On the football field at Uniondale High School one recent Saturday, the home team was going head-to-head against rivals from Oceanside High School before cheering fans. In the school’s basement, with less fanfare, student athletes were making their moves in a much smaller arena: the boxing ring.
“You learn this so you don’t have to use it,” instructor Steven Solomon tells the students. As he starts warm-ups, they stand poised in boxing positions. Solomon, 56, a health teacher at the school, started the boxing club in January, hoping the activity would have the same positive effects on the teens as sports that draw wider participation.
A longtime competitive boxer, Solomon has won significant matches over the years — most recently the 2013 Gleason’s Gym masters heavyweight championship. His involvement in the sport convinced him that giving students a chance to learn the discipline needed in boxing would build confidence. He takes on kids who span the educational, physical and social spectrum — from honor students to those who have trouble fitting in with peers.
“It helps with stress release,” says Solomon, who lives in East Meadow. “Boxing is a humbling sport. It teaches discipline and respect.”
The 14 students in Solomon’s club meet Wednesday, Friday and Saturday afternoons, when they are put through intense workouts before hitting the bags or making their way into the ring.
“In boxing, it’s about numbers,” Solomon tells them as his three assistant coaches line up alongside him to demonstrate for the group. “Jab is one and punch is one-two.”
The students mimic his lead, hitting the air. Later, he mixes it up with a routine that resembles the arcade game whack-a-mole. The teenagers memorize about seven moves, which are then shouted out in random order: PUNCH SHOULDER! PUNCH STOMACH! WEAVE RIGHT! WEAVE LEFT! And the kids react to each command as they’ve been trained to do.
“Bring your hands back to your face,” Solomon reminds them. “A moving target is harder to hit.”
In time, he will get into the ring with just about every kid, giving them a one-on-one sparring session. He makes jokes about his age and how tired he gets as he takes some breathing breaks between the much-younger opponents, but he keeps at it, giving each novice boxer a turn.
Among the coaches who work with Solomon is George Brodas, 51, of Hempstead, a custodian with the district and also a master boxer who won the Ringside World boxing championship in Kansas City in 2013. He loves kids and loves boxing, he says, so working with Solomon and the students is a natural fit. “I see myself a lot in these kids,” he says.
During this session, Brodas is working with Frederick Curry, 17, a senior who says he had been waiting since his sophomore year for the boxing club to become a reality. He boxes despite significant health problems. Last year, both his legs were medically broken and reset to correct a bone structure issue, he says. He credits boxing with getting him out of the house and exercising again. “I like the workout, and the techniques of boxing,” he says. “I wanted to learn how to box.”
Curry’s uncle, Frederick Grant, 39, of Oyster Bay, says the club has helped his nephew to recover from the surgeries, improve his coordination and raise his self-esteem. Grant credits Solomon’s dedication to club members as one reason for his nephew’s success. Curry “does better on his classwork” since he’s been boxing, Grant says.
Sparring is done more for the exercise than competition and, mostly, the students only get in the ring with Solomon or one of the other coaches. Yet, Solomon sees potential in some of his young fighters, including Zion Carelus, 17, who has become a fan of the sport. “You have to use your brain,” Carelus says. “In boxing, you really need to focus. It makes you a little calmer.”
Carelus’ mother, Rachel Perales, 40, says her son is so inspired by the club and Solomon’s commitment to the kids that he is working toward pursuing boxing professionally. “This program is a steppingstone,” she says. “I am excited for him, and for how seriously he is taking the program.”
Breaking new ground is often not easy. It took a while for the boxing club to come to fruition for various reasons, and Solomon’s tenacity made the difference, one school official says. He was asked to teach adaptive sports programs to students with developmental needs, and he brought boxing into the mix. During family sports events, he would give boxing demonstrations, recalls Jonathan Jefferson, director of health, physical education and sports for the Uniondale School District. “I was always very positive about it,” Jefferson says of the idea for a boxing club, noting that he has a background in martial arts.
Many feel that boxing and martial arts connote a violent nature, but Jefferson says he believes they have the opposite effect on skilled practitioners. “It’s about people challenging themselves,” he says, and being more “patient and accepting.” It builds self-confidence that can transfer when the kids face other limitations in life, and “that is something you can’t quantify.”
Solomon set up fundraisers and other events to encourage a boxing club, but the Uniondale Board of Education was hesitant to allow the program to begin, both Solomon and Jefferson say. But when board members saw boxing’s positive effects on the developmentally challenged students, the trustees “jumped on board,” Jefferson says.
School board President James M. Sharpe III says, “Our first thing is safety.” Once board members realized the students would not be sparring with each other, they were happy to give the club the OK because they viewed it as a way for kids to get exercise and learn focus and discipline. Sharpe says he admires Solomon’s work, the coach’s inclusive attitude and the diversity of club members.
“He is doing a great job with these young adults,” Sharpe says. “The way he works with them and the way they work with each other is a wonderful thing.”
In January, when the boxing group was officially made a club, practices began in earnest in a shared space with the wrestling team. In a small room off to one side, there are punching bags amid posters of professional boxers — some of whom Solomon has fought or sparred with over the years, including Iran “the Blade” Barkley and Mark Breland, who won a 1984 Olympic gold medal. In fact, the two fighters have come for Solomon’s boxing fundraisers in past years, spending time with the kids.
Besides some funding by the district, others have stepped forward to keep the club going. The Long Island office of Combined Insurance donated $2,000 toward equipment. Last month, Kevin Collins and Gerard Wilson, owners of Westbury Boxing Club, donated a $17,000 boxing ring to the club, which will replace a makeshift one used now — a big boon to the club. Jefferson and Solomon are hoping to purchase a large metal structure to house the club for practices, a place the club can call its own on school grounds.
There are rules in the ring, of course, but maybe even more important are Solomon’s rules of personal behavior for teens in the club. No swearing is allowed, no blustering or yelling. He and the other coaches keep their instruction positive, and the kids seem to hang on every word. No one sits on the sidelines not being played, and there are no tryouts for this club; no one is cut from the roster. Solomon is happy to accept anyone wants to join — male or female — as long as they are committed to do their best.
Respect is key to the success of this club, he says, and he instills a sense of camaraderie and control.
“Outside of the ring, he’s a softy,” says Jocelyn Villacis, 17, president of the club and one of four female students at the practice. A senior, Villacis is an Advanced Placement scholar and a member of the school’s winning varsity swim team. She joined the boxing club to learn techniques and for the workouts and self-protection. “Women have the right to defend themselves,” she says, and her mother was “all for it” when she told her about joining.
Working with Solomon is why Claudette Brand, 33, decided to throw her hat in the ring as a volunteer coach. A special-education teacher at the school, she has studied a form of kickboxing called Muay Thai, another sport that embraces defensive skills.
For “those that don’t have another sport, this is their sport,” she says of boxing. “It doesn’t matter your size. It’s about focus and discipline and skill.”
Edwin Moreno, a 10th-grader at the school, said he was inspired to join because of his love of boxing-themed movies. “Who knows?” he says. “I could be like Rocky Balboa.”