Lonnie Adams is a former gang member and a Southern California Golden Gloves Champion. Photos: Jason Ruiz
Lonnie Adams is an imposing figure, regardless what neighborhood you come from. His six-foot-six-inch body frames nearly 200 pounds of lean muscle. His well-defined jaw suggests that it is most likely made of iron or granite, not glass. Tattoos sprawl across his chest onto his right arm which is connected to a right hand that has ended all 17 fights he’s won inside a boxing ring, culminating in him being crowned Southern California’s Golden Gloves Champion earlier this year.
But it was the fight outside the ring that nearly KO’d Adams long before he laced up a pair of gloves. He grew up as a ward of the state, bobbing and weaving his way through foster homes before spending five years in a facility in Pasadena while most kids were preparing to enter high school. There, Adams said, was a world of medications, confinement and violence between children who knew nothing but disconnect.
“It probably simmered down by now, but when I was there it was crazy,” Adams said. “There were kids killing themselves and all types of stuff.”
By his early teens he was finally released to family members in Long Beach. Although he was out of protective services, Adams’ new home was rife with gang activity. He explained that many of his family members are well-known Crips, one of the most violent street gangs in Long Beach, and because of that, it was easy for him to fall back into trouble.
Normally young men of his stature who grow up within earshot of MLK and Pacific Coast Highway are funneled into Poly High and put on a fast track to a Division I athletic scholarship. But between sacking quarterbacks on the field, this former defensive end toed the line between “enforcing” for his local set and being a student athlete.
It wasn’t until Adams discovered the sport of boxing, or more particularly, the people at Jackrabbit Boxing and Fitness, that he felt he was a crossroads of his life. He had grown tired of winning street fights and seeing friends in their “last suits”.
He said the decision to step away from the gang life and into the ring is not only one that transformed him, but one that will ensure he sees his 25th birthday.
“I just sat back and said ‘man, what do I want to do?’” Adams said. “Do I really want to take this seriously or do I want to mess around? I got tired of giving people HBO shows on the street and not getting paid for it. People do this all day everyday, sacrifice their life for it. So once I started boxing, it was serious.”
It’s kids like Lonnie that Ivan Sylve hopes to intercept before they hit that fork in the road that could land them in jail, or worse, if they make the wrong turn. The former Jordan High defensive back, who admittedly took his own talents for granted, said his story is very much the same as many of the kids he’s trying to help stay off the streets by keeping them in the gym.
“Because I didn’t have my dad there, I took a lot of stuff for granted,” Sylve said. “I took my talent for granted and I just thought my talent was always going to be there. I knew I was good but I didn’t know what it took to actually sustain and surpass what I had.”
When he first started training his son, Ashton, at the gym that would eventually become the Jackrabbit, he began to notice a large number of youths in the neighborhood who had nothing to do. As he held the mits for his son, they would hang out and watch.
He began to land amateur boxing fights for Ashton and Sylve said others began to take notice. Soon, the gym started its metamorphosis from a hangout spot to something more serious.
However, for some kids, including the ones thad had become Ashton’s audience, the cost of membership was a huge barrier, one that Sylve refused to allow to block them out.
“I told them have your parents fill out that form and I’ll pay for it,” Sylve said. “It kept them out of trouble. They were known as bad kids; they’ve been in here for about two and a half years now and their boxing potential is out the roof.”
About a year ago, Sylve made the transition from patron to owner and vowed to make the gym a community hub where families could escape the violence that has historically gripped this part of the city. He also made a commitment to use the values learned in the ring to help shape the young men in the community. So, he initiated the Jackrabbit Boxing Academy for youth.
He envisioned the academy as the de-facto high school boxing team, since no schools in the area have boxing as a sport. He wanted to simultaneously draw better athletes away from more traditional sports like basketball, football and baseball and bring them to center of the boxing ring. But although it isn’t affiliated with any school, Sylve wanted to incorporate accountability in the classroom and the community as a prerequisite to training at the Jackrabbit Academy. He wanted his fighters working just as hard in the classroom as they did in the gym.
“Everyone knows boxing as a dummy sport, a poverty sport so I want to change that,” Sylve said. “With the boxing academy you have to keep a certain grade point average to stay in boxing. I wanted to bring education back into boxing and not have that stigma that all boxers are dumb.”
The Army veteran said the gym has always been a fixture in the community he has called home his entire life. Back then, it was known as William’s Gym, and he was forbidden by his mother from going to it because of that stigma attached to the sport. Back then, nobody knew it was there, where it still sits, tucked behind the shopping center on the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue.
The secretive entrance to the roll-up style doors off Lewis Street provides a safe haven for not only the fighters, but their families to escape.
Sylve has embraced the idea of the gym being that family hub, taking it to the point where he’s even employed one of his youngest boxer’s father to work the front desk. Prior to that, Sylve said the father was non-existent in young Gionvanni’s life, but because of boxing, they have a common ground that has helped bring the family back together.
“Being over here, being in this sanctuary, we really don’t see what goes on out there,” Sylve said. “People don’t really bother us back here. I hear stories, or I read the newspaper or Giovanni comes in in the morning and say “so and so was found dead in the ally.” Right here, this area is totally different than out there.”
Head boxing coach Joe Zanders agreed that in this case, boxing serves a greater purpose than fitness and competition. Zanders has coached Olympic boxers in the past so he knows what it takes to make a great fighter, but living in this community for a lifetime has also taught him what makes a great man.
Sitting beneath a framed picture of Muhammad Ali, Zanders gazes into the empty ring at Jackrabbit and describes his whole-person approach to coaching. He peppers in life lessons into footwork exercises and shadowboxing sessions. He asks for updates about schoolwork and how they’re getting along with their teachers.
Boxing, he said, is a means to an end. It provides a focus and an opportunity to grow into a good citizen through hard work and dedication, which for most people, is all that will remain at the end of their stints in the sport.
Like most everyone else at the gym, Zanders volunteers his time because it’s important for him to take a part in changing what’s going on in his community. He said he’d been on the opposite side of intervention far too many times while he worked as a peace officer for the California Department of Juvenile Justice. He’d seen so much failure that he started to believe it was a way of life.
He doesn’t have a son at the gym but he understands that in some cases he serves as a father figure because there isn’t one at home. Zanders said because everyone is a product of their environment, whether he was a father or not, as an adult he had to take responsibility for his surroundings because of what it could mean for the future.
“Being in an environment like this, it gives them a chance to focus on their goals, and because they want to pursue this they’re willing to do what it takes to change their life,” Zanders. “At the end of the day, if you can get their attention enough and get them to believe that they can change their life through this process, in spite of all the failures they see around, then it’s a great thing.”
But at the end of the day, providing that sanctuary costs money. There are travel expenses for busing fighters to tournaments, registration fees and the gear needed to train and compete. There is also the expense of the tutors that are so integral to keeping up Sylve’s mandate that his fighters be students in and out of the ring.
Sylve estimates that he’s poured about $75,000 of his own money into these expenses. To put it bluntly, “it’s getting real tough,” he said.
With his dedication to the kids that call his gym home beginning to affect his family finances at home, Sylve has started a crowd sourcing effort to help offset the expenses. He hopes to raise roughly $200,000 dollars. This money would go toward monthly membership fees for the fighters he allows to train for free and toward tutoring and replacing aging gear.
“Failure is not an option for me,” Sylve said. “If we don’t reach the goal, there will be hard choices that will have to be made, but we won’t fail. But a lot of these kids, it’s hard to say, but they couldn’t be here. We can’t take all the kids we want to, and some of the kids with all this talent but no support at home, they’ll be right back on the street.”
With any luck, some of the star-power produced in his gym might translate to some heavyweight donations. Sylve said that Floyd Mayweather has invited some of the younger fighters to his gym in Las Vegas after taking a liking to their styles. The gym has also produced up and coming professionals like 24-year-old Malcolm McCallister, a young-man from the neighborhood that parlayed years of training at Jackrabbit into a contract with Al Haymon, the same man who manages Mayweather.
The undefeated McCallister, who walks to the ring to Eazy E’s “Boyz-N-The-Hood,” said growing up in this neighborhood is rough. He’s seen plenty of dreams get shot down. According to McCallister, more places like the academy in Long Beach could go a long way toward “slowing down the madness” and demonstrating that positive things are going on in minority neighborhoods.
Although he and Adams are on their way in the boxing industry, they still take the time to help the younger fighters with technique and strategy. When you see Adams towering over a middle school kid, helping instruct and correct, flashing an occasional smile, it’s hard to imagine he was capable of doing the things in his past.
He knows more than most what the academy has to offer to the youth of this community and the tragic uncertainty that exists outside its walls. Gangs start at any age he said, and the decision to step into the ring instead of out into the streets could be the difference between life and death.
“When they let me come in, that shit saved my life,” Adams said. “I aint gonna lie. Right now people are getting killed off left and right, you feel me? And I could be the mix of all of it.”