qualify for the night's event.

Still, Rawlings wonders: What are they thinking? Weren't they told to be cleanshaven? Didn't they read the rules?

Another boxer arrives, his own scale tucked under his arm. He has already shaved but turns up two pounds overweight. The fighter blames his trainer for the mishap. He asks to come back a few minutes later to weigh in again, rather than having to miss eating all day so he can make weight again in the evening.

Rawlings looks at him with surprise.

"You can't lose two pounds in 20 minutes," he says.

The boxer sighs, dresses and stalks out of the restroom.

"These young people," Rawlings says. "They listen but they don't hear."

He has a joke he likes to play with the fighters he thinks aren't paying attention. He tells them to tip their head to the side and plug a finger in the ear facing the ground.

"Put your finger in there," he says. "That way what I'm telling you don't fall out."

He steps into the gym. From the outside, the Sugar Ray Leonard Boxing Center is not an overwhelming place, just a storefront in a strip mall not far from the FedEx Field parking lots. But inside, the room hums with history.

High up on one wall hangs a portrait of Leonard from back in his prime, when he was an Olympic gold medalist and world champion. His legs are slightly turned to the side in the classic pugilist's pose, gloved fists poised and ready. He glares down at the ring below, almost as if he could jump down and unleash a barrage of punches from a time now more than a quarter of a century past.

Across the gym, near the door, are posted the names of the boxing center's Hall of Fame.

Leonard.

Jamal Hinton, a title contender from the 1980s.

Eugene "Sonny" Speed, a two-time champion from the 1980s as well.

Andrew Maynard, 1988 Olympic gold medalist.

The list ends before the 1990s begin. It's as if time simply stopped in Washington boxing. The problem is obvious, Rawlings says. He sees it all the time from his seat in front of the clock. Too many of these boxers today are out of shape. They don't train hard the way kids did 20 years ago. They look for shortcuts. They get sluggish late in fights. Those final 60 seconds between the eighth minute and final ninth minute are excruciating, he says. Their bodies surrender. He worries they will get seriously hurt.

He wonders what happened to the devotion of the kids he used to see, the ones who showed up at the gyms in the middle of the afternoon, then stayed for hours jumping rope, pounding speed bags and sparring well into the evening.

Now they drop in for an hour, throw a few punches in the ring and think they've done enough.

So many distractions these days: too much television, too many video games. Nobody goes outside anymore. Running four miles in the sun to prepare for a fight? Who's going to do that? With those callous shrugs boxing dies a little more.

It's not as if kids in Cleveland, Cincinnati and Los Angeles aren't watching television, too, but Rawlings senses a difference here, a loss of passion. Something that hasn't been right for some time. Almost as if the commitment had just died.

The irony in Rawlings's lament is that he was never a boxer himself. Born in the tiny town of Carrsville, Va., he was the youngest of 14 siblings, all but one of whom is now dead. He worked the fields and went to school, where he played baseball more than any other sport. One time, when he was about 10, someone gave him a pair of boxing gloves to try on. He laced them up and stood poised, ready to swing when the first punch from the other boy thundered in, right across his nose. He screamed in pain.

And that was the end of Rawlings's fighting career. Knocked out only seconds after it began.

For years, he worked as a crane operator in the Newport News shipyards before going into the Army. After leaving the military he moved to Rockville in 1966 and was a mailman until the dog attack in the early 1970s. He was in his early 40s when he was asked by a friend to start a boxing program in Rockville. Eventually he moved the program to the Boys & Girls Club. He didn't coach much in those years, choosing to be what he calls "a background coach," leaving the main work to those who knew the sport. He thought he really wanted to be a referee. But while training to be a referee he was introduced to timekeeping and loved the freedom it allowed, letting him watch the whole fight and not just fixate on when and where the punches were landing.

Ever since he has been arriving at gyms early, pulling from a hard-shell case the giant timekeeping machine with a clock and horn built in and setting it up on a ringside table. He has checked thousands of judges' score sheets after they were handed to him by the referee. He has scoured countless fighters' passbooks and carefully matched their information to that on the bout sheet.

Just as he does all of this night.

* * *

Inside the gym, the sections of pullout bleachers are mostly filled by the start of the first fight at 8 p.m. Dozens of others mill about the room, standing against the wall, a warm retreat from a chilly night. The crowd is loud. Feet pound against the wooden bleachers. Fans shout with each thud of Everlast against bone. It could be anytime in the past 30 years. Even as the sport dies, the frenzy of a boxing night never changes.

Rawlings seems revived as the evening moves on. He shifts less in his chair, stands straighter and complains less about his back. In the stands there is talk about a new generation of professional Washington fighters -- men such as Anthony and Lamont Peterson, Fernando Guerrero, Gary Russell Jr. and Dominic Wade. It is as bright a group as has been seen in more than a decade.

When the fights are over and Rawlings packs his small case to go home, he appears hopeful. Lately he has been worried about the future of boxing in the area. More and more people seem to be talking about mixed martial arts and not boxing. He has heard rumors of a movement to train more MMA referees around Washington. He doesn't know if it is true, but he does not like MMA. It's too violent. Too much blood. And Rawlings, despite his long love of boxing, does not like the sight of blood. He does not care for the gleeful howls of the MMA fans, thirsty to see geysers of crimson pouring from fighters' heads.

There is sport in boxing, he thinks, a gracefulness that is lost in the brutality of these other fighting events.

"I like the skill," he says of boxing.

He limps outside to the strip mall's frosty parking lot. It is almost midnight and the gym behind him is nearly empty inside. He moves slowly toward his car, still believing in a sport he refuses to let fade into the darkness.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company