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Metro Pulse Ring Masters

In the win-or-lose world of Golden Gloves boxing, two fighters train, dream, and struggle for a chance at the Olympics.

By Joe Tarr

MAY 3, 1999:  Alvin Siler doesn't have the eyes of a killer. When he is in the ring, fighting, his eyes show little trace of anger or rage. Scanning his opponent, they seem almost innocent, vulnerable. But they are not eyes you could trust—there's an intensity, a yearning, lurking in there. Don't get too close.

Those eyes take in all of Torrance Daniels' 119-pound body, searching his torso, head, and arms. Daniels does his own measuring. How quick is he?—the fighters wonder. Can he punch? The two are slight but not scrawny.

Hiss—the breath blows out of Siler's lungs as he throws a right to the body. Hiss—Daniels, a lefty, answers with a jab to the head.

More punches are thrown, but they seem of little consequence—bouncing off gloves, merely grazing or missing altogether.

The fighters pace cautiously around each other for a moment, then lunge again, throwing jabs and rights and lefts and hooks, until they are a tangle of bodies, clinging to each other, punching no more. Step away, circle, look.

The ring they prance around stands in a vast, bright Chattanooga convention room. Commands and encouragement—shrilled by family, friends—bombard the ring: "Use your jab," "Don't wait on him," "Go to the body." The fighters pick out a few voices, ones they trust and respect, and listen. But for three two-minute rounds they're on their own.

Whoever wins the fight will head to Syracuse, N.Y., for the Golden Gloves nationals. For Siler, victory will be another step toward his dream of making the U.S. Olympic Boxing Team.

Siler seems the better, fitter boxer too, but Daniels is strong and fast. And Siler is starting slow, as is his tendency. He doesn't seem to remember his jab, how to use it to set up punches.

Whap. Daniels proves his worth—a solid right to Siler's head.

It is a blow Siler will not forget.

At Golden Gloves Arena at Chilhowee Park, countless kids and teens have dreamed about Olympic medals and championship belts and knockouts.

Confronted with the daily reality of running, exercising, and slugging away at heavy bags, many of those dreams quickly faded. But quite a few of the young dreamers listened to their coaches and gave it their all.

Golden Gloves is a national non-profit organization that trains young kids to box. But it's more than that. Many of these kids come from poor, broken families, and Golden Gloves gives them a structured program to learn discipline, build confidence and ambition. Supported by donations and charity events, it is free for the kids.

The gym is a bland concrete-slab arena that might just as well be a warehouse or giant auto shop. There is a little office and kitchen off to the side when you walk in, and several folding tables and chairs are scattered around. Hanging along two walls are numerous heavy bags of varying weights and shapes (the fat oval one is for uppercuts, the narrow cylindrical ones are for jabs and power punches). Farther down, a couple of dirty mirrors stand against the walls for fighters to watch their form as they shadowbox. Push-up handles and wheels are strewn across mats on the floors. At the end of the gym, right before you get to the men's and women's rooms, are two boxing rings, one used for storage more than fighting.

When the gym is full, young children (both boys and girls) reluctantly do their calisthenics alongside older, more devoted amateurs and professional boxers.

Frank Durst, who fights at 125 pounds, trains here; so does Alvin Siler. They come from about as different backgrounds as two 20-year-old American guys could, and it would be easy to stereotype them. Siler is the black kid from the projects who works a day job, has a young son, and has overcome personal difficulties. Durst comes from a well-to-do family in Augusta, Ga., studying at the University of Tennessee and dating a fraternity brother's sister.

But the two boxers share a yearning to succeed, to fight in the Olympics and eventually turn pro. Getting there will not be easy.

FRANK

Frank Durst began boxing when he was 9. His dad, Marion Durst, is a dentist who makes mouthpieces for boxers in Augusta. "Frank had a bad temper," the elder Durst says. "Another neighborhood kid had gone down [to the boxing gym], and it kind of relieved some of his emotions. We thought it would be good for him. At that age, they use the big padded gloves, almost like a pillow. I really wasn't worried about him being hurt."

At age 10, he won his first fight and was hooked.

He quickly excelled, winning most of his fights. At the 1996 Golden Gloves nationals, Durst lost to the '95 champion. "I was pretty upset about losing. Ace [Miller] came over to me and said, 'You were missing with your right hand, or you would have won that fight. He felt the power in your right hand and started slippin' it.'"

A few minutes later, the guy who beat Durst told him the same thing. It was a pivotal moment for Durst and it led him to Knoxville to train with Miller, the boxing guru who has run Knoxville Golden Gloves since the '70s.

Short with graying brown hair, Miller (who is currently recovering from a near-fatal heart attack) usually dresses in workout clothes and will look at people over the brim of his glasses. When he is in a good mood, he rambles on about this and that so fast you need a tape recorder to catch his every word. He litters his talk with faith pronouncements about Jesus, profundities about life, and bizarre metaphors.

He knows boxing. Most famously, he trained Big John Tate, who won the heavyweight championship in 1979, and Bernard Taylor, who was captain of the 1980 Olympic Team (the games that year were boycotted by the U.S.) and had several professional title bouts (winning one in 1990). Miller also briefly trained Evander Holyfield for the 1984 Olympics, where the fighter won a silver medal.

"I've never known anybody that knows so much about boxing," Durst says of his coach.

Durst is impeccably polite, often punctuating sentences with "Yes, sir." Fidgeting in the living room chair at his Highland Avenue apartment, you can still catch traces of the mischievous kid, grinning and nervous.

Until Durst began training with Miller in 1996, he was somewhat of a bruiser, out-slugging opponents.

"Definitely, Ace has changed his style," says his father. "Instead of just going forward and throwing punches and being conditioned, Ace has put more movement and hitting from different angles, and being defensive into his style. Now he has the style of hit but don't get hit, whereas before he'd go in there and get hit a lot too."

Miller says it wasn't easy working with Durst at first. The fighter got impatient with his lectures about maturity and character. But Durst is finally catching on to what Miller's been trying to teach him—both physically and mentally.

"He has very quick hands, and he's strong for his size and can take a punch. He has the intestinal fortitude to be fighter—it takes a lot of guts," Miller says. "Frank, he's just got this determination that he wants to be a champion. When you live that dream constantly in your mind, you can act it out. He possesses the desire to be something in life other than a boxer."

Durst isn't sure of his exact record, since he's lost one of the official books that fighters document their wins and losses in. But he estimates it's 185 wins and 16 losses (he's unsure how many fighters he's knocked out). At one time, he was ranked number one in the country at 119 pounds, and he was number two at 125 pounds in early 1998. Fighting in Istanbul in February last year, he lost by decision to the number one ranked fighter in the world, a boxer from Uzbekistan. Hurting his arm in the bout, Durst couldn't fight again until last August, and he lost his ranking.

ALVIN

Track down Alvin Siler on a weekday and you might find him dressed in a black tuxedo (with a shoulder girth that makes it hard to slip through a doorway), a red bow tie larger than a banana, and white shoes that flop out in front of him as he walks. Instead of boxing gloves, he will be wearing large furry paws; his head will be a giant mouse's. He will not talk to you, but he will dance.

His main duty at the Chuck E. Cheese on Kingston Pike is baking pizzas, but every once in a while he becomes Chuck E. for the kids.

"You get beat up bad. They kick you, punch you, try to pull your arms off," Siler says. "Everybody hates being Chuck E. You get hot, sweaty, beat up, it's heavy, your back hurts. If it wasn't for the kids, I wouldn't do it. Even though they beat me up, they smile and have fun."

Siler began boxing when he was 10 years old. His mother, Patsy Young, worried about the crowd he was hanging around with. One day, she saw a white guy picking up some kids in Montgomery Village, where they lived. "Where you taking them?" she asked. "The boxing gym," responded coach Steve Whitt, who recruits kids from poor neighborhoods to come box.

Alvin wouldn't have any of it, but his mother made him wait for Whitt one afternoon. Once inside the gym, he was hooked. "I had a fight after two weeks. I knocked him down two times," says Siler, still proud. He has a good-natured, playful kind of smile. His hair is either fluffed out in an afro or tied in lines down his scalp.

Siler learned quickly and had a knack for the sport. Life outside the ring hasn't been as easy for him.

In February 1997, Siler's 35-year-old father killed himself while on the run from police for beating his wife at the time (not Siler's mother). Put in charge of the funeral arrangements, it was one of the few times Siler stayed away from the gym.

"When his dad first died, I thought Alvin would not go back to boxing. For two months, he didn't," says his mother. "I talked to him and told him, 'That's your career. Your dad would be happy to see you go back. If you don't want to do it for somebody else, do it for yourself.'

"Alvin is a Christian boy. He goes to church and tries to do all the right things. I'm very proud of him," she adds.

Although he was close to his father (and now has a tattoo of his face on his back), Siler doesn't apologize for his mistakes. "He made the decision to do drugs," he says. "I just don't see what people get out of it. Spend all your money to smoke something that lasts an hour.

"He never got to see me fight. He'd always say he'd come, and I'd always look for him, but he never made it," Siler says.

Although he's avoided drugs, Siler admits he's gotten himself into other problems. "Dumb stuff. I just liked to fight people when I was younger. I've learned how to control myself."

The last time he was in a fight was 1997, his senior year in high school. He was cited and had to pay a fine.

Siler knows he's got other things to worry about. He and his girlfriend, Robin, have a 4-month-old son, Alvin Siler Young III.

"I've got all kinds of people riding on me. My family, my son. One thing I want to do once I get all these tournaments through is spend more time with him, so I have to make sure I win," Siler says.

Miller says you can see the maturity in Siler's attitude and his boxing.

"He drifted away from the program a time or two. But he came back, and coming back he was more mature. He wants more out of life. He's boxing as a mature individual now."

Siler has dreams that don't involve boxing. He and friend plan to start a landscaping business. He also writes rap lyrics and his ultimate dream is to record music.

IN THE RING

"Normal" behavior in the ring would be unbearable to watch, deeply shameful: for "normal" beings share with all living creatures the instinct to persevere...in their own being. The boxer must somehow learn, by what effort of will non-boxers surely cannot guess, to inhibit his own instinct for survival; he must learn to exert his "will" over his merely human and animal impulses, not only to flee pain but to flee the unknown.—Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing.

There are certain things that many people who watch boxing simply don't comprehend about the sport. One is how utterly exhausting it is, how even a reasonably fit competitor can gasp for breath or struggle to keep his arms up after just one round. "Watching these kids fight, I thought, 'How can these kids get tired?' says Frankie Andersen, a fit, muscular 32-year-old woman a few moments after sparring for the first time. "But I was so exhausted."

The other is how difficult it is to think clearly when a leather-covered fist is flying toward your face. The urge is to cower behind your gloves or wildly fling your own fists in return. But you must keep your senses from shutting down, block or slip these punches, and look for openings where you can land your own. You must find your foe's weaknesses and exploit them.

Staying in shape and using your head is far from all of it. You have to be quick and strong, have good footwork, know the techniques, be able to relax before a fight, make your weight, and you'd better be able to take a punch. Because you will get hit. And sometimes, you will be slightly dazed, and when that happens you must know what to do, how to get out of harm's way and protect yourself and counterpunch to keep your opponent at bay. And even that isn't really enough to win all the time. You have to know what the judges look for, which punches will score points and which won't. And sometimes even then you will get a bad decision.

Despite these rigors, the sport is really rather simple. It is the spectator—no matter their culture or experience—can quickly figure out. Unlike martial arts, boxers do not have many tricks at their disposal.

As Durst explains, "There are six basic punches, and that's about it." They are, for a righty, the jab (a one), the right (or a two), the right and left uppercut, and the left and right hook. These can be thrown in any number of combinations.

After years of training and sparring and fighting, boxers will hopefully get these punches and movements down to where they throw them naturally and can react on instinct.

"I try to keep my mind clear so my body can react. You don't really have time to think," says Siler. "Most of the time, you're scanning the whole body. You see openings. He may carry his hands out too far, then I'm going to the body. If he keeps his hands too close, I'm throwing hooks."

But it all starts with training. Siler wakes every morning at 3 a.m., runs three to five miles. After a short nap, he's at work by 7 a.m. (Although, recently laid off, he has more time to train). He's at the gym by 6:30 p.m., where he will work out on the heavy bags, jump rope, exercise, stretch, shadowbox and spar. A night owl, he's home about 9:30 each evening and often ends up staying up to midnight or 1 a.m. watching movies.

Durst keeps an even more grueling workout routine, but since he's taking a semester off from UT, he has the luxury of concentrating on his training.

Getting to the Olympics is a phenomenal feat. Eight Americans will qualify in each weight class. They'll fight in a double-elimination tournament to see who will represent the country in 2000 at Sydney, Australia. To get one of those eight invitations, you have to win any of a handful of national tournaments.

One of those tournaments—the U.S. Nationals—was held in Colorado Springs, Colo., in March. Boxers fight every night in the week-long tournament until they lose. While they may dominate a regional tournament, boxers are always tested in nationals.

With no opponent in the first round of the Colorado fights, Siler automatically advanced to the second round where he lost to Jose Gonzales of Garden City, Kan.

"[Losing's] hard. I work that hard and I only make it to the second round. It could have went either way," he says. "What makes me mad is when I know I can beat people. There's things I know to do but I don't."

After his fight against Steven Luevanno of LaPuente, Calif., in the first round of the tournament, Durst was confident he won (as was Ace Miller). But he loses it 11 to 4. Durst blames the new computer scoring system. When a punch is landed, the judges must press a button to register it. If they don't do it quickly enough, the punch doesn't count. At one point, Luevanno gets an eight count, but no punches are credited to Durst.

"I thought I won convincingly. For a couple of hours, I was just in shock," he says.

"Sometimes it feels like I gave up my whole life for this. But then I think, 'What if I didn't do it?' I have a chance to make the Olympics."

The next shot to qualify for the Olympic trials is to win the Golden Glove nationals, which will be held in Syracuse in May. Fighters qualify for the tournament at regionals around the country. In the South, the tournament is held at Chattanooga, drawing fighters from Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, North and South Carolina. It is a three-day event, with boxers fighting Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights until they lose.

Before tournaments like these, fighters often must struggle to get their weights down. Two days before the Chattanooga tournament, Siler is 7 pounds over, but he is not worried. He always makes weight, he says. He stops eating and drinking. At work in the kitchen of Chuck E. Cheese on the Wednesday before the regionals, he chews gum and frequently spits into a wax cup—so he can lose as much water as possible. "I've got to spit my whole way to Chattanooga," he says, fantasizing about the meal he'll have after weigh-ins that night.

Both Durst and Siler make their weights.

EGO AND HUMILIATION

Like any athletes, boxers need to build themselves up to win. If they don't believe they can, they won't. But unlike other athletes, boxers seem to have more to lose. Although very rare, death is a possibility. (Statistically, boxing may be no more dangerous than any other sport, but since the combatants are trying to hurt each other, it makes serious injury seem less surprising, less accidental).

There is also something profoundly personal about losing in a ring. "You don't ever know what humiliation is until you lose in a boxing ring," says Miller.

At the fights in Chattanooga, Brad Austin of Knoxville is disqualified for two low blows (to which his opponent dubiously cringes in pain). When the fight is called, Austin weeps and moans, falls to the ring several times, letting you know just how much it meant for him to get to Syracuse. He cries loudly as Coach Whitt struggles to remove his gloves and scolds him for his reaction. The fighter who was handily beating his foe a minute ago is suddenly reduced to a wounded child, beyond shame or humility. The trophy girl meekly holds Austin's consolation trophy out to him, but he will not take it or even look at her. Finally, she sets it at his feet and walks away. The crowd begins yelling out little encouragements: "It's OK Brad," "Next year, Brad."

Later, a 178-pound fighter from South Carolina is knocked down by his opponent from Georgia. Standing for an eight count, he does not face the referee, but looks instead to the fighter in the other corner. Breathing heavily, he does not seem scared or angry, merely bewildered. When the eight count is over, the ref decides he's had enough and calls the fight. The dazed fighter turns to his coach, and mutters, "What happened?"

Being knocked out is always a possibility for any boxer. "I always hope that it can't happen to me. I know it can happen. Any guy that has two hands can knock you out," says Durst. "You can be winning huge. John Tate was winning huge for 14 rounds and then got knocked out in the 15th.

"I haven't been dazed that much. I really don't like it."

Neither Durst nor Siler has ever been knocked out. They have overwhelmed fighters with their own power.

"The first time I knocked somebody out, it scared me," Siler says. "I nailed him off the ropes. The next thing I know, the ref was helping him, and the doctor came into the ring. I was like, 'Oh, God. What did I do?' Now, when I knock people out I start talking junk in the ring. It's a rush, the adrenaline."

"You want to hurt people, but once I hurt them, I hope I didn't hurt them too bad," says Durst.

What would it be like for the average person to step into the ring with either of these guys?

Says Ace Miller, "Boxers have big egos, whether they admit it or not. When somebody starts acting like they know something about boxing, they humiliate anybody that would do that. They're just mean individuals. If you start alluding that you know as much as they do about boxing, that would be a terribly bad thing."

CHATTANOOGA

They talk little. Crammed into a back room at the Chattanooga Trade Center, a dozen fighters are putting on boxing shoes, trunks, the thick leather pads that protect their groin, and tanktops with places like Nashville, North Carolina and Georgia written on them. They rub Vaseline over their faces to prevent cuts. Coaches tightly shroud their fighters' knuckles and wrists in athletic wrap. Each fighter's opponent is nearby, perhaps just around the corner in an adjacent room.

Durst stands in front of the mirror, his fists unclenched, popping jabs and rights and uppercuts and hooks.

Coach Whitt wraps the hands of Siler, who whispers, grinning, "Alright coach, what we gonna do tonight?" "Didn't come here to get no candy bars. You're the favorite, you're calm," the gruff Whitt replies in an uncharacteristically mild tone.

The nervous tension, or maybe tranquillity, that seems to hang so thick frequently dissolves with some trash talk or locker room humor—"Glad you've been using those breath mints, Coach Whitt," Durst quips after his hands are wrapped. "I was gonna fart on ya, but I was afraid I'd shit on myself," the coach barks, and everyone laughs. But the tension rushes in again, overwhelming the room with silence.

Eventually, they trickle out to the chaos of the convention room. In its center sits the ring, almost majestic. Tables for judges and the press line the ring, but most of the spectators sit back a ways—at reserved tables and folding chairs—and it heightens the feeling that the boxers are isolated, alone. In a corner of the room, a vendor sells beer, popcorn, M&Ms, and bottled water.

Fighters get their gloves put on in front of judges who inspect both their hands and gloves. A prayer is said, the national anthem sung.

On Thursday night, Siler fights first, against Cerinzo Williams from South Carolina. Siler is dressed in a yellowish-orange tanktop with "KNOXVILLE" written across the back, and orange trunks.

Siler boxes well, connecting with several hooks. He's having trouble going to the body, but controls the fight. In the third round, Williams tries to go inside, but Siler's quick hands tag him, send him back into the ropes. Williams wobbles. The judge gives him a standing eight count, while Siler raises his fist in the air, sensing victory. He wins by a decision.

For his first fight, Durst faces 29-year-old Pedro Diaz. Durst wears a white tank top and white trunks. His waist band is colored Tennessee orange, with D-U-R-S-T lettered in white in the front. Durst owns the older man, connecting at will, both to the head and body. Diaz gets two eight counts in the first round, and can't figure out how to reach Durst with his own blows. In the third, Diaz is slow, gasping for breath. With the second of two blows to his stomach, Diaz drops to one knee. The ringside doctor stops the fight. Durst jumps, raises his fists in the air and mugs for the camera.

With fewer fighters in his weight at this tournament, Siler doesn't have to fight again until the Saturday finals, where he will face Daniels.

Durst wins again Friday night and must face Orlando Cordova, a tough Marine from North Carolina. Word among the fighters and the boxing crowd is that Durst will have a tough time with the Marine.

SATURDAY

Durst is not one to be trifled with. His typical easy-going demeanor gives way to a steeled concentration. He wanders ringside before the Cordova fight, punching into the air, gyrating his neck and head in circles to keep limber. He acknowledges few people around him, talks little.

Tattooed and stocky, Cordova looks tough. He is dressed in red and his uniform reads, "MARINES."

Ace Miller sits at the press table, and when the fight begins he yells out commands to his young boxer. The two respond so well, it's as if they're playing out some finely choreographed scene from a movie. "One, Two," Miller yells; Durst replies with a jab and a right to Cordova. "See how easy it is?" Miller yells back, pleased. "Just box this boy."

Cordova is tough and fit, but Durst is too quick—dodging and deflecting all his opponent's punches and finding holes to land his own gloves. By the third round, Cordova is worn down considerably, but Durst is fatigueless. Near the end, Miller yells confident of victory, "Come on, let's go to Syracuse."

Durst wins the fight unanimously.

Torrence Daniels is not so easy a match for Siler. In the second round, Daniels pins him against the ropes and the two slug it out for several seconds until the bell sounds.

In the third round, Siler seems tentative, unsure how to attack. But Daniels is lethargic and backs away. With Daniels trapped against the ropes, Siler attacks, hitting him several times.

After the fight—before the decision is announced—both boxers hug several times. For now, neither is a loser or a winner, they're just two guys who gave each other all they had. They clench hands in the air, wave to the crowd. The audience applauds loudly.

The referee steps between them, taking an arm of each and raises it in the air. Then it's time for the decision: In the blue corner, from Knoxville, Alvin Siler. It was a split decision, with three judges favoring Siler, two Daniels.

Siler grabs his trophy and leaps up onto the ropes in the corner, pointing to his family. "Let's Go, Let's Go," he shouts.

Daniels buries his face in his hands in disbelief.

GOING TO SYRACUSE

With his fight over, the good-natured Durst is back again, joking with his fraternity brothers, his girlfriend. There's also an extra dose of confidence there. His parents are here, and they're going to meet him out for dinner, after the fights are over.

Gayle Durst is supportive of her son's vocation but a little uneasy. "It's been hard for me to watch, because I think he's real cute, and I don't want him to be hurt," she says. "It's just tough for a mother to watch something like this."

"Any mother's that way," Marion Durst says later. "You see 'em put their hands over their eyes when they hit each other. But actually, she will yell more than I will."

Patsy Young screamed all through her son's match. Now that it's over, she looks more exhausted than he is.

"I can't keep coming to your fights, my chest hurts," she tells him.

But she's going to try hard to go to Syracuse.

With his son and girlfriend sitting nearby, Siler just beams. Recounting the fight, he says, "He caught me with that right hand, surprised me. He got tired. I've seen him fight before so I knew he was going to get tired."

But he knows Syracuse will be a lot tougher than Chattanooga.

"I'm gonna get in tip-top shape—the best shape of my life. I'm going to win this tournament," he says.


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