With a pint-sized left hook and a series of Sugar Ray-style steps on matchstick legs, Anthony Fields, 10, stuns his opponent, steps back, then circles for the kill. At ringside inside the Round One Boxing Club in Hyattsville, fans cheer on the artistic pugilist as his father calls for the coup de grace.
"Take his heart," instructs William Fields as his son bobs and weaves around the ring. "Get mean and make me proud."
The young Fields went on to win the semifinal bout Friday night in his 65-pound weight class for the local Golden Gloves championship -- a successful start for a boy who dreams of one day becoming an Olympic star. But in this game of brute strength and sheer will, where the force of a well-toned punch can exceed the pull of gravity on astronauts being blasted into space, dreams can quickly become nightmares.
Last week, John Kevin Gordon, 18, was starting a second round of light sparring at a boxing club near his home in Suitland when he fell to the canvas. He was pronounced dead 25 minutes later at the Greater Southeast Community Hospital.
Gordon was the 12th boxer in the nation to die since November 1982, when Ray "Boom Boom" Mancini fatally punched out Korean boxer Duk Koo Kim in Las Vegas. According to Ring Magazine, 335 deaths have occurred among amateur and professional boxers worldwide between 1945 and 1979.
Such statistics have not dampened the interest in the sport, however, and even though the American Medical Association calls boxing a brain-damaging "throwback to barbarism," for some, the potential rewards outweigh even the risk of death..
"Hearing about a boxer dying in the ring affects me very much," said Darryll Tyson, 20, an amateur turned professional boxer with the House of Champions Boxing Club in Washington. "As a boxer, I think Gordon probably knew he was a little sick. But I understand what it's like to have to box. And I feel that if I have to go, I would like it to happen while doing something that I like."
There are about 15,000 boxers between 10 and 15 years of age registered with the National Amateur Athletic (AAU) Junior Olympic boxing program. Here in the Washington area, known within the AAU as the Potomac Valley Assocation, there are about 500 registered boxers, and about that many who regularly drift in and out of the sport.
The success of Sugar Ray Leonard, who grew up in Palmer Park, Md. and went on to earn more than $40 million in just over four years of professional boxing, has been credited with increased interest and promotion of the sport in this area. Also, completion of Washington Convention Center has made it easier and more profitable to promote fights here.
During the 1960s, there were only five amateur bouts fought in Washington each year, according to the D.C. Boxing Commission. Today, there is at least one a month. Also, there are at least a hundred boxing clubs in the Washington area -- 25 in the Distrct alone -- compared to just a handful a few years ago.
"I just got tired of seeing kids trying to train themselves to fight on the streets," said Pappy Gault, 61, first black coach in the Olympic games, who three years ago opened the House of Champions at 3228 Georgia Ave. "Now police tell us that crime is down in the neighborhood. The preacher next door loves us. The liquor store owner down the street loves us. We have impact on our neighborhood."
But it is not what happens outside the boxing clubs, but inside them that worries opponents of the sport. Even Cora Wilds, chairman of the D.C. Boxing Commission, which regulates and promotes the sport, is concerned about what she says are fights secretly staged to avoid paying sports tax and fight fees, and to get around a regulation requiring that two doctors and a commission-approved fight inspector are present at each fight.
"They claim all of that stuff costs too much," Wilds said. "So we are in a constant battle over cost versus safety."
In the aftermath of Kim's death in 1982, the Journal of the American Medical Association published the findings of a study showing that most boxers -- professional and amateur -- suffer brain damage from successive blows to the head. Noting that Kim's mother, despondent over her son's death, drank poison and killed herself, the Journal editorialized that civilized countries should ban boxing.
"Some have argued that boxing has a redeeming social value in that it allows a few disadvantaged or minority individuals an opportunity to rise to spectacular wealth and fame," one editorial read. "This does occur, but at what price? The price in this country includes chronic brain damage for them and the thousands of others who do not achieve wealth, fame or even a decent living from the ring."
Such arguments are met with sharp disagreement by boxers and boxing officials, who note that college football, motorcycle racing, sky diving and mountain climbing have higher fatality rates. But it is the nature of boxing itself that proponents say is most misunderstood.
"We teach respect, manners, sportsmanship and discipline," says Rick Bowlding, coordinator for the D.C. Recreation Department's boxing program. "Nobody is out looking for blood. It's about machoism one-on-one: Am I a better man, and can I prove it in a wholesome environment?"
Says William Fields, who has four sons in boxing competition, with two expected to be contenders for the 1988 Olympic Games: "Being black, you can't completely dismiss what is said about exploitation. But the fact of the matter is that I had four boys who liked to fight each other all the time and I had to find something for them to do.
"The idea that they could die in the ring makes me take them to the doctor for regular checkups," said Fields, an employe with the D.C. Department of Environmental Services. "After that, it's about courage and confidence and how proud they can make me feel."
The Fields family, which lives in Landover, traveled to the Round One Gym Friday night because the original fight location, the Hillcrest Heights Boys Club, had been closed in respect for the family of John Kevin Gordon, who died in the Hillcrest gym.
Gordon was buried on Friday morning after being eulogized as a "clean fighter." He had started sparring as an 8-year-old at the Police Boy's Club gym in Southeast Washington, and with four regional championships under his belt he appeared to be, like the Fields boys, on his way to Olympic fame.
Several years ago, Gordon forfeited a shot at an East Coast boxing title when doctors examining him diagnosed a heart murmur. Gordon was later checked by a local doctor who had cleared him to fight. An autopsy provided no clues as to why he died, and further tests, including microscopic examinations of heart and brain tissue, have been scheduled.
"I started a poem about him because we were pretty close and his death touched me real hard," said Douglas Franklin, Gordon's boxing teammate, at the funeral inside the A.P. Shaw Methodist Church in Southeast. "But I couldn't finish it. All I can say is that he was the best. He was the champ. And now the fight is over."