Jose (Pepe) Correa hadn't been training boxers very long. It was the fall of 1971, and he had just recently stopped fighting himself, when a lean 14-year-old first stepped into his gym in southern Prince George's County.
The youngster made an immediate impression with his strength and speed, style and stamina. Correa claims he has not seen a fighter of such deception and adaptibility as "that scrawny kid who could punch like hell." He had enough power to muscle inside, enough quickness to parlay uncountered jabs with feints and dance.
Correa was spoiled by Ray Leonard.
Twelve years later, Correa has since left Palmer Park to become director of the Latin Connection Boxing Club, adjacent to a children's day care center in the basement of a dilapidated church on Columbia Road NW. Yellowed newspaper clippings and a half-dozen glossy photographs have done little to warm the stark austerity that seems to complement the grunts and sweat and blood.
"For what we're doing now, this place suits our needs fine," Correa said. "If we were to get into the real big business someday, we might need something a little more substantial."
That day is looming. For among the 36 Latin Connection boxers are a couple of undefeated, 19-year-old welterweights from Washington who have given Correa a sense of deja vu.
Correa says Washington's interest in boxing suffered dramatically with Leonard's retirement. Yet he remains ambiguous over the relative anonymity of Simon Brown (13-0, 11 straight knockouts) and Maurice Blocker (10-0, 7 KOs), his unranked proteges who have been friends since their days at Roosevelt High School. Of their 23 pro fights, all have taken place in Atlantic City, N.J., with the exception of Brown's first-round knockout of Ruby Ortiz last December at Prince George's Community College.
"Sure (Brown and Blocker) are underpublicized," Correa said. "But we're using that to our advantage. I've got them on a very structured timetable. I've seen so many good fighters rush to fight for the championship before they're prepared to. For now, we're right on schedule."
Blocker's steady move up the welterweight ranks has surprised even Correa. Initially, Blocker, nicknamed "Thin Man" at 6-feet, 145 pounds, lacked the ring determination of Brown. Then one day Correa made a surprise visit to Blocker's home.
"I told him I wasn't sure if I wanted to make boxing a full-time thing," Blocker said softly after a recent workout. "He walked over to the fireplace, put his hand on the mantle and said, 'If you keep fighting, you'll have enough trophies and plaques to line this thing all the way across.' That really made an impression on me. Now I've got so many they all can't fit up there anymore."
As amateurs, Blocker and Brown earned Washington Golden Gloves titles three straight years beginning in 1979; Blocker won 73 of 76 bouts (57 knockouts) and Brown 63 of 65 (40 knockouts). As friends, they became closer the more they endured, something Correa respects.
"No money in the world will get Maurice Blocker and Simon Brown in the ring together, as long as I have anything to do with it," Correa said. "Even if one is the champ and the other the No. 1 contender, I would have one of them move to another division if there was pressure for them to fight. You can't let money separate friends; nothing takes the place of friendship."
Brown and Blocker rarely even spar together. "It's like taking two Rolls-Royces and banging them together," Correa said. "If you had a Volkswagen and a Chevy, it would be different."
But Correa has had trouble finding sparring partners who can stay with either fighter, so Brown prepped for last Tuesday's three-round knockout of Tom Moody by sparring with an accomplished middleweight, Jerome Butler.
"Pepe works me real hard sometimes, but I know it's for my own good," said Brown, whose boyish looks probably have guiled more than one opponent. "He's not one of those trainers who rush you along just to make a quick buck off you. I want to win for him as much as I do for myself."
"It's hard to compare anyone with Ray Leonard," Correa said. "But Simon and Maurice are similar in that they never complain. If they know it's for their benefit, they'll do it. That's the making of a champion. As a manager, you have to have the foresight not to overtrain them."
Like Leonard, Blocker and Brown are making Correa's job easier.