The action at the Oakcrest gym in Oxon Hill starts around 2 in the afternoon. Fighters begin taping their hands, pulling on their trunks. It's late, 4 p.m., when the champ walks in. Fighters in a sweat are already pounding the heavy sandbag, shadow boxing, working out. But Sugar Ray Leonard is not late. Sugar Ray is the champion; Sugar Ray is boxing; Sugar Ray makes this gym the gym in Washington. Sugar is on time, any time.
As Leonard slides into the gym, every fighter goes cool and tough. The shadow boxers quicken their pace and powder puff punches become pile-driving blows that slam -- loudly -- into the heavy bags. With Sugar Ray in the gym, it's as if Jimmy Connors was your doubles partner in tennis or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the center on your basketball team. Every man wants to show that he is a champion, too.
The Oakcrest gym is a flat old building with peeling white paint past the southeast section of Washington on Marlboro Pike on Oxon Hill, Md. Outside is a dusty playground, the backside of suburban rowhouses and down the road is a strip of gas stations, old movie houses and fast-food places.
Inside this is the fighters' gym in Washington. This is where Dave Jacobs trains the pretty, dancing, world-famous Sugar Ray. The Sugar Ray who turns Seven-Up and knocks out cars for Ford Mustang in television commercials. Fighters come from all over Washington -- some from across the country -- to spar in the shadow of the man acclaimed America's best young fighter.
By 5 o'clock one afternoon in May there are six boys, none older than 13, circling the blood-spattered canvas boxing ring in the middle of the gym. The boys are throwing mock punches in the air, practicing their timing on combinations of punches.
Leonard, his body alive with sweat and covered in a shiny, grease-like coating, has just finished his first day's workout, about an hour long, for the Roberto Duran fight next Friday. Ray will be paid about $3 million for the fight in Montreal, a fantasy payday in a faraway setting linked to this dingy suburban gym.
His workout done with a final slow 75 sit-ups, Ray is laughing as a Mexican fighter tells him a vulgar insult to say in Spanish to upset Duran at the start of their fight. The joke finished, Ray moves off the ropes and eyes one of the boys, 11-year-old Delfis Worthy. Worthy is called "Li'l Champ," a name indicating he is the gym favorite to be the next Sugar Ray.Worthy, a 6th-grader, is hissing as he circles the ring, punching the air. The hiss is to make sure he exhales, both air and all the power in his 75-pound body, as each punch connects. Delfis is already a Golden Gloves champ and a Junior National champion. Today he is training for the junior Olympic title fight.
Ray goes over to Delfis. He wants to show the kid a move. Ray puts the boy in a crouch, facing him toe-to-toe, and then pretends to be slugging it out with the 4-footer. Suddenly, Ray steps right and turns with a powerful right-hand cross punch. Ray stops short of hitting. But getting hit is the only way Delfis would have known about that punch. As he realizes what happened, all Delfis can do is grin and giggle. Ray smiles back. "C'mon, I'll show you again," Ray says. Simple move: in a clinch slide to the side, step up and punch. All the other little Sugar Rays in the ring continue dancing around, circling, throwing punches, coyly watching what Sugar is doing out of the corner of their eyes but refusing to be so uncool as to stop and watch. They hope their turn is next. But Sugar calls it a day and heads for the lockers.
Fighting is the passion sport -- blood mixed with fear and desire. The blood comes from a fighters' nose, from cuts on his face as leather gloves tear at skin. And the blood comes from inside coloring a fighter's urine red if he gets hit in the kidneys too hard too often. The fear comes every time a fighter steps in a ring to do battle, even to spar. He could lose, be publicly embarrassed, shamed into submission at his opponent's feet. Fear shows when a fighter is tired or has been hit hard and he suddenly panics, forgets his boxing skills and starts punching wildly to cover the fear.
But before the blood and the fear comes the desire. The desire to be somebody. The desire for a man, a boxer, to make a name for himself, to make some money, to get past the poverty, the lack of education and the murderous life on the street corner. Desire sends most fighters into the ring.
In Washington there are not many places left for a boy to take his desire to learn how to box. The Oakcrest gym is the best equipped and cleanest of three in the area: Finley's gym in Northeast Washington; the Metropolitan Police Boys and Girls Club No. 11 in the District and Dave Jacobs' and Ray Leonard's gym in Oxon Hill. The Oxon Hill gym is special because of Jacobs, a good, full-time trainer, and Leonard, the champion who grew out of the 14-year-old boy who one day took his desire into a small gym in Palmer Park where Jacobs was working.
The Oxon Hill gym exists only because Jacobs returned from Montreal in 1976 with a gold medal winner. The Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission then decided to equip a gym specifically for boxes and assigned Jacobs there.
The Oakers gym replaces several other Washington gyms that have closed over the years. They closed as the sport got a dirtier and diriter name with organized crime fight-fixing scandals and as television's Friday night fights pressured too many inexperienced young fighters to turn pro too quickly, forsaking the old gyms and boxing clubs.
Then, too, boxing went out of style. The fights went off television. A good white fighter became a rarity and the only thing that could get the sports fan to pay attention was a big, heavyweight fight in some place like Zaire.
Now a local champion has brought a Washington area gym to life with new talent, boys, men, even women coming to the sport. In one corner of the gym is Ricky Patterson, an unknown pro fighter with a mediocre record -- three wins, two losses. Patterson is a sleek, unusually smart fighter with tremendous desire to be great. He is also nice. As a favor to a promoter he went pro after only a short amateur career. The promoter needed a fighter to fill in when another fighter did not show. That one fight, for $120, cost Ricky the possibility of Olympic gold, amateur trips and experience.
Ricky is not angry. He still thinks he can make it, and he is gentle. After leaving a sparring partner bloody, he runs over to hug him. It is a contradiction common to fighters: destroy with skill, the seek to help.
In another corner of the gym is a beefy, 17-year-old girl, a junior at Wilson High School. She is banging away at the heavy bag. The girl has had ony one sparring session. Jacobs is waiting for pads to protect her breasts before she and two other female fighters at the gym begin regular sparring and public bouts.
Against a far wall is Tim Flores, 20, a bantamweight boxer from Arizona. Flores, a good boxer, is in need of someone to show him how to be great. Angelo Dundee, Sugar Ray's manager (the man who sets up his fights) and Muhammad Ali's manager, told Flores to come to Washington and work with Jacobs.
Flores had to leave a 2-week-old baby and his unemployed teen-age wife with her parents to see if his ability can match his desire to be a champion boxer for the Mexican people. "The black people have Sugar Ray and Muhammad Ali," he says, sweat dripping from his 119-pound, 5' 4" frame. Flores was born in Danville, Ill., to Mexican migrant workers.
As a fighter Flores is quick, but his punches lack sting -- power. Nevertheless, his quickness has won 16 to 20 amateur bouts.
In the middle of the room, at the training table next to the boxing ring, stands Dave Zimmerman. Zimmerman is handing out gear on the training table. The table is covered with the tools of the trade -- leather gloves, black leather headgear, tape for hands and Alboline, a slippery jelly trainers slap on fighters to make punches slide off and bring out sweat and weight.
Zimmerman is taking to Mike Johnson, a fighter with a broken hand. The talk in the gym says there are doubts that Johnson will get back in the ring.
Johnson should have the desire. He lives in a lower-middle class Southeast neighborhood surrounded by some of the city's toughest housing projects. At 21 he sleeps in the same room as his sister. He was held back in school twice, and he has never held a job for more than a few months at a time.
But Johnson, 36 wins, 5 losses, 6" 3", 185 pounds, Washington regional light-heavyweight division, doesn't have desire. He doesn't like to train, doesn't fight with the drive to dominate, and he loves to love women -- even before a fight.
Sex before a bout takes the "spunk" out of a fighter, Jacobs says. Johnson says it makes his legs rubbery. But with Johnson's speed -- he is fast for his size -- and the power in his guns, as he calls his fits, rubbery legs usually don't bother him. He won most of his 36 fights by a knockout, he says. But when Johnson is not knocking people out, he is a laid-back fighter.
This day Mike is riding around with a friend in a silver Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, courtesy, he says, a 21-year-old Johnson's latest love, a 32-year-old woman.
"She don't be putting a lot of demands on me," he says to the guys in the parking lot looking at his car. "She just wants me around between 12 and 2, time for loving.
"I used to party all the time, Mike says smiling, "but I'll tell you, it really depressed me. Everybody was about the same thing -- dope, gambling and [sex]. That last part was the only one that agreed with me."
Johnson became interested in boxing as he rode a bike past Oakcrest gym and stopped to see what was going on inside. There was Sugar Ray, the same fighter he had seen a few days earlier on TV. He couldn't believe it. "I went home and told all my friends I saw Sugar Ray today. Now, people say a lot of things about Sugar Ray, but that man is a star in his own right. Nobody gave him anything . . . It was just jealousy, nothing but negative vibes from people because he was a star. So I decided I'd come back around [the gum] and see what I could do . . . After a while boxing gets in your blood, especially if you are giving out more than you are taking.I don't take a whole lot of whippings."
Sitting in front of the ring is Carolyn Robinson, mother of "Li'l Champ" Delfis Worthy. "I've given my life to him and his boxing career," she says. dFive days a week she leaves her job as an engineer drawing clerk at C&P Telephone and brings her son to the gym.
She sits and watches her 75-pound youngester go through his paces. The gym has become a comfortable place for her; everyone knows her. To people at the gym she is one reason the gym isn't a seedy place out of boxing's less reputable era. She helps to make it a community place.
The gym door opens on an ever-changing gallery of children, teen-agers and women when Sugar Ray is there. The car outside the gym door -- not in the parking lot -- is a black, custom-made Mercedes-Benz with license tags that read BOXER. The car says that the champ is in his office. But most of the people at the door can't believe Sugar Ray is there. Every five minutes another child will push to the front and say, "That ain't him."
After showering and dressing Sugar Ray stands in a corner of the gym watching the fighters, trainers, fans and parents flow around him. Someone yells over that his wife, Juanita, is on the phone. She wants to know what time he will be home and does he want dinner. The champ says 7:30 and yes. He is tossing up a grapefruit and casually signing autographs.
Sugar Ray is relaxed in the gym. It may be his refuge from the glitter side of boxing as much as it is a refuge for some uneducated, unemployed, unknown fighter who makes the gym the one place he really belongs in Washington.
"The gym in Palmer Park helped me out," Sugar Ray says. "It kept me off the streets. A young man can be doing so many things, whatever is in the streets. It helps to keep you head straight."
He disagrees when someone suggests most of the boys in the gym are fooling themselves by thinking they could be the next Sugar Ray.
"If they have that much confidence," he says, "I say go ahead. Do it. I don't think a lot of them realize what it takes to be the champion. But if that's their dream, good.
"Some of these kids have so much talent," he adds. "When I was 14, 2 was uncoordinated. I really didn't get in the grove until I was 16."
If the Oakecrest gym is a fight move and Sugar Ray is the star, then trainer, "Jake" Jacobs is the producer, the man behind the scenes.
Past the fight ring is Jake's office. Pictures and awards of Jake's career as a trainer and a fighter are on the walls. In one yellow picture is a slim, young Dave Jacobs, a featherweight at 126 pounds fighting out of Washington's Turner gym at 14th and W Streets NW during the 1940s. Jacobs, a young man from Southeast, won the Golden Gloves for the Washington area and the Amateur Athletic Union Championship. He lost the AAU nationals in the semi-finals, he says. In 1951 he got married and quit because he couldn't make enough money to support a family.
"I could have gone a long way with a steady coach," Jacobs, the steady coach, says.
About 30 fighters are regulars at the Oakcrest gym, seven or eight go full blast in training daily. After a Leonard fight or amateur bout on TV, five or six newcomers will arrive. If two of the six stay after a week or one time in the ring, whichever comes first, Jake says he is surprised. Any boxer who pays a $3 fee to the Park & Planning Commission can use the gym. But loudmouth young fighters who don't respect Jake and abide by the laws he has taped to the walls are told to leave.
Jake doesn't work with every fighter. His assistants, like Dave Zimmerman, who fought with Jacobs at Turner's gym, handle the daily traffic. jake concentrates on Leonard, fighters approching big bouts, or good fighters who have come specifically to work with him. He may stop to give a pointer to a young fighter, but when there is no big fight around the corner, Jake is usually on the phone.
"The phone is important", Jake says, a red stopwatch in his hand to time fighters going three or five minutes at shadow boxing, on the speed bag, the heavy bag or sparring. "A good trainer has got to be known and know what's going on . . . its influence. It protects your fighters. You have got to have been there on a national level and get to be known by the people who run the fights."
Among boxing peopling in this area Jacobs' influence is respected. Influence can mean the difference, they say, between defeat and victory if the fight judges know that one fighter is managed or trained by Jacobs. Influence means Jake's fighters know what qualifying bouts to enter for national tournaments or the Olympics. And Jake's influence with amateur boxing groups means he can sometimes get grants to take fighters in his camp on trips across the country and overseas, no small benefit to a poor kid from Southeast who hasn't been to Georgetown.
"Fighting has politics just like everythng else in life," is all Jacobs will say on the record about his influence. But he is not a modest man. One sign on the wall in the gym reminds fighters not to forget "the bridge that carried you over when you get there."
"When you get famous," Jake says, "then everyone was your trainer or is your trainer. The trainer is the guy that has been in the gym with you when you didn't have it. A trainer says, 'I'll be in the gym with you every day.' That's what I do. I'm a trainer. I don't start training them when they become famous.
"People come to me to train," he says, "because they know Dave Jacobs did it all -- national championships, international championships, Pan-American games in '75, Olympics in '76."
Jake's need for attention and acclaim sometimes makes for tense moments with the young man he helped to become a celebrity. Jacobs and Leonard have fought over Jacobs' percentage of the fighter's earnings. Neither will talk about how the matter was settled. But the relationship has changed from older man-younger man to man-to-man.
Jacobs will say that money is all right. But when you get down to talking about money, money is something getting between fighters and fighting."
For Leonard's upcoming fight with Roberto Duran, Jake says he is helping Ray to plot to stay away from Duran, who is said to be a dirty fighter who will butt an opponent, throw a low punch or kick a man in the ankle to win. To keep Leonard out of Duran's way, Jacobs is working on keeping his fighter out of corners, off the ropes. Leonard's training for the fight did not begin seriously until late May. At one point the champ took a few days off because of an accident (his jump rope hit a bulb and broke it over his head) that resulted in a cut on his arm. But Leonard stays in shape. He runs every other day when no in training.
When Leonard wants to get in shape for a fight, he and Jake first work on getting in top condidition. That means shadow-boxing, working on the punching bags (the small speed bag sharpens his sreflexes) and then sparring.
"Talent doesn't just come," Jacobs says, "I don't think I've ever seen a fighter be dynamite right off. It was a good six or seven months that I was working with Ray Leonard before he started to show some potential. We want through 145 amateur fights. b
Now, with a world champion to his credit, Jacobs says he could quit working with the little kids and no-name fighters. But he doesn't. He appears to love the funky old gym and the fighters just getting started.
"Today a lot of kids think they can be another Ray Leonard," he says. "They're wrong. There is only one . . . they don't realize all the work he had to do, all the work they would have to do. You have to pay to be a champion." CAPTION: Cover Picture, no caption; Pictures 1 and 2, Mike Johnson shares a room with his sister at home. He has been training at the Oakcrest gym for two years, since he was 19, but in a Golden Gloves tournament in March he broke his hand delivering a powerful punch to the lead of another fighter. The gloves on the bed were specially made for him. Ricky Patterson slugs away at a punching bag. Patterson, who has won three fights and lost two, works at a job each day from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. then trains at the gym until 6 p.m.; Picture 3, Willie Sanders exercises his neck muscles at the Oakcrest gym in Oxon Hill. About 30 would-be fighters regularly work out in the gym, opened by the Maryland-National Capital Park & Planning Commission.; Pictures 4 through 6, three of many junior fighters who pass through the gym, especially numerous after a big fight on television. Many don't return after their first sparring match.; Picture 7, Ricky Patterson lost out on the possibility of Olympic gold, amateur trips and experience because as a favor to a promoter he fought in a professional fight -- for $120 -- after only a short amateur career.; Picture 8, Dave Jacobs, Sugar Ray Leonard's trainer, who oversees the Oakcrest gym in Oxon Hill where Ray and young hopeful fighters work out. Photographs By Breton Littlehales