Sweat trickled down muscled backs, down onto the blue canvas stretched over a wooden frame which was pieced together by a carpenter from down the block. Fluorescent lights flickered over the glory of former champions pasted across the walls, under the watch of a small wooden cross. Sgt. Mike Rafferty leaned lightly on the ropes, watching a sparring match between Vincent Floyd and Jeremy Culvas, both in training at Grays Ferry Boxing Gym and Fitness Club.
“Keep your hands up Vinny, both of you keep your hands up,” Rafferty said.
Jeremy popped a few body shots, Vincent ducked them expertly.
“Damn,” Rafferty said.
It was 2001 when then-Mayor John Street, among others, ushered the opening of the boxing gym on 28th and Dickinson. At a time when businesses, schools, and youth programming moved out of the area, Rafferty moved in.
“People come up with resources from nowhere, donating time and money. I was impressed by people’s love and respect for this idea,” Rafferty said.
Rafferty recalls donations coming in from all corners of the Grays Ferry community; from businesses to bookies to priests. Growing up a block away from the William A. Barrett Community Center where his gym now inhabits the third floor, Rafferty saw boxing as an alternative for neighborhood youth struggling to escape surrounding environments inundated with drugs and gang violence.
A sergeant for the Philadelphia Police in the 18th District, Rafferty walks into juvenile cells asking why they were arrested. He tells them about his gym and while most don’t heed the advice, the interest of just one kid makes it worthwhile.
“As a cop, I see kids that are hungry. Hungry for attention, hungry for love, hungry for someone to care for them,” Rafferty said. “This brings people together who otherwise wouldn’t have met.”
The tide of violence in South Philadelphia could be seen as generational; one of Rafferty’s childhood friends was killed in a drive-by in his own youth. Head trainer Tony Bersani looks at his position at the gym as an opportunity to engage the same kids who might otherwise be engaged in gang violence.
“I just want to help the kids. If I can help two or three, I think I’ve done a big thing. Just to get them motivated, get them to love something, and get their lives together,” Bersani said.
Vincent Floyd, 27, (pictured in the feature image) is one of Bersani’s boxers with four pro-fights to date. A natural fighter, his svelte frame and quick reaction time make him lethal in the ring. He said walking into Rafferty’s gym changed the way he lived his life.
“It’s better than being out there selling drugs, getting with gangs. I used to be out there, fortunately I never got into any serious trouble before I made it to the gym,” Floyd said.
He wiped his brow.
“I look at that as a blessing.”
Floyd’s next professional fight is slated for the end of October in Rhode Island.
Working on a speed bag in the corner was 20-year-old Jeremy Cuevas. His precision in style and dedication to advancing from amateur to professional keeps him in the gym five to six days a week, at least three hours a day.
“I have a key, so I can get some extra time in,” Cuevas said.
Once prone to directing his energy in negative directions, Jeremy now considers boxing as an avenue to achieve his future goals in the business sector. He said that boxing represents a way of life.
“I take boxing into every aspect of my life. No matter what I’m doing, I do it like I’m boxing. I put my all into it and never quit.”
The trainers working behind boxers like Vincent and Jeremy, keep the Grays Ferry gym open and accessible to those willing to put in the hours to develop their skills. Angelo Novelli, long-time boxer and trainer at the gym at 28th and Dickenson, grew up in the neighborhood alongside Mike Rafferty. Despite the two-block difference of their childhood homes and contrasting Italian and Irish heritage, he said they are like brothers.
“He started this gym from his heart, and he has so much heart. He continues to inspire me, keeps me in the ring,” Novelli said. “I wouldn’t know how to fight southpaw if it wasn’t for him. It’s just great what he does for the neighborhood.”
Neighborhood funding, however, has run short on much-needed repairs. Boxing equipment costs run high, the gym’s roof leaks, and temperature control indoors remains nonexistent. The gym’s go-fund-me page has yet to reach its goal, and the city provides no funding for renovations. Novelli, however, keeps faith that the gym will continue to provide what it was made to do.
“This isn’t a business, we don’t do it for profit. We do it for the kids.”
-Text, images and video by Margaret Andresen.