Down, Not Out, After Fire Guts a Gym in the Bronx

NY Times - December 24, 2009


The scent of heartbreak hung in the air in Aaron Davis's living room, where he sat on the edge of a chair like an exiled cornerman. A pile of soot-covered boxing gloves spilled out from a huge plastic bag at his feet. He would pick one up, scrub it clean with a rapidly graying terry-cloth towel, then gently place it on the floor.

Only Monday, he had put the just-delivered gloves inside the glass cabinets at the Morris Park Boxing Club. The next morning, a frantic call sent him racing from his Pelham Bay apartment to stand outside the venerable Bronx gym, stunned as firefighters fought to control a blaze that incinerated the place and two apartments above.

The gym's interior now is a nightmare in shades of gray, with the ropes seared off the ring and shredded stuffing exploding from the ripped heavy bags. Shafts of sunlight peeked through flaps in the tarp that dangled from the sides, and wooden frames hung askew, their pictures burned away. The charred ceiling beams sagged.

"Yo, this is bad," Mr. Davis said on Wednesday. "Unbelievable. Unbelievable."

A firefighter had told him he thought bad wiring could have sparked the fire, though an investigation has only just started. But with scores of young professional, amateur and neighborhood fighters needing a place to train, Mr. Davis was scrubbing what little he could salvage and relocating.

"You got kids going for the Golden Gloves," he said. "Now, they're out of their gym. We've got to relocate our whole life."

Boxing is a serious thing for him. He grew up going to gyms around town with his father, Larry Davis, who also boxed.

"If your father's a mechanic and you're in his shop every day, you don't need to go to school," he said. "You can put an engine together with your eyes closed."

Not heeding his father's advice to go another route, he went on to win the Golden Gloves in 1986. He defeated Mark Breland for the W.B.A. welterweight title in 1990. Mr. Davis boxed until 2002, retiring with a 49-and-6 record. His nickname was "Superman."

In recent years, he was looking to open his own gym, and when his plans for a place on Unionport Road and Tremont Avenue fell through, Dex Pejcinovic asked him to be his partner running the newly renovated Morris Park gym. Mr. Davis said he liked the chance to work with young people.

"A lot of kids don't have fathers in their lives; they don't have discipline," he said. "They don't like authority. Boxing gives you discipline. You got no choice."

On Wednesday morning, he hauled two bags of salvaged gear and stopped at the gym before heading to his temporary location. Out front, Angel Mercado, a karate teacher in Throgs Neck, was waiting to offer him the use of his dojo.

"My wife and I saw the news last night, and we decided to do this," Mr. Mercado said. "It's not much. But it's something." A few minutes later, he caught up with Tony Santana, a retired boxer who befriended him 25 years ago at the old Gleason's Gym, which was then in Manhattan. Mr. Davis was a teenager when he sparred with Mr. Santana, a lightweight once known as Malo.

"I'm just here to support my friend," said Mr. Santana, 53. "When I saw yesterday what happened, a tear came to my eye. I remembered what boxing did for me, keeping me away from the bad element. It saved my life."

He gave a look that combined tranquillity with a "go ahead and ask for it" defiance.

"I work for transit, I'm a homeowner, and I have the wifey," he said, smiling. "Like a normal human being."

That is the real purse at stake. A belt of gold comes and goes. But a chance to change your life is its own treasure. That is why Mr. Davis is not waiting to rebuild. As of nine o'clock on Thursday, he and his fighters will be decamping to John's Gym, near 149th Street and Third Avenue. Team Davis, as he calls his stable, received one month's free membership, along with all the challenges it can handle.

"Those are rough kids over there," Mr. Davis said. "Most of my guys never been in an environment like that. We're in somebody else's house, and they're going to try and knock us out. Now my guys have to man up. Rough kids. I like it like that."