Updated: Sunday, March 4, 2018, 3:01 AM
Boxing is a harsh, brutal sport, but when you talk to former fighters who trained at the old Willie Torres Gym at Randolph and Venango Streets in North Philly, their voices soften.
Rough voices wax nostalgically about the good times and the friendships they formed there.
Established in 1984 by Torres, an ex-amateur light-heavyweight boxer from Puerto Rico, the boxing gym was a neighborhood oasis and home to a tightly knit family presided over by the legendary, internationally known Sam Hickman and Shar’ron Baker – both trainers formerly of Joe Frazier’s gym.
It was small — located on the second floor of a corner rowhouse. It didn’t even have air conditioning or heat but there would at times be 20 fighters in there sweating it out. Torres ran a construction business from the house, too.
“It really wasn’t the best neighborhood. There was violence and drug dealing, but nothing ever got into the gym,” recalled Sterling Staton, who learned to box at Torres and was the gym’s last manager before it closed three years ago. “There was some drug dealers who put their kids there, so they wouldn’t do what they were doing.”
Torres encouraged his young boxers to stay in school, get good grades, and stay away from drugs and alcohol.
“A lot of these kids came from broken marriages. Sometimes the mother couldn’t handle them or the father was no good,” said Torres, who retired from boxing in 1982. “A lot of these kids were on their own.”
The Willie Torres Boxing Gym would be nothing more than a fond memory were it not for some documentary filmmakers who are producing a movie about two once-promising boxers — Jose Martinez and Derek Bryant — who trained there. Jose and Derek is a labor of love for Keira Sultan, whose mother began work on the film back in 1993 but abandoned it after giving birth to her and another daughter.
“It was too much for her to continue filming with two small kids,” Sultan told me. “But she had all of this old footage. So, about a year and a half ago, me and my mom found ourselves driving by the old location of the gym and we’re talking about it and I became more interested in it and I began watching her footage and eventually found and followed up with these characters who were in her film and have been filming them for about a year. I’ve been combining my mom’s old footage with this new footage that I’ve been shooting.”
These things require money, which takes us to Sultan’s crowdfunding effort on Kickstarter.com. She and her partner, filmmaker Finn Boyle, have raised nearly $4,000 of the $5,000 they need. I’m sure they’ll get every penny.
I got interested because we’re always looking to get youngsters engaged and keep them out of trouble. Places such as Torres’ gym are godsends for blighted communities. Trainers become second parents. Kids learn valuable lessons not only about fighting but also about respect and discipline.
“Sometimes a mother brings her son in because he’s being bullied. He gets in with this old trainer … what he tells the kid is, ‘The next time that happens, you hit him in the stomach and when his hand comes down, you hit him in his face,” said Elmer Smith, a former Daily News columnist and an award-winning boxing writer. “A bond of trust begins.”
Derek and Jose will center on relationships because that’s really what made Willie Torres Gym special.
“People have this stereotype of boxing as this very violent and macho sport and obviously it has a violent and macho side to it. Sometimes, that’s all people see in it and what really stood out the most to me is the family nature in the gym,” Sultan said. “And once I got in touch with the fighters [my mother] was focusing on, I could see even more clearly now, 25 years later, how impacted they were by the gym.”
Mom Helena Pollack Sultan couldn’t be more thrilled.
“It’s important because it tells this beautiful story of a group of individuals and their strong connection to each other, their commitment to each other,” Pollack said.
That’s just not what you think about when it comes to boxing.