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."
Shaborn turns but doesn't move.
"Get out of there, Shaborn."
Shaborn steps out of the ring, looking down at the floor. Hunter puts an arm around him and whispers: "Don't try to hide an injury from me, Sha-Sha. That doesn't do anybody any good."
The kid won't lift his head. Hunter begins massaging the boy's left shoulder and talking to the others who are watching. "Shaborn strained the shoulder," he says. "It happens. Young fighters' bodies and muscles aren't completely developed. Only thing we can do is rest it for a couple of days."
Shaborn keeps staring at the floor, a storm building inside him. He wanted to show off his stuff in front of a reporter. His frustration becomes too much. He plops onto a folding chair and begins sobbing, his head buried in the crook of his arms. He may be the toughest 13-year-old from his weight class in all of Washington, and perhaps the country, but he is still a child, and the child in him has momentarily overwhelmed the stoic, muscled fighter. Hunter pats his back, murmuring: "Hey, Sha-Sha, hey, baby, it's not that bad. It's gonna be okay. There'll be other days to spar."
Shaborn is inconsolable. From across the gym, two older fighters, a pair of brothers who began boxing with Hunter when they were about 10 years old, hurriedly stride over. Twenty-one-year-old Lamont and 20-year-old Anthony
Peterson won National Silver Gloves championships in the mid-1990s, and each went on to become a National Golden Gloves champion, coming within one opponent of making the 2004 U.S. Olympic boxing team. Now they are undefeated professionals, training long hours in hopes of becoming contenders for lucrative fights and championships.
What's wrong? the brothers ask.
Hunter shrugs. "Just strained his shoulder a little." Shaborn still hasn't looked up, and Hunter massages his neck. "You know what, Shaborn?" Hunter says, talking down into Shaborn's arms where that little head is buried. "These guys cried, too, when they couldn't fight. I remember when an opponent pulled out of a fight against Lamont, and he cried and cried. Didn't you, Lamont?"
Lamont rubs his slight mustache contemplatively: "Yeah, I remember that. Got me mad."
Hunter smiles. "Anthony's cried, too, when he was little. Anthony hurt his shoulder when he was, like, 14."
Anthony pulls on his short goatee. He laughs loudly, leaning over and talking in Shaborn's ear: "Baby, I had a lot of pain. Just comes with the work." He rubs Shaborn's head. "You're okay, baby."
Hunter cries out, "You hear that, Sha-Sha?" Hunter is tickling his neck. "Hey, I think I see him smiling deep down there." Shaborn jerks his head up, eyes drying.
"You're gonna be okay, Sha?" Hunter asks, putting a sock full of ice on the shoulder. "We're just being on the safe side here. All right? You all right?"
The kid shrugs. The storm is over.
"Good," Hunter says. "Now I have something else I want to say." He pulls on Shaborn's hair, which has puffed out into an Afro too big for Hunter's tastes. "I want this cut. You're a Headbanger. And Headbangers are good-looking guys, clean."
"Clean," echoes a laughing Anthony.
"I want this thing cut this week," Hunter says.
"Cut," Anthony booms, strolling off with Lamont to resume their workouts.
Shaborn watches the two stars cross over to the other side of the gym.
"Lamont and Anthony have sacrificed; they work hard, and they do everything right, Sha-Sha," Hunter says. "That's what it takes."
"I know," Shaborn says.
"If you want to be the baddest, you gotta train like the baddest," Hunter adds.
"Are you ready to do that?"
"You gotta stay away from the crap out there. And you know what I'm talking about."
"Biggest problem is not in here but out there. The streets snatch a lot of people. And we're not gonna let that happen to you, are we? You ready for all that?"
"Because not everybody's ready, Sha-Sha. I've had this talk with jokers before. A lot of the best ones don't make it."
"So what are you gonna be?"
"I'm gonna make it."
"Good. Get your hair cut."
In 2003, a local boxing enthusiast introduced Barry Hunter to 20 kids who thought they wanted to box, dreamers, as Hunter remembers, already fantasizing about knockouts and championships, girls and cars, street reps and riches. Among them was Shaborn, who was brought to the gym because some people had glimpsed him in a neighborhood street fight, which ended with Shaborn thumping a kid whom he believed had tried to steal one of his video games. His mother, who recalled seeing him defiantly fight four kids at once, was enthusiastic about the idea of having her son in a sport where the poundings he administered might someday result in laurels and money. "He has a temper sometimes; might as well have it go to something good, where it's a blessing," she says.
Hunter studied Shaborn and the others in his group and, as he always does with new kids, asked them if they truly wanted to box. He cautioned that it was hard and that it would be painful. A few dropped out that instant. The rest took their places in the sweatbox that is the non-air-conditioned, poorly ventilated Bald Eagle, and began the ordeal of routine training -- calisthenics, running and long sessions learning proper punching technique -- the prerequisite to any sparring there, the grind before the even harder grind of coping with bruises and blood. As the beginners left that day, Hunter admonished them: "Don't let me catch you eating no fatty crap." Bald Eagle is boot camp without a chow line: Shaborn Ryals lost about 20 percent of his body weight in just three months, going from 130 to a rough-hewn 105.
Steadily, members of his group dropped out, particularly as sparring began and kids got hit. "Some of them were pretty good," Hunter remembers. "A few seemed to have some talent. But they couldn't hang in."
During Shaborn's first months at Bald Eagle, Hunter studied his expression for traces of self-doubt and fear. "Most kids go on defense and into a shell when they get hit," Hunter says. "But Shaborn was always on offense, no matter what was happening. He took his beatings for a long time. But then one day he cracked a big shot [on a sparring partner], and we realized we had something."
Most fighters at Bald Eagle need several years to become contenders for a national title. That it took Shaborn only a year before Hunter entered him in major youth tournaments caught the attention of the Peterson brothers, who took Shaborn under their wing. "I'm just not gonna let what happened to other guys from here happen to Shaborn," Anthony Peterson says. "We're losing too many kids. If I see him on the streets at the wrong time, I'm gonna pull him off. I go by his neighborhood sometimes. It's a tough place."
The place is Congress Park, part of a hardscrabble community in Southeast Washington known as Congress Heights, where despair, like crime and poverty, is more acute than in the city as a whole, says Sandra Seegars, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the District. Over the years, teddy bears tied to poles and trees -- or liquor bottles lashed to posts -- have come to signify sites where people, usually the young, have been murdered. "Congress Park has gotta be one of the toughest projects around," Anthony Peterson says. "That's no place for a little dawg like Shaborn. Temptation and danger are all around that place."
Shaborn lives there with his 8-year-old brother, his 18-year-old sister and her baby daughter, and his single mother, Crystal Ryals, who works for a city agency during the day and spends her nights wondering, among other things, whether she'll ever be able to get her family out of this neighborhood. "I wish he never had to be around here at night," she says. "Nice people here, but nothing but trouble here."
Late one Saturday night last year, Anthony Peterson bid goodnight to a friend in Congress Park and started out of the neighborhood, only to be startled by the sight of Shaborn sitting with another kid alongside one of the gates leading to the playground of Malcolm X Elementary School. Drug dealers, Peterson later recalls, were selling on the playground's basketball courts.
Storming across the street, Peterson snapped at Shaborn, as both remember, "What are you doing here?"
Shaborn said he was just hanging out.
"Get your ass home now," Peterson said.
"Get your ass home now."
Shaborn began trudging off.
"Take this," Peterson commanded, giving him a $20 bill. "Get out of here."
Shaborn knows that people have been keeping an eye on him since his expulsion last year, after which he had to wait for several weeks before being admitted into an alternative school. Angry and depressed, he used the time, with the blessing of his mother and Hunter, to leave Washington and spend about a month with his father, Anthony Orr, a security guard in New York City.
But when he arrived back home in Congress Park, Shaborn did not immediately return to the gym. He knew he had fallen out of shape while in New York, and he was dreading the sweat and pain necessary to regain his conditioning.
Hunter put in a phone call to Shaborn that went unreturned. The trainer began worrying. He knew it was hard for kids to maintain their fervor for training, that boxing's grind was unforgiving and little bodies and spirits sometimes broke down. There came a point, he believed, when many kids needed to slip away from the gym for a while. But he also knew that too much time away usually led to trouble.
Over the years, several of Hunter's wandering fighters succumbed to drugs or other temptations. One was now paralyzed after being shot, and more than a few others were drifting on the streets.
"It was a lesson I had to learn," Hunter says. "The streets are the black hole. Their pull is just too damn strong, man. Nowadays if kids don't show up for a while or seem headed for trouble, I just snatch them. I snatch 'em and get them back here with me and Lamont and Ant and everybody else who cares about them. Shaborn is living in a dangerous area, and he's young. He could flip; he could go from all that's good in his life right now to something that worries us. I'm not gonna take a chance on that happening."
When the prodigy was still AWOL after a few days, Hunter climbed into his pickup and drove to Congress Park, where he saw Shaborn near his house. The boy looked surprised, Hunter thought.
"Get your stuff, and let's go," Hunter ordered.
Soon, the fighter had regained his fitness and, within three months, was a Silver Gloves champion, his boxing success coinciding with his improvement at his alternative school. There he received an A-plus in a history class for his report on the life of Muhammad Ali, and recently he earned permission to return to a regular public school.
By this summer, Hunter could not be happier about Shaborn's growth in and out of the ring. Late one afternoon, during a break in a sparring session, Shaborn is showing off his new haircut, his neatly coiffed braids. "What do you think, B?" Shaborn asks.
"Clean," Hunter pronounces, wrapping a pair of beefy forearms around Shaborn, running a hand over the braids. "Image is everything."
"Sha-Sha," Anthony Peterson chortles. "The ladies like him."
"Barry doesn't let us get away with looking anything but good," Lamont Peterson notes, smiling. "Especially when anybody has a fight coming up."
Shaborn has a tournament approaching in Georgia, where he will be moving up in competition from the 112-pound class to the 125-pound class. He has been thinking of little else.
"You nervous, dawg?" Anthony asks.
"No, man," Shaborn answers.
"More pressure on you now," Anthony points out. "You're a champ."
"I know." Shaborn smiles. "I'm gonna stay that way."
But with the tournament only two weeks away, he is showing signs of stress. He has been sleepwalking, says his worried mother, who was recently stunned to discover the front door to their apartment open at 3 a.m. and an open-eyed Shaborn standing outside it in a trance. He was running in place and howling at the street: "Come on, come on, I'm ready to fight."
At the end of the workout on this humid night, Shaborn steps outside the gym, sweating profusely and wearily waiting on Hunter, who will drive him home. Shaborn stares up at the sky. "I don't get to do a lot of things other kids do," he says, meaning he can't play basketball or hang out with his friends as much as he'd like. "But it's worth it. I might be a champion someday."
Hunter has been listening from behind. "Let me ask you something," he says to Shaborn. "Why do you think the sky is so dark but you can always see the stars?"
"Because the stars stand out, Sha-Sha. The stars are so bright. Doesn't matter that the sky is dark, or that anything else in the whole world is dark. The true star stands out no matter how dark everything else gets." A pause. "The true star stands out, Shaborn."
"What are you gonna do when you get home?" Hunter asks.
"Good." Hunter looks him over and climbs into his truck. "No going out, no hanging out."
The two stand there, in the rutted dirt parking lot of Bald Eagle, saying their goodbyes to other boxers and adults, when a clap of thunder interrupts. In the next moment, a warm rain is coming down in sheets. Kids scatter. Adults yell for children to pile into cars. Shaborn doesn't move. "Feels goooood," he says.
"Okay, Sha-Sha, let's go," Hunter says, climbing in his truck and starting it up.
Shaborn doesn't hear. He lifts his head toward the sky. The rain is pelting him.
The kid closes his eyes, smiling beatifically.
"Shaborn, get in the truck."
Barry Hunter arises at 5:30 on most mornings at his Fort Washington home, walks his dog, helps get his four children to school and goes off to work as head of his own modest construction company. He finishes his work around 5:30 p.m., then hops in his truck and drives toward the Bald Eagle gym. He hates to miss a sparring session, wants to be there to make certain that headgear fits snugly and that children are not overmatched. Several years ago, an aspiring heavyweight on the team collapsed after taking a punch while sparring; he sank into a coma and died. A haunted Hunter contemplated quitting as coach, but decided against it. "Where would these kids go?" he asks.
He has kept this schedule for the last 12 years, since he began guiding the Headbangers as a volunteer coach. It was only two years ago that the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation began giving him a stipend. "I didn't get into this for money," he says. "I did it because I didn't see how I couldn't, you know? It was miserable out there on the streets. I was one of the lucky ones."
Lucky because, at 43, he has a business and a family, while most of his old friends are dead or in penitentiaries, he says. On his right bicep, he has a blue tattoo of a lion being slaughtered by a sword-wielding lamb, alongside a single word: SURVIVOR. He grew up on Ridge Road in Southeast Washington, with three sisters and a devoted mother. "I didn't really have a male role model at home with my father going in and out," he says. "Neither did most of my friends. That's trouble anytime because kids are gonna imitate the men around them on the streets."
He offers this explanation while arriving at the gym, where he makes a point of hugging kids and talking to them before he has to start barking at some of them. All the kids are African American, and more than three-quarters are impoverished, he guesses. He thinks only four or five of the 30 or so current regulars, most of whom are in their early teens, have a serious chance to be successful professional boxers, but that isn't his mission. If he produces a champion, that's great, but he is nearly as excited that one of his ex-fighters has built a stable career in the Coast Guard and another has gone on to college. Mostly what he wants to do is give his boxers a reason to believe.
At 12, Hunter stepped into a public recreation center in Southeast Washington and found that belief in himself, he recalls. "I loved the people at the rec -- just having a few of them take an interest in me made all the difference," he says. "I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life yet, but at least I probably learned to know there what I didn't want to do."
Although he never graduated from high school, he eventually found his way into a supermarket meatpacking job and from there into a carpentry apprenticeship program, which ushered in new confidence. But he always felt that something was missing, something that involved guiding children just as he had been guided. He had liked boxing as a teenager, briefly training as an amateur before drifting away from it. In 1993, he became an assistant at a boxing program operating out of a gym at Lincoln Junior High School in Northwest Washington. Among the first fighters to come under his wing was Patrick "Boogie" Harris, a 21-year-old amateur super-heavyweight who was as troubled outside the ring as he was promising inside it.
"I was just a street guy then," remembers Harris, now an assistant Headbangers trainer. "I was dealing [drugs] sometimes, using drugs, looking for trouble and getting into it. Then Barry talked to me. He was all over me. He told me I was a good man and that there was another life out there. I went to work in a restaurant -- my first job -- and I've never gone back to the old life. No chance that would have happened for me except for Barry. But you can't be any slacker with him. He makes you work."
The weekday evening workouts generally begin with Hunter or Harris opening the small locked gym at about 6 p.m., with the last fighters usually finishing after 9:30 p.m. The team usually trains on Saturday afternoons as well and, as big fights approach, sometimes on Sundays. While Hunter's efforts have rescued several lives, the many years and long nights of his coaching career have sometimes impinged on those closest to him. His wife, Cologne, says, "What he does for his boxers can be consuming, and we've had some issues in the past about how much time it takes Barry away from our family."
Hunter says he feels guilty about that. "Boxing has been my mistress," he says. "It was completely unfair to my family for a long time. I was taking care of kids at the gym but not looking after my own. I missed birthdays. I missed wedding anniversaries. My whole thing with boxing was threatening my family's happiness. I had to atone."
His wife, skeptical at first that Hunter could balance the conflicting demands of home and gym, agrees that he has been giving more of his time to his children, the youngest of whom, 10-year-old Jalil, occasionally trains and spars at the gym. "I think we're finding a happy medium," says Cologne, a meeting planner. "We have a strong family. We know our kids are doing well. Our kids don't suffer from the kinds of problems that a lot of these kids [at the gym] do. I know that's why he's over there. The work he does with those children is important, and I wouldn't want him to stop. We both realize that the gym will always need him."
At the 2005 Ringside Augusta National Junior Boys Summer Boxing Classic in Georgia, Shaborn runs into a difficult semifinal opponent. Jermaine Roach, another Washington fighter in Shaborn's age division, has stepped into the ring weighing 125 pounds and bringing more power than Shaborn, now 123 pounds himself, ever had to endure against 112-pounders. A couple of times, Jermaine's jarring right cross smacks Shaborn's headgear-sheathed jaw, leaving Shaborn momentarily off balance. But Shaborn lands more punches, gradually seizing control of the three-round fight before a crowd of about 500 spectators in an Augusta recreational center. Displaying the fierceness that first attracted the attention of Hunter, Shaborn impassively weathers a hard right in the final 30 seconds and grunts while connecting with a right of his own, knocking Jermaine back to the ropes. He wins a unanimous decision from the panel of five judges, but it hasn't been easy.
"I'll be better tomorrow," Shaborn promises. Jermaine "was a big kid. He hit a little bit hard. But I had more spirit."
He is spent, his chest still heaving several minutes after the fight. A ringside doctor asks him whether he feels okay. "Yeah, okay," Shaborn mumbles, lifting his head to stare at the man, his brown eyes clear, satisfying the physician. The doctor has been busy, carefully checking out several fighters who have suffered one-sided losses, and having the authority to halt a bout if a child appears staggered and also to bar victorious boxers from fighting the next day if he thinks they've taken too many blows.
Shaborn's upcoming opponent for the championship is a Delaware fighter named Omar Douglas, who left his semifinal opponent crumpled on the canvas in the first round. "I don't want to get hit too much by him 'cause he looks like he hits pretty good," Shaborn says.
The next night, Shaborn and the slightly taller Omar enter the ring and shake hands. When the bell rings, they quickly land stiff left jabs against each other's chins, but Omar is connecting with more punches in the early seconds. Shaborn walks into a hard left hook that knocks him back, and then another. At the bell, he trudges back to his corner and plops on his stool. Hunter isn't here, having stayed behind in Washington to work with the Peterson brothers. An assistant coach talks in Shaborn's left ear: "Stay slick, Shaborn. Speed. Don't slug. Box him."
Shaborn fights the second round on even terms and looks dominant in the third, scoring with furious combinations while gasping for breath. Late in the round, Omar's hands drop, and Shaborn lands a jolting left hook. The bell sounds. A confident-looking Shaborn shadowboxes while awaiting the verdict of the five judges.
The public-address announcer takes the microphone to announce the decision: "In this exciting fight," -- Shaborn triumphantly lifts his right hand, waving his index finger -- "the winner . . ."
Shaborn thrusts his index finger higher.
The announcer then calls out the name of Omar Douglas. Shaborn has lost on a 3-2 vote of the judges.
He hurries out of the ring to call Hunter, fuming. "I won, I won, B," he moans. "And they took it from me."
"Doesn't matter what happened, Sha-Sha," Hunter will remember saying later. "I'm proud of you. You gave it your all. It's just one fight. You're going to be one of the great ones. You'll come home, and we'll look at the tape this week and fix whatever weakness is there. We'll get to it this week, all right?"
Hunter stresses "this week," because he likes his fighters back at Bald Eagle as soon as possible after defeats, when they are most vulnerable to becoming depressed and drifting into trouble. "So we'll be working hard every day," he says. Shaborn answers, "Okay."
Hunter never can be sure what will happen to a fighter after a loss. There was a time when he didn't think that a dejected Lamont Peterson, who went missing from the gym for weeks in 2004 after his defeat in the Olympic Trials, would ever return. But then, Lamont had fought back from greater traumas than any loss suffered in the ring.
Back in the early '90s, the small, intense Lamont Peterson began showing up at the gym with Boogie Harris, who introduced Lamont as a brother of Harris's future wife, Takisha. Though only 8 years old, Lamont already loved to fight. He was so skilled at it that Harris often paid him a few bucks to perform a service: Beat up kids in the neighborhood who got on Harris's nerves. It was cruel work but far easier than the rest of the child's life. Hungry and in and out of a Washington homeless shelter with several of his 11 siblings, Lamont wandered the streets with his younger brother Anthony. During summers, they washed car windows at intersections with squeegees, taking whatever people gave them. Then they took to stealing. Lamont ripped purses off women's shoulders. Anthony pickpocketed drunks. Together, they helped cut up crack cocaine for dealers who'd give them a few dollars.
At night, they often slept in cars with some of their siblings. When there was no car available, they tried to close their eyes at the downtown Greyhound bus terminal, only to be chased off by attendants. With their father incarcerated on a drug offense and their mother struggling, some of their older siblings began going their own ways. Lamont and Anthony learned to depend on each other. Occasionally, they walked miles to their grandfather's crowded house and, when turned away, sneaked through a window into the basement, where they remember sleeping amid scurrying rats. When they had absolutely nowhere to go, the two simply walked until daylight, or rode for hours on a bus.
The life was hardening their hearts, Harris thought. He asked Hunter to take a look at Lamont in the ring, but just as Hunter was preparing to work with the child, Lamont and Anthony were placed in a foster home for the next two years.
By the time the Petersons' father had been released from prison and regained custody of the kids in 1994, Lamont was 10 and Anthony was 9. After the family had settled into a new home, Hunter paid them a visit. The 65-pound Lamont swiftly became a fixture on the Headbangers squad, of which Hunter had become head coach. Within a year, Anthony joined the team. The two Peterson kids were on their way to capturing Silver Glove championships.
Hunter's relationship with the brothers deepened as their father, Julius, was spending much of his time away from home acquiring computer skills at a local school, eventually getting a job in the field. Hunter took the brothers out for meals on days when they said they hadn't eaten. When Lamont had a badly ingrown toenail, Hunter paid for the operation that corrected it. "He didn't ask for anything -- it was like he was the one responsible for us," Lamont says. "He was the man we paid attention to, because he was the man who cared most."
He gave them money for school and bought them shirts and pants, telling them to look neat. "He was determined that we weren't gonna fail, I guess," Anthony says.
Anthony and Lamont had lapses. As teens, they say, they went missing from the gym for months at a time while they used drugs and sold them. Then they'd return to train before tournaments, which they began losing. The two brothers' mounting ring setbacks drove them from the gym for even longer periods.
"I thought I was losing them," Hunter says. "I didn't know what to do."
"We made life pretty bad for Barry," Anthony remembers. "We'd come back for a few days, say we were fine, train a little, party all night before our fights, and get our asses beat."
By 17, Anthony had dropped out of high school and fallen deeper into drugs. And he was scared for Lamont, who was selling drugs on street corners. Nothing in Anthony's life mattered to him half as much as Lamont. Desperate, he turned to Hunter.
Hunter found Lamont on the street in a Southeast neighborhood. "You took everything I gave you for granted," he remembers screaming. "I'm done with you." He drove off.
Two weeks later, his phone rang. For a while, the caller said nothing. Finally, there came a mutter from the other end, "B?"
Lamont was ready to come back. Within three months, he rebounded to win the 2001 National Golden Gloves championship in the 132-pound division. A resurgent Anthony won the 2003 National Golden Gloves in the 132-pound division. USA Boxing, the sanctioning body of amateur fighters in America, honored Hunter as its volunteer coach of the year, and he was selected as an American boxing coach at the 2003 Pan American Games, where Lamont fought as a U.S. representative. Inspired by his coach, Anthony had a word tattooed on his chest: "Survival."
Harold Parker is a ghost haunting Bald Eagle. Perhaps the best 13-year-old fighter ever trained by Hunter, the rangy Parker won three Silver Gloves championships and four other prestigious youth tournaments by the time he was 15. As Hunter and the Peterson brothers tell the story, Parker had the fiercest of wills and the ability to throw barrages of punches even while being bombarded. "He'd win these big fights, and afterward you'd have these adults rushing him for his autograph," Hunter recalls with a smile.
But Parker, now 18, hasn't fought inside a ring in three years. He has seldom been around the gym in that time, having been arrested more than once and gotten caught up in drugs for a while, by his own admission. He dropped out of high school and has put on about 60 pounds since his peak fighting days. "Harold is wandering out there, which breaks my heart, because he's my baby, I love him," Hunter says. Anthony Peterson, who, back in 2001, introduced Parker to whiskey and marijuana, drops his head in regret.
"There may be only one Harold when it comes to boxing," Anthony says, glancing at Shaborn, "but there are a lot of good fighters I know who've gotten sucked up by the streets. It can happen to anyone."
His defeat in the Georgia tournament has not left Shaborn AWOL or depressed. A relieved Hunter takes the young fighter and his mother to dinner at Outback Steakhouse, telling her how proud he is of Shaborn's progress.
Crystal Ryals beams. "To be honest, I've never been worried about him in fistfights," she says. "But now people his age are growing up and carrying guns."
"Hate breeds hate," Hunter says.
"So my Shaborn's a good fighter, isn't he?" she asks.
"He sure is."
"He can do big things, can't he? . . . I just want him to have a better life, a real safe one," Crystal says solemnly.
"He's gonna be one of the best jokers we've ever had, Crystal."
Shaborn looks back and forth at the adults.
"Want to hear something else exciting?" Hunter lifts a finger, ready to disclose his big plan: "We all hope to see Shaborn Ryals on television someday."
Crystal throws her head back, trying to imagine this. "Wouldn't that be something?" she says. "I'd invite my friends over." She can see it. "My Shaborn. It would be beautiful."
One day the ghost appears, showing up at Bald Eagle to watch the Headbangers train. An exultant Hunter, who reached Parker the day before at his mother's home, hugs his former champion long and hard. Shaborn briefly pauses from his work on a punching bag to look at the coach and the old legend entwined. Anthony Peterson, lifting his head while hitting another bag, acknowledges Parker with a quick nod. Anthony calls out to his brother, "Hey, Lamont, who does Shaborn look like to you when he throws those combinations of his and never stops?"
Lamont, shadowboxing in the ring, calls out: "Harold Parker at 13. No doubt."
Parker laughs. Shaborn laughs. He has heard the brothers say this so often that it is like the routine of a comedy team: Everything he does reminds them of Harold Parker.
"Yeah, Shaborn is Baby Harold," Anthony happily shouts. "He's the reincarnation. Same movement, same combinations. Same personality, same willpower. Yeah, we're going to have to call him Baby Harold, and that's the highest praise."
A round-faced Parker sits on a folding chair in street clothes, adjusting a Chicago White Sox cap on his head, fiddling with a silver chain hanging around his neck, looking around, unsure what to do. In a minute, Hunter has found a videotape he wants, popping it into a VCR and pointing at the gym's TV screen. Suddenly, Parker is looking at himself as a skinny, baby-faced 12-year-old.
"Oh, man," he laughs, but quickly falls silent, cupping his face in his hands. He watches himself hitting a heavy bag, listening to a TV reporter talk about him on a local newscast in 1999.
"If you love Pernell Whitaker," the reporter says, invoking the name of a boxing superstar, "you'll love this kid. Harold Parker is not your average 12-year-old. He's a boxing prodigy. Harold maintains an A average and trains three to four hours a day. He hopes to make the 2004 Olympic team, and his ultimate goal is to turn pro."
"Harold, you were a million-dollar baby then," Hunter calls out.
The TV report ends, and the tape segues to a fight showcasing a 95-pound, 12-year-old Parker at a gym in Northwest Washington. The gym is packed with frenzied adults screaming for the young Parker against a nimble, quick-handed opponent, the two combatants trading jarring punches.
Shaborn sits in a chair next to Parker, darting his head and shadowboxing the air in rhythm with the movements of the fighters on the screen, crying out with pleasure when Parker lands a hard combination.
"They called this fight 'The Brawl for It All,'" Hunter shouts. "It was the fight for bragging rights around here. It was Harold against the only kid in his weight class from this area who could ever give him a real good fight, Devaun Drayton."
"Devaun looks pretty good," Shaborn says, then turns to Parker and quickly adds, "but you're landing more."
"Harold is applying way too much pressure for him," Hunter says. "Devaun can't keep up." Hunter walks over to Parker's folding chair and pats him on a shoulder, gesturing at the screen. "Look at that, Harold. Look at the million-dollar baby there. We're going back in time."
"Relentless," Hunter screams. "Going back in time."
When Parker lands a barrage of punches against the retreating foe in the third round, the referee stops the fight and declares Parker the winner. On screen, Parker jumps on the ring ropes and waves to the delirious crowd. The defeated Devaun walks back to his corner.
"What is that other kid doing now?" a young Headbanger asks. "He fought a good fight."
"He's dead," Hunter says. Devaun Drayton was shot last year at age 17; his body was found behind Phelps Career Senior High School, in Northeast Washington.
"He was tough," Parker says softly. "He was a friend."
The tape ends. Parker sits there for a minute, not moving, starring at the blank screen. Then he steps into a hallway. "I think Barry showed that to me to get me to come back and train," he says later. "I was sitting there feeling like I need to get back and make people proud of me again . . . I shouldn't have kind of gone off like I did, but I did."
He ponders why. "I was getting distracted," he says. "When I was young, I wanted to see what things were like. Anthony and I were slacking together, drinking and smoking weed . . . Anthony realized what was happening. He changed his life back. I was being big-headed. Then I lost, and it took me down. I haven't fought for, oh, man, what? Three years?" He sounds amazed, thinking that over. "Yeah, three years." He shakes his head.
The thing is, he says, "Once you get out of shape, it gets hard to want to come back in this sport. It's kind of a trap -- I think about Barry getting on me. He wouldn't let me slack. And I know it would hurt. I tell Shaborn: 'Stay focused. Don't fall out.'"
Parker says Shaborn, "reminds me a lot of me . . . I just say to him: 'Stay away from people with no dreams. Stay away from violence and drugs.'"
He takes off his White Sox cap and gently pounds his left fist into it. He grins suddenly. "I just decided: I'm coming back. I'm coming to the gym next week, and I'm gonna start training, and I'm gonna dedicate myself." He stands and walks back into the gym to let Hunter and the Peterson brothers know that he'll see them for training. He hugs them goodbye for now, wishing Shaborn luck, throwing a left hook at the air on his way out. "See you Monday," he says over his shoulder.
"We love ya, Sweet Harold," Hunter says.
"I want to believe," Hunter says after Parker is gone. "But I've heard that talk from him before." There is hardly a pause before the gym falls back into its familiar rhythms -- small fists thumping bags and bodies, little feet jumping rope.
After Lamont Peterson wins a summer fight, telecast by ESPN-2 at a Mississippi casino, Anthony Peterson travels with Hunter to Memphis to fight as a lightweight on the same network. "I can't even be thinking about anything except Ant's fight tonight," says Shaborn, who sits at home in front of his television as Anthony gets ready to enter the ring.
The younger Peterson, whose 10-0 record at that point includes five straight knockouts, faces Texan Carlos Valdez, who, at 37, has lost four of his past five fights.
From the opening bell, Valdez takes a methodical beating, as a rapt Shaborn listens in awe to the ESPN announcers lauding the skill of Peterson and the training expertise of Hunter. Commentator Teddy Atlas, a respected trainer who worked with Mike Tyson during his amateur days, sings the praises of the Headbangers' style and approach. As Peterson pounds Valdez's body, Atlas says: "You see good technique [from Peterson]. He's not going head crazy [with his punches]. That's good teaching. You put together talent and good teaching, and you usually have a prospect, and then you usually have a contender . . . Barry Hunter has done a terrific job in and out of the ring."
In the sixth round, with a nearly defenseless Valdez bleeding from a cut lip and Peterson hitting him at will, the referee stops the fight. While Hunter takes off Anthony's gloves, an ecstatic Peterson does an interview with ESPN, pausing to thank his friends back in Washington. "This one is for Shaborn . . . and for all the people back home," he says.
For an instant, in his apartment, a shocked Shaborn cannot believe what he has heard. As his mother will later recall, he explodes in the next moment, shouting: "I told you, Mom. Anthony and Lamont are tight with me . . . I'm gonna be just like them." He is out his front door and on to the streets, to tell his friends about his good fortune: his friendship with the Petersons; the calling out of his name on national television; his happiness over being with B.
Then he is back in his apartment, his future clearer than ever to him. "When I go pro," he promises, "I'll say Anthony's name in the ring for him just like he said it for me . . . Barry said to me, 'Keep up the good work until I get home.' I'm so into this right now that there ain't nothing that can stop me. If you train hard and live right, you will get it. And I'm gonna do everything right."
Despite his high-profile victory, Anthony Peterson feels tired -- tired of his own worries, tired of walking the streets of his Southeast neighborhood wondering if he'll get shot if he looks at the wrong person, tired of thinking he might be robbed and killed because he's made the mistake of forgetting to close his ground-floor bedroom window at night.
In fact, he has begun leaving his bedroom window open on purpose, his own protest against some bleakness he feels hovering. Late one afternoon, with the sun slowly falling, he is standing outside the bedroom window, which faces dense woods. Idyllic sounds come from the woods -- the chirping of birds, the rustling of tree branches as small animals do their acrobatics. But Anthony hears something else. "It's gonna start happening soon out there," he says. "See, it's peaceful in the woods for a little while, but then when it starts getting to be night, they come out, and they be fighting. Possums and raccoons and little foxes and rodents, they be fighting in the dark, killing sometimes. It's a tough world for everything."
He reaches up toward a ledge just beneath his window. "People could climb up on this little ledge and shoot me right through the open window," he says. "But I don't think I should have to be afraid. If I'm afraid of my own people, I don't want to be here. I mean, I don't want to be on the planet if it's that way. Just bleed and die. I don't want anyone to be afraid . . . That's why I want to keep Shaborn and the other kids as much as we can and help them stay away from what we had to go through."
Careful not to preach much, he tries instead to show Shaborn some fun, frequently taking him and a large group of other young Headbangers to the movies. On a Saturday, the kids howl through a matinee screening of "The Longest Yard," while a grinning Anthony, who paid about $90 for their tickets, thinks he finally understands what Hunter meant long ago when he said that giving something to kids gave him a better feeling than any boxing triumph.
Later that night, Anthony and Lamont host a sleepover at their apartment, with the Headbangers settling down to watch a televised fight. Shaborn claims a spot in front of the television, shadowboxing the air as the network commentators discuss prominent fighters in Lamont's 140-pound weight class, boxing's junior-welterweight division, running down a list of names that does not include Lamont's. Shaborn chirps: "Lamont will beat all those guys someday. Lamont will be champion."
"Sha-Sha speaking the truth," Anthony cries.
Shaborn looks over his shoulder at Lamont. "You in such good condition that you'll be one of those dudes who fights to like 39 or 40."
"No." Lamont smiles at Shaborn and shakes his head. "I'm 21. I've been boxing since I was, like, 10, Homes. That's 10, 11 years. I got 10 more years of boxing left in me. That'll be 20 years boxing. That's all. It's hard on the body. Twenty years. Then I go do something else."
Shaborn stops shadowboxing. "You want to do something else?"
"It will be time to do something else, Homes."
Anthony cuts in. "I'm gonna retire between 28 and 32. Boxing is just a profession, Sha-Sha. It's not your life, not forever. Gotta be something else."
"Everybody has gotta figure that out," Anthony says.
Shaborn shrugs. "Yeah, maybe have a gym. Do what B does."
Anthony nods. "Yeah. Helping your butt."
The teenager laughs.
The next Monday, Shaborn is getting ready for his gym workout with Hunter when he blurts something that has been on his mind. "I'd like to be Lamont's and Ant's brother," he says.
"Well, don't say that," Hunter admonishes.
Shaborn looks confused.
Hunter says, "They're already your brothers, Sha-Sha."
It is another week in 12 years of such weeks for Barry Hunter's Headbangers, a week full of small victories and setbacks. Hearing about the report card of a boxer who has brought home all A's and B's, Hunter rejoices, hugging the child, yelling for everyone to hear, "We produce winners here." An hour later, as Anthony Peterson and Shaborn pound heavy bags, a furious Hunter erupts. He is demanding an explanation from a young boxer who has been accused of picking on another young fighter, pushing and hitting him. "I will not tolerate that bullying [expletive]," Hunter yells. "I am not gonna have any thugs here, you understand? What are you doing? Don't you dare give me that threatening look. If I catch you messing with that child or any child again, you are gone. Do you understand? Gone."
Soon afterward, following a second offense, Hunter throws out the accused fighter for good. He wants everyone to understand the moral in the banishment: Only the responsible and hardworking deserve to be Headbangers. Hunter's is the only moral code that the Peterson brothers have ever believed in, and the one that they and their trainer hope has been instilled for good in Shaborn, who at that moment is nearing his 14th birthday.
One of Hunter's techniques has not changed much in the many years since he first jolted the very young Peterson brothers and several other promising Headbangers with a chilling forecast: One or two in their group would likely end up shot or in jail; a couple of others might trade their dreams for drugs. He hates to sound so gloomy, but he believes he owes kids a wake-up call.
"Some of you jokers might not make it," Hunter tells a small group of young boxers one afternoon. And with that the ghost of Harold Parker is summoned again. Despite his vow earlier in the summer to return to training immediately, Parker has not been back. He won't work out for another three months, when he will suddenly join Hunter and the Petersons as they leave during autumn to train temporarily in the Orlando area.
"I think he wanted to get away from Washington and come down to Florida," Hunter will later say around the same time that the Peterson brothers persuade Parker to live with them when they get back to Washington. "I'm all about hope, but I'm still uncertain about him. The real test for Harold is not in Florida; it's what happens when he's home in Washington. . . The emphasis for me is still in Bald Eagle with our babies, like Shaborn. A kid like Shaborn is the future."
Up in the ring late one afternoon, Shaborn is helping to lead some of the youngest boxers in calisthenics. They sweat for an hour, and then four new kids about Shaborn's age walk slowly into the gym and tell Hunter that they want to be boxers.
"You sure?" Hunter asks.
We're sure, the kids whisper.
"You know, it's hot in here," Hunter says. "It gets really hot and muggy. You might pass out in here. You'll get hit, and it'll hurt. You might take a whipping. You sure you want to stay?"
One kid says no.
"What about the rest of you?" he presses. "There's no shame in saying you don't want to do it. It's not for everyone. You three here saying you want to do it? You? You? Yeah?"
Hunter turns and shouts over his shoulder, "Come here, Sha-Sha."
Shaborn walks out of the ring and over to Hunter. Hunter taps Shaborn's shoulder and looks at the three kids. "This is the No. 1 joker in the country at his weight and age," Hunter says. "You might have to get in with him if you're gonna stick around. There's nothing wrong saying you don't want to do it."
The kids stare at Hunter.
Hunter turns to Shaborn. "Shaborn, do you think these dudes can cut it?"
"I think they can," he says, nodding at one of the kids. "I know you. I've seen you."
The kid shyly nods.
Shaborn looks up at Hunter. "Yeah, I think they can."
Hunter nods. "Okay, then. We'll see you tomorrow. Look for Shaborn. He'll help take you through the calisthenics."
The kids move on. Coach and prodigy look at each other, smiling slyly, something passing between them. "Thanks for that, Sha-Sha," Hunter murmurs, to which Shaborn says, "Okay, B."
Michael Leahy is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.