Dave Hart Jr. moves across the fellowship hall of New Faith Missionary Baptist Church with the bouncing assurance of a kid, which he is. Tied up behind padded foam headgear, his soft face is expressionless. Only his brown eyes and mouth, slightly opened to reveal buckteeth, are visible behind the mask.
Hart reaches his opponent, a 9-year-old coiled tightly in a defensive crouch.
“Work your jab,” a man says in a hoarse whisper. “Mind your punches. Stick and move.”
Hart’s left hand explodes from his side, followed by the right. The combination repeats. 1-2, 1-2, 1-2. They are not the punches of a 9-year-old.
In the corner, against the wall, several other children watch from a discarded church pew, along with Hart’s mother, Tomeka Freeman-Hart.
“A lot of people don’t pick on him, just because he’s a boxer,” Freeman-Hart says. “Because you do learn different moves, how to duck and punch. It is a good way to defend yourself, if you had to fight.”
Hart is one of about 15 kids in the boxing club of Dominique Azeez, a former professional boxer who grew up in Pine Bluff.
Azeez’s boxing club is the third youth boxing program in Pine Bluff, part of what area coaches say is a renaissance for local youth boxing. The other two are the St. James Boxing Club and the Pine Bluff Boxing Club.
Until a month ago, the club practiced in the fellowship hall of the church, located at 3800 S. First St. in southwest Pine Bluff.
The hall’s conversion into a boxing gym begins when the kids clear folding chairs from the middle of the room and set them to the side. A punching bag stands in the corner. The humble space includes a kitchenette with a stove-top, microwave, sink and refrigerator. The kids do calisthenics while Azeez pulls gloves and tape out of a janitor’s closet and sets them on the kitchen island.
Azeez says that when he was growing up, there were three clubs and lots of boxers.
“Eventually, over the years, they just died off, they didn’t have any teams,” he says.
That changed around 15 years ago when another local native, Albert Brewer, re-started the Pine Bluff Boxing Club. Like Azeez, Brewer grew up boxing in Pine Bluff. After graduating high school in 1980, he embarked on a boxing career in the Navy. When he returned in 1991, the boxing clubs were closed.
“Boxing was dead,” Brewer says.
Of course, the health of the sport nationwide had declined during the same period. Basketball and other sports increasingly competed with boxing for viewers’ attention, even as the sport migrated from network television to pay-per-view. Muhammad Ali’s deterioration due to Parkinson’s disease, which many fans connected to blows he received in the ring, renewed concerns about the sport’s safety.
Brewer tried started a club several times, with no success.
“I want to say about 2000, I finally was able to get it started,” he says.
He asked Scott Ladd, another local who fought as an amateur in the 1970s, to help the new club train at the Merrill Community Center at Ninth and Ash Streets. The early days were humble, Ladd says.
“I go walk off in the gym, they got one [boxing] bag hanging, and a rope,” Ladd recalls. He decided to commit to coaching, using his own money. “I built my own ring, and…four or five heavy bags. I’ve bought hundreds of gloves through the years.”
The progress was rapid, due to a surplus of talented local boxers. Within three years, he says, the Pine Bluff Boxing Club was the top amateur team in Arkansas every year.
“There is probably so much raw talent in this town that if you could get ’em in the gym… If I have 10 kids, we’re going to win eight or nine fights,” Ladd says. “Kids are used to fighting in the streets. Hey, you’ve gotta be tough to live in this town.”
In June 2005, Little Rock’s Jermain Taylor beat Bernard Hopkins in a split decision to win the undisputed world middleweight championship. Taylor successfully defended the title with a unanimous decision over Hopkins that December. The Arkansas native’s success did not go unnoticed.
“What Jermain did is really help the interest in boxing,” says Brewer. “That’s where the interest in boxing in Pine Bluff started.”
Meanwhile, Brewer had drifted away from his work with the Pine Bluff Boxing Club. But several years ago, he got an idea for another boxing club.
“I wanted to do something different. Give the kids a spiritual foundation,” he says. “That was a journey, going to several churches and presenting the idea of a boxing club. It wasn’t well received.”
That changed with a visit to St. James United Methodist Church on University Avenue, and its pastor, Rev.Henry “Hank” Wilkins IV, who will also become the Jefferson County judge on Jan 1.
“He said let’s do it,” Brewer says. “I really thought he was playing. The rest was history. We’re the first boxing club in state of Arkansas ever sponsored by a church. And we’re the largest. First year, we had two kids in first year go to silver gloves.”
With a slogan of “Gloves Not Guns,” Brewer says he recruited kids from disadvantaged backgrounds. They are required to attend church and bible study, he says.
“I’m not trying to make choir boys or choir girls out of them,” he says. “I’m just trying to make something different.”
Not long after the St. James Boxing Club was founded, Azeez entered the picture. He had just retired from boxing and was looking for things to do. Driving by the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff one day, he saw a sign stating, “Gloves not Guns.”
“So I said, ‘Well, we’ll see what this program’s about,’” he recalls.
He began helping with the program as a coach and a mentor to the kids. As an assistant coach, he traveled with the team to tournaments. In 2013, sensing there was enough local talent to support another club, he decided to branch out.
“I decided ‘Hey, well. Pine Bluff is big enough to get more than one team,’” he says. “So I started my own.”
The first season, most of his boxers were children of family members. He took a similar approach to St. James, with its Christian emphasis — cursing is not allowed, he says, and each practice ends with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. The club is open to anyone, he says. Those who can afford it pay monthly dues. Otherwise, he provides an individual bag for each boxer that includes headgear, gloves, uniform, shoes, socks, cup and trunk.
Azeez’s wife, Geneva, does the laundry.
They practiced outdoors at the Pine Bluff High School track, he says, then moved to the Dollarway High School gym. Eventually, he approached his pastor, S.E. Shaw at New Faith Missionary Baptist Church.
“They needed a place to practice, and we had a place where they could practice,” Shaw says. “So we put it together that way. They’ve been doing well.”
The makeshift gym still caused some issues, given that it’s in a church. When the team started practice in October, for instance, scheduling conflicts forced them back to Pine Bluff High School for a few days.
“The church had a revival,” Azeez recalls, “so that kind of bumped us out of a whole week of boxing.”
In late October, the club found a new place. Azeez agreed to rent a space in a garage on South Spruce Street near the intersection with 16th Avenue. The roof of the garage requires some repairs, which he’s trying to raise money for.
After Hart Jr. and the other boy finish sparring, Azeez wraps boxing gloves around his hands for a session with Essex Kimble, Jr., 15. A freshman at Dollarway High School, Kimble says he enjoys boxing and it “keeps me out of trouble.”
A sign on the wall behind them says, “Gladiators for God youth boxing club.”
As Kimble spars with his coach, Dave Hart’s mother, Tomeka Freeman-Hart, reflects on the benefits of the program.
“It’s different from a lot of the basic sports, baseball and football,” she says. “Everybody’s going toward baseball and football, because of the future and fame in television. Everybody wants to be in the NFL. Boxing to me is almost not as public. Almost left out.”
Still, it gets her son off the couch, she says, and teaches him to work out.
In the center of the room, Kimble unleashes a flurry of punches on Azeez, but the veteran blocks them with ease, instructing the young man with each lunge on technique.
Boxing may be a decidedly old-school sport, but its boosters believe that maybe that’s what local kids need.
“Without Aziz and them, it wouldn’t be possible for the boxing to be going on right now,” Ladd says. “He does a good job with them, enjoys the sport.”
Brewer said he wishes more people would “step up” to coach local kids in boxing, given the need for positive activities for youth.
“We could use four or five [coaches],” he says. “Kids are less likely to pick up a gun. That’s one of my main goals here …teaching kids self-defense. ’Cause nowadays, everyone wants to grab a weapon.
“This is my firm belief. There’s two people that carry guns, police and cowards. This city is full of cowards. So many gunshots in my neighborhood last night. They too afraid to take an old country butt whoopin’. It’s crazy.”
Azeez and Kimble finish sparring, and Azeez calls the boxers to the center of the room. There they stand in a circle, join hands and bow their heads.
“…And lead us not into temptation,” they pray, “But deliver us from evil.”