As sweat and tension filled the school gymnasium, the two boxers -- one a former highly ranked amateur, the other a feisty high school junior -- stepped onto the canvas and sized each other up.
In one corner, weighing in at a bulky 210 pounds, was Stennis Floyd II, 37, a Golden Gloves regional champion-turned-coach. In the other, weighing 150, was Miguel Cipriani, an 18-year-old busboy and aspiring automotive technician.
With parents aiming video cameras and students shouting, the two gladiators began sparring. Nice and slow, Floyd told his protege, who was clad in protective head, mouth and groin gear. Floyd landed light jabs to Cipriani's torso and head as the student danced around the ring, swinging with great flair but losing steam fast.
At the end of the round, Cipriani collapsed on his corner stool with his arms hanging on the ropes, and Floyd offered to take on his next opponent. "Give me a minute," Cipriani muttered through his mouthpiece.
The Manassas school division is trying something rare among public schools in the country. This spring, it began a boxing, martial arts and guidance counseling program called 12 Rounds at Osbourn High School, the system's only secondary school.
The three-month after-school class is offered to all students, male and female -- some are from middle school and one is from an elementary school -- but is aimed at those who struggle academically and don't play traditional sports such as football or basketball.
Most of the 30 students spend time learning how to throw and duck an uppercut, but some take advantage of the Thai kickboxing and Filipino stick-fighting lessons taught by a martial arts instructor who works as a computer technician at the Manassas police department.
But school officials say the program's key feature is the counseling session, which occupies the first hour of the two-hour class. Two counselors teach the students to control anger and mediate fights among friends, and encourage them to buckle down on their homework and pursue professional careers.
"We thought the program would meet a lot of resistance, but it didn't. Only some people said they thought the students would use it for other means outside the ring, like we were training them to be gang members," said Brian Maiden, Osbourn High School's guidance counselor. "But we let people know that boxing is a discipline. We covered bullying and anger management and provided tutoring to make sure their grades were strong."
Manassas school officials say they know of no similar programs at public schools. Ramon Rodriguez, the coordinator of 12 Rounds, said he hopes other schools will take notice and follow suit.
Competitive boxing among high schools is not allowed by the state's athletics governing body, the Virginia High School League, according to its executive director, Ken Tilley. "If you're beating on somebody, that is one thing that makes it different than tackling or blocking," he said. "I can only speculate that school administrators would not feel comfortable with that sport in their buildings or programs."
In Manassas, winning approval for a boxing and martial arts program was fairly easy, in part because the 6,700-student school division is so small that the School Board did not have to worry about providing the program at multiple schools to ensure equity.
Maiden, the guidance counselor, and Rodriguez, the division's behavior specialist, said they came up with the idea late last year after noticing a bunch of kids hanging out after school with nothing to do. They believed that boxing and martial arts, despite violent stereotypes magnified by movies and video games, could give them structure and discipline.
In January, the seven-member School Board approved the idea unanimously, said board member Patrick D. Linehan, a former boxer at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The school division shelled out about $20,000 for gloves, punching bags, protective gear and a red, white and blue ring.
The program's students, many of whom are immigrants from Mexico, Peru and Venezuela, said they joined the program to play a sport that does not have a built-in star system, stay away from the area's dominant Hispanic gangs and boost their grades. Some said 12 Rounds helps them control themselves when they get mad at their friends or parents. Others said they simply love to watch boxing, especially the reality show "The Contender," and wanted to try it for themselves.
Floyd said boxing can be both more demanding and safer than team sports. He teaches the students the basics: how to plant their feet, hold up their fists, dodge punches and move side to side.
"I had a couple of football guys who came out in the beginning," he said. They are no longer in the program. "One of the guys said his body was not prepared for the workout. Boxing is like swimming: It helps you develop muscles that you thought you'd never have."
In the counseling portion of the class, Maiden tries to make students accountable for their performance, in the ring and in school. It all comes down to individual decisions every day, he tells them -- and once underscored his point by reciting from memory a long Rudyard Kipling poem ("If you can keep your head when all about you/Are losing theirs and blaming it on you . . . ") about self-empowerment.
"What would prevent you from reaching your goals, and how are you going to get through that?" Maiden asked one student in a recent session.
"When I'm mad, I go to sleep," she said.
"So, what's your roadblock?" he pressed. "Just you?"
She nodded her acceptance of the responsibility.
"Beautiful," he said.
Martial arts coach Nathan Teodoro demonstrates techniques in arnis, a stick-based discipline, as part of Osbourn High's 12 Rounds counseling program.Coach Stennis Floyd II spars with Robert Lloyd at Osbourn High in Manassas. "I had a couple of football guys who came out in the beginning," Floyd said. Both left, he said, with one saying he hadn't counted on the hard workout.