Keely Thompson remembers the afternoon vividly, the day 11 years ago when his friends went off to Kings Dominion amusement park in Virginia. They left him behind, penniless and planted on his front step. So he went off to become a boxer.
"I wanted to go so bad," he said of the event that prompted quite a career detour. "I had nothing to do and could have gotten in a lot of trouble on the streets, if it weren't for Mr. Caldwell."
Aaron Caldwell, a former sparring partner of Sugar Ray Leonard, became Thompson's trainer-promoter-manager, and, ultimately, his savior. He steered the feisty 12-year-old away from the unforgiving Washington streets and into the ring, where a day later, he made his amateur debut in -- of all venues -- Lorton penitentiary.
"I don't even remember the opponent," Thompson said. "But I started on Friday, fought on Saturday, and I won."
Thompson, now 23 and the holder of the Inter-Continental Boxing Council lightweight championship, is preparing for a non-title matchup with Rockville's Wilfredo de la Cruz (14-4) Saturday at the Washington Convention Center.
Thompson (24-3, 17 KOs) shares top billing with former world champion Livingstone Bramble. If both win, they are headed for a match with each other next year.
The Cardozo High School graduate is not alone when he steps into the ring for each fight, at least not spiritually, thanks to a clique of followers and handlers known affectionately as the "Dream Team." They all work together at the House of Champions boxing club, located in a small and unobtrusive Northwest building.
It's a classic boxing gym, where Thompson and several local amateurs train, with loud buzzers screeching every three minutes to signify rounds, odd-shaped mirrors for shadow boxing, a large American flag behind the ring, and heat blowers rudely disturbing the cobwebs hanging from the rafters.
A weathered chalkboard sits on the floor, reminding Thompson of his daily warm-ups and cool-downs: 200 jumping jacks, 200 arm rotations, 75 knee bends, 250 sit-ups. Every day, twice -- once when he arrives, again when he departs.
Norman Smith, Thompson's head trainer, is one of the leaders of the Dream Team, which includes assistant manager Mike Mann, a handler referred to simply as Wilbur, and one of the promoters, known only as "Chaos."
"I've been calling him that so long, I don't even know his name," said Smith, a former lightweight.
The Dream Team wants to keep Thompson fighting in the District. Not Las Vegas, not Atlantic City.
"We do our own fights here," Mann said. "We want to resurrect the fight game in D.C. We want to breed other champions in Washington and showcase them here."
They insist they are not bitter about the path followed and riches earned by D.C. welterweight champions Simon Brown and Maurice Blocker, with whom Thompson used to train at the defunct Latin Connection boxing club.
"This is a game of economics," Mann said. "You have to go for the money. But you can also make money right here in D.C."
Thompson does not sport the perfect physique of an Evander Holyfield. He does not look imposing, but he's good and knows it and wants everyone else to know it. His sparring partner on this day is the stocky George Short, also from Cardozo.
Thompson, 5 feet 8 and 138 pounds, is fighting cautiously, to the dismay of one handler.
"If you want to be a fighter, do something! If you want to be a lover, get out of the ring!"
Thompson just smiles.
But Thompson had focused on a bystander who chided him for not doing enough in the ring.
"Do this and do that! Do this and do that!" Thompson screams. "I'm young and I'm the only champ here. I'm the only one here!"