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Boxing club of hard knocks and tough lessons

(ran North, South editions)

On a warm, humid Wednesday evening, young boxers, finished with their nightly workout, gather to talk with their coach Cecil Lalas.

The odor of sweat hangs in the air inside the cramped confines of the Ambassador Boxing Club as Lalas offers 16-year-old Joe Distefano a few words of encouragement and a fatherly hug before he leaves.

"I'm happy with your progress this week," Lalas tells the Central High student. "You know what you need to do to make it all work, right?"

Nodding in agreement, the teen can only hide his dejection as he grabs his gym bag and heads toward the door.

Tonight, when most of the other club's young boxers will take to the ring for the USA Boxing bouts at the Jerome Brown Center in Brooksville, Joe will not be among them. Because of a club rule infraction, his coach has told him he will have to sit out the second fight of his 18-month career. "I screwed up," said Joe, as he gathered up his boxing gear. "It's pretty heartbreaking. But those are the rules. I'll have to wait till next time."

Boxing is a tough sport. The kids who come to the Ambassador Boxing Club do so because they want to be tougher _ both physically and mentally. Sometimes, says Lalas, it's the mental part that's hardest to teach.

"There's a discipline to boxing that not everyone understands right away," says 48-year-old Lalas, who has been teaching the sport at the boxing club since 1993. He runs the club with help from his adult sons Tony and Adam. "You can be the strongest kid in the place, but if your head and heart aren't focused, you'll never get out of it what you should be getting."

That's why Lalas expects his boxers to show a high degree of accountability to both boxing and the other areas of their lives. Joe's suspension revolved around an agreement that he call his adult sponsor, the man who foots the bill for his training, if he was unable to make a practice. When the teen failed to do so, Lalas suspended him from this weekend's competition.

"I hated to do it," said Lalas. "He's one of my most talented kids. It hurts not having him out there with the rest of them."

For many of Lalas' kids, boxing provides a vital connection to their inner selves. Though many of his students come from at-risk homes, he hopes to provide them with what he calls "a positive release of negative energy."

Every workout begins with a short prayer session. The boxers then spend the next 90 minutes or so practicing the rudiments of the sport, weightlifting, or speed bag workouts. At the end of the night, the boxers often gather for short sparring sessions.

"It's fun for me," said 10-year-old Jake Bolen who attends Westside Elementary School. "You get tired and sweaty, but you really feel good when you're done."

Like many of his peers, Will Krysher, 17, of Hudson took up boxing as a way of getting in shape. When he started about three years ago, he weighed 190 pounds and could barely make it through even a short workout. Since then, he's slimmed to a 152-pound welterweight and can spar three rounds without any trouble.

Lalas said Will could be one of the top points-earners in todays' matches, which are expected to attract upward of 60 competitors from USA Boxing affiliates from around the state.

Though pleased with his progress over time, Will admits that boxing is far more complex than he thought when he began.

"Anybody who thinks that boxing is just putting on some gloves and punching is totally wrong," said the teen. "There are so many things you have to learn in order to be fast and to punch hard. I still have a lot of hard work ahead. But every day I know I'm better than I was the day before."

Logan Neill can be reached at (352) 848-1435 or

AMBASSADOR BOXING CLUB HOSTS: USA Boxing competition, "Going the Distance to Make a Difference"

WHERE: Jerome Brown Community Center, 99 Jerome Brown Place, off Darby Lane, Brooksville

COST: General admission $10; ringside $15.

Proceeds benefit USA Boxing and the Ambassador Club.

For information, call 688-4999 or 650-9252.