Fighting Chance 

A ragtag team of young boxers and their coach become champions.

click to enlarge Jermoine Royster, 11, in his father's boxing gym at Norrell Elementary School. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Jermoine Royster, 11, in his father's boxing gym at Norrell Elementary School.

Jerry Royster should be dead.

He's been shot — point blank with a shotgun to the gut — and stricken with lung cancer. He's fallen two stories, through the roof on a construction job, and smashed his head on a steel beam. And there was the car that flipped repeatedly, like a Matchbox toy, before landing upside down in a ravine. Royster held onto the back seat, kicked out the back window and escaped with just a few bumps and bruises.

Yet he stands in a boxing ring in an abandoned elementary school on the city's North Side. Here, teenagers from some of the city's toughest neighborhoods are listening to a 54-year-old dead man.

"There's a coward and a hero. What's the difference?" Royster barks at a half-dozen boxers. He commands them to fall on the floor for push-ups, and then immediately hop back on their feet for jumping jacks. The classroom is sweltering on a hot evening in July. "Let's see who the heroes are. Be heroes for 30 seconds, that's all I ask."

click to enlarge Coach Jerry Royster has been teaching boxing to inner-city youth for 36 years. Next week he’ll take his latest group of champions to a tournament in Doraville, Ga. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Coach Jerry Royster has been teaching boxing to inner-city youth for 36 years. Next week he’ll take his latest group of champions to a tournament in Doraville, Ga.

Royster is saving their lives, three minutes at a time. But the boxers don't realize that they're also saving him.

A stocky ex-boxer with a noticeable gimp and a lazy eye, there are days when he's too tired to come to the gym. Days when he needs to take a break. A boxing coach for 36 years, Royster works for the city's parks and recreation department, where he doubles as a driver for the seniors at the Linwood Robinson Center, on North 26th Street. He pours concrete on the side.

Some days he's tired, dog tired. But as soon as he enters the gym — it's actually three classrooms at Norrell Elementary School near Battery Park, which is no longer in service as a school — something just happens. Sometimes it's during footwork drills, or maybe when they're in the ring sparring. One of the fighters will help another find a missing glove, or start working the bags without being asked. Or they'll go an extra round when they're dripping with exhaustion.

They find a way to inspire Royster.

"I love that boy like he's my son," Royster says of Freddie Lee Bell III, an 18-year-old from the South Side who goes by L.B., or "Little Bell." "When he didn't have a job, you know his grandma was struggling, I had to buy his [boxing] license. I had to get his shoes. Any equipment he needed I had to get it. I ain't want it back from him, neither."

Bell is hardly the first student the coach has had to cover. But Bell, who's been training with Royster for two years, got a job after graduating from high school in June, a pretty good job at an auto repair shop. And just when he least expects it, Bell gives back. Not in a grandiose way, but in a way that matters.

They were in Norfolk for a sparring session, and stopped off to eat at Arby's. When the coach pulled out his wallet to pay for another student's meal, Bell stopped him.

"Naw, coach, I got Ty," Bell says.

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click to enlarge Tyshawn Wyatt, a 15-year-old who grew up in Hillside Court, has a quiet demeanor but heavy hands in the ring. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Tyshawn Wyatt, a 15-year-old who grew up in Hillside Court, has a quiet demeanor but heavy hands in the ring.

Ty is Tyshawn Wyatt, who is 15 but has been boxing since he was 8. Wyatt has three brothers and three sisters and grew up in Hillside Court, where nearly every day he found himself in a scuffle. "When I first moved down there I was just fighting," he says. "We just fight every day."

Royster knows Wyatt well. Both grew up at Hillside, albeit 40 years apart, and Royster ran a boxing club at the Hillside community center for a few years. He used to cook and hold sleepovers for the kids, who would stay up watching movies. You'd be surprised by the respect an old boxing coach can engender in one of the city's toughest housing projects, where gunshots and drugs are the norm.

"The thing about Hillside? There are kids down there that can do just about anything. Fencing, gymnastics. They had a weight-lifting club down there," Royster says. A few years ago the recreation center had just gotten new video equipment, with surround-sound speakers, and it was stolen within days. "Mostly I was hurt. I was fussing, 'Man, this stuff is for y'all,'" Royster recalls. "The guys came in and said, 'Coach, don't worry, it'll be back at 3 o'clock today.' And God knows it was back at 3 o'clock that day. And the two dodo birds that did it came in and apologized."

click to enlarge One of coach Royster’s most promising young fighters, Freddie Lee Bell III, hits Justin Booker with a hard right during a sparring match. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • One of coach Royster’s most promising young fighters, Freddie Lee Bell III, hits Justin Booker with a hard right during a sparring match.

So Royster knows what Wyatt's been through. Royster's voice turns soft when he talks about the lanky kid with hard eyes and harder fists.

"Growing up on Hillside, you got to be a tough son of a gun," Royster says. "I've seen kids' — at 10 years old — parents get locked up. Ty knows what's going on down there. Kids go through heck."

There have been so many like Ty, too many to count. Hundreds of boxers have cut their teeth in Royster's ring, which for more than 20 years was at the Bellemeade Recreation Center, off Lynhaven Avenue. They used to box in the basement of the gymnasium, in a tiny room with low ceilings. It's where Royster fell in love with teaching the finer points of boxing, at a time when crack cocaine was becoming an epidemic, making Richmond one of the deadliest cities in America.

The inner-city kid who gives up the streets and turns to boxing as salvation, to channel his anger and find a future in the ring, is a well-worn narrative. And each of Royster's fighters dreams of becoming a professional boxer, a champion in the ring, the next Floyd Mayweather, Mike Tyson or Manny Pacquiao. But it isn't just success or glory they're after. In lives filled with constant chaos and little structure, they have control in the ring. They can face their demons and conquer them. They can fight without fighting.

click to enlarge Royster readies Freddie Bell for a sparring match at his gym on the North Side. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Royster readies Freddie Bell for a sparring match at his gym on the North Side.

In early August, Dan Campbell, national director of coaching for USA Boxing during the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, stops by Royster's North Side gym for some heavyweight sparring. Campbell's retired and working with a relative newcomer, Dorsett Barnwell, a 250-pound heavyweight from Norfolk. He's a massive man with bulging biceps who would intimidate even the toughest of fighters. Bell, who weighs in at 195, gets into the ring with him. Although Bell's clearly overmatched — he's been in only six amateur fights — he jabs, absorbs punishing hooks and holds his own. He stands toe-to-toe with a demon for three minutes.

Barnwell is one of those kids. He walked into Campbell's gym in Norfolk when he was 15, standing at least 6 foot 2 and weighing 265, and announced he could whip any fighter in the room. Campbell told him that's not how it worked. If he wanted to fight, he'd have to train, play by the rules. Only then would he get a chance to prove himself. Barnwell kept coming back, and Campbell broke through.

In the old days, Campbell ran gyms in Williamsburg and Norfolk and often organized trips with Royster's fighters — along with Willie Taylor, a boxing coach in Arlington. They were on a mission, Campbell says. "I really believed that I had to save as many kids as we could," he says. "Between us, we saved thousands."

Like Royster, Campbell has had his brushes with death. In the 1970s he was shot three times — twice in the chest, and once in the neck — in a bar fight in Boston. One bullet missed his heart by an inch, Campbell says. He recovered and then spent three years in prison as a result of the incident.

"It wasn't my time. It was almost like there was a voice telling me that I had some things to do," says Campbell, who's 69. "I think they pulled 55 bullets out of the wall."

Royster refuses to talk about the time he was shot in 1996. Friends say he stepped between two teenagers who were arguing in the streets. One had a shotgun, which Royster grabbed and tried to pull away. The gun went off and Royster's stomach absorbed the blast. Miraculously, he survived.

The two teenagers who were fighting that day? Royster still keeps in touch and doesn't want to cause either one any hardship by discussing the incident. "They got families now," Royster says. "I don't even want to bring it up."

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click to enlarge Coach Royster stresses the fundamentals to his young boxers. “The only time you should see the palm of your hand is when you throw an uppercut,” he tells them. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Coach Royster stresses the fundamentals to his young boxers. “The only time you should see the palm of your hand is when you throw an uppercut,” he tells them.

So many promising fighters have come through Royster's gym: Chris Thomas, Edrick Ross, Ronald Holliday, James Patterson and Lameika Bowers, to name a few. All won state amateur championships. Along with Bell and Wyatt, his current slate of fighters includes Peter Ahn, Chase Smith, Terrell Harris, Kevin Harris and Sergio Bolanos. And then there's Royster's 11-year-old son, Jermoine, who's grown up in the ring. He was three days old when his dad first took him to a fight.

The youngest of Royster's 12 children, Jermoine is as fundamentally sound as any of the older boxers, with lightning-quick hands for his age. He often spars with older fighters who outweigh him by 100 pounds, including Bell.

Jermoine runs four miles a day and bounces around the gym, usually begging to get into the ring — against anybody. In early August, when the heavyweights are sparring, Jermoine is restless, flashing a wide, toothy smile. "I'll get in with one of them," he says confidently. "I'll just be mad when I come out."

The older boxers don't seem to mind. Especially Bell, whose quiet and unassuming nature hides steel resolve. Bell, just over 6 feet with broad, powerful shoulders, usually is the first fighter in the gym (the team trains from about 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday). When he can't find a ride, he simply runs to his job at the auto repair shop, about three miles from his home at 20th and T streets. He starts work at 8:15 a.m.

"He's probably one of the most hard-working young men I have ever seen," says Ron Rinaldi, who teaches auto body repair at the Richmond Technical Center. Bell was in his senior repair classes during the last school year, and he "aced every test," Rinaldi says. Bell would show up before school started to get extra time in the shop. He'd clean the floors, bathrooms, whatever he was asked to clean.

"He never complains, ever," Rinaldi says.

click to enlarge The boxers join hands for a prayer, which usually is accompanied by a lesson from their coach. “If you don’t have any stumbling blocks,” Royster says, “you don’t have any trials, any troubles — then you can’t appreciate the good times.” - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • The boxers join hands for a prayer, which usually is accompanied by a lesson from their coach. “If you don’t have any stumbling blocks,” Royster says, “you don’t have any trials, any troubles — then you can’t appreciate the good times.”

After the spring semester, Rinaldi called the manager of Atlantic Auto Center off Chamberlayne Avenue, and helped get him a job. At first they were reluctant to hire Bell, but wound up hiring him on the spot.

"He shows up early. He goes home late. He'll do whatever you tell him to do," Rinaldi says. "I get a couple every year that struggle their way out, but it's rare to get a [student] with the work ethic that Freddie has. He's exceptional."

Where did Bell pick up his meticulous habits? It's a bit of a mystery. His father went to prison when he was 2, and his grandmother, Cynthia Claiborne, raised him by herself. Even she has a hard time explaining where Bell got his work ethic. "He don't leave nothing undone," Claiborne says. "The only thing I can say is God is with him."

When Bell first came to Royster's gym, he weighed 308 pounds. Royster didn't think he'd stick to the program. "I said, 'This man ain't going to do nothing,'" Royster recalls. "But he came every day. Every day he was there. I would be fussing at him; he was still there. I would be hollering; he was still there."

Bell can't really explain what drove him to boxing. He saw other kids get in trouble. He recalls a girl he used to see at school, who eventually was shot to death. He played on the football team, but didn't stick it out.

"I didn't get in that much trouble. I ain't like basketball or football, so I needed to find something else to do," Bell says. "So it just came in my head. I like boxing better."

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click to enlarge Royster and his son, Jermoine, 11, work on technique at the gym. Jermoine is known for his fearlessness and a wide, toothy smile. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Royster and his son, Jermoine, 11, work on technique at the gym. Jermoine is known for his fearlessness and a wide, toothy smile.

Royster calls his team the Cobra Boxing Club. He's been preparing his athletes for a tournament in Georgia, the Paul Murphy World Title Tournament, which is held Aug. 31 through Sept. 2 in Doraville.

In late July he runs the fighters through conditioning drills. Some are in better shape than others, but he treats them all like future champions. They're running in place, doing push-ups, jabbing and hooking, in constant motion. They sweat profusely.

"Get off your knees, son," Royster barks at one of the newer recruits. "Don't show you're tired. Get it off your face. Who tired in here? Who tired?"

No one responds. They keep on dropping to the floor and popping up.

"Coward and the hero. ... You may not be a hero today, but tomorrow you will be," he tells them. "You always got to remember you the best in the world, man. You going to be world champion one day. Not in boxing, man, but in life." S

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Below: An audio slideshow from inside the boxing ring with coach Jerry Royster as he delivers an inspiring message to his athletes

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