Train Like A Champion

By Pamela Monk

"Boxing is like a bug"

What makes a neighborhood more than a collection of houses? This is a question that occupies much of Bob Sobocinski’s free time.

One of his answers is Steel City Boxing, Pittsburgh’s only not for profit boxing gym. It is housed in a decommissioned fire hall on Homer Street in Spring Hill, the neighborhood he’s lived in for most of his life. Sobocinski is a sturdy man, not a boxer himself, but someone at home with physical work. He’s not uncontroversial, as he has a brash, no nonsense style that can be formidable to challenge. He likes to get things done, and he likes people who are willing to take initiative. His response to critics who disagree with his actions is  to challenge them to stop complaining and do something about it.

Back: Bobby, John, Brody; Front: Danny, Giovanni, Bob

“Boxing is like a bug,” John James told me when I spoke to him by phone recently. “You either love it or hate it. If you love it, it never lets you go.”  

James, a former champion amateur boxer (Pittsburgh Golden Gloves, 1994, 165 lbs), was explaining to me why he returned to boxing as a volunteer trainer for Steel City after some years away from the ring. He, along with trainers Jack Mook, George Heilen, Nick Boretsky, Giovanni Cavaliere, and Greg Hamilton, volunteer at the gym regularly. One of them, Jack Mook received some widespread attention a few years ago when he adopted two brothers who were in foster care when he got to know them through the gym. All of them have boxing experience at the amateur level, some of them former boxers at the gym.

The gym is located on an intriguing corner of Spring Hill. It’s just down the block from Spring Hill Elementary, across from a gleaming mosaic depicting the history of the area, as well as the newly restored spring and an ornate terrace wall patterned after a castle, built by a baker who once lived there. To the left, as you face uphill are a section of the city steps, a stairway that enabled steelworkers to more easily make their way to the mills.  Sobocinski sees it as a small corner of the neighborhood, where he, as an individual, can begin to have a positive effect on neighborhood spirit.

“I’d like to see the neighborhood like it used to be,” Sobocinski said. “There used to be groups like Little League that don’t exist anymore.”

He wants to recreate that community through neighbors getting to know one another, and participating in projects of mutual interest. For him the gym is part of providing a cohesive group that can only enhance the experience of living in Spring Hill.

Bob Sobocinski is the link between Steel City Boxing and Spring Hill. A lifelong resident of Spring Hill, he currently serves both as the president of the Spring Hill Civic League and the president of the gym. I talked to him at length in the decommissioned fire house that is home to the gym. It fills the main floor of the firehall. One half of the space is taken up by a boxing ring, the other with the trappings of the sport- punching and speed bags, weights and jump ropes. Equipment is stacked around in a pleasing disarray; it was clear the place was in use. We were there on a Saturday, it was peaceful and yet there was an air of energy held in reserve.  

Sobocinski took over the presidency of the gym in 2008 after the organization fell on some hard times.  He was able to work with Councilwoman Darlene Harris, another life long Spring Hill resident, to find funds to keep the gym open. The building, which is city property, is leased to the Spring Hill Civic Association for a dollar a year, which uses the property as the home for the gym. With grants to pay for equipment and insurance and the expenses associated with participating as a full member of the Amateur Boxing Association, they have been able to run comfortably without personal donations from the members. Recently they started the annual fundraiser Northside vs.The Outside, in which a tourney of local gyms compete for bragging rights. This is an all volunteer organization, with six to eight regular trainers who come from around the Northside. The members of the club are mostly teens and young men in their twenties, although anyone is welcome to train.

The gym is regularly open Monday through Thursday from 5-7 p.m.  Joining is simple show up and start working out. Not much more to it than that. James explained to me that each of the trainers has an expertise he is an experienced boxer, so he takes an interest teaching the fine points of sparring. However there is no pressure to step in the ring. Club members who want a good workout are just as welcome. There are about 12 regulars who have committed to the sport and a varying number of folks who drop in, try it out, and come back sporadically if at all. Of those regulars, five are competing in the Golden Gloves, a legendary tournament that starts at the regional levels and culminates in national rounds in which amateur athletes in a wide range of weight classes vie to be crowned champion.

Boxing is an ancient sport. According to Michael Poliakoff, writing in the Encyclopedia Britannica, “the earliest known depiction of boxing comes from a Sumerian relief in Iraq from the 3rd millennium BCE, a simple depiction of two men engaging in hand to hand battle.”
It’s allure, similar to that of wrestling, is in its simplicity; two people, evenly matched in weight, endeavor to prevail through a strategic combination of smarts and strength. Over the millennia, this simple sport has operated under the shadow of corruption and exploitation of the fighters, and in recent decades concern over long term damage that repeated punishment can inflict on the brain.

These issues haven’t deterred Jenn White, the mother of one of the younger boxers, from encouraging her son Brody in his participation. Brody, now 14, started at the gym when he was 11.  

“I took him to observe one day,” White told me over the phone. “He didn’t say anything, and I thought, he wasn’t interested. But the next morning he said ‘I want to start boxing’. He’s never looked back.”

White speculated that it fit with her son’s personality. “He’s always been an individualist.”

Brody has dedicated himself to the sport, following a strict training regimen, and is boxing in the Golden Gloves this year along with Bobby Helms, Josh and Jesse Mook, and Danny Bodish. This dedication involves daily running, a commitment to practice and an inner drive to excel. White has confidence in the trainers to look out after both her son’s physical safety and his emotional growth.

“We’re like a family,” she said.

This sentiment is echoed by Sobocinski and James. Sobocinski in particular emphasized that the gym was a center for more than excellence in sport. Club members take care of two community gardens and are expected to help in neighborhood recycling efforts. Academic achievement in school is celebrated. The gym facebook page shows young members proudly displaying their honor roll certificates. Sobocinski is most proud of the reputation his group has for being well trained and well behaved. James loves what he calls “the light bulb moment,” evincing a teacher’s pride in the times when students apply themselves and finally master a skill.  There is a high expectation that club members will be good sports in the classic sense competition in the ring, camaraderie everywhere else. The close knit nature of the club is a function of the natural human tendency to spend our leisure time with people with whom we feel most comfortable.

This tendency is even more pronounced with in amateur boxing. In James’s experience, young men interested in boxing don’t talk much about it, even to the point of being secretive. Recruitment is by word of mouth, friends encouraging other good friends to join. And since the gym isn’t looking to expand widely, there isn’t a large effort to expand membership significantly. There is room for more people to train and spar, but extensive growth is not part of the picture. So it remains a small organization whose hope is to have a profoundly positive effect on a few young people while adding to community spirit.

It’s possible to question the amount of resources that the City of Pittsburgh has made available to the boxing gym. City Development Block Grants and a $1 per year lease has made it possible for the Steel City Boxing to provide a great experience for its members at no charge to them and no expense to the volunteers. In any given month, that’s about 20 people, including the regulars who are committed to the sport and the people who come and go. Should there be a wider use of the building for other neighborhood initiatives? Should there be a more concerted effort to bring a wider diversity of young people from the neighborhood into the program, not just rely on friends asking friends?

Sobocinski acknowledges that these questions are real, but he views the gym as a force for cohesion and civic pride. He shrugs off those who may question his efforts, or complain about his goals. He doesn’t claim to have all the answers, but he does have one for both critics and supporters.

“It’s easy to talk about things that other people are doing. I respect people who do things.”  

Story Credits

Writer: Pamela Monk
Photographer & Web Producer: Will Halim

Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
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