by Everlast

Choice of Champions

10 min read

Does where you come from determine what you deserve? Is it where you're from or where you're going that matters most?

On a Tuesday, at 3:30 PM in Newark, NJ, Mike Steadman walks into the Ironbound Recreation Center, waves to the women at the welcome desk, and pushes through a set of doors that lead into a halted construction site set on an ice rink. He goes up the stairs on the left– dodging droplets from the leaking ceiling as he goes– and walks across the platform to the unassuming black door in the far corner. The door opens, as if to another world, and unveils a small space packed with life and motion. Kids are jumping rope, hitting heavy bags, laughing with one another, hitting speed bags, doing footwork drills, and sparring, all in front of walls covered with vibrant, energy-packed murals of red and black. This is has been the beginning of Mike’s work day as founder of Ironbound Boxing Academy for the past three years. It is here, squeezed underneath the bleachers of a football field, that Mike has set up a free after-school boxing program for kids and young adults.

A former Infantry Officer for the Marine Corps, Steadman began boxing in the US Naval Academy, where he developed a strong relationship with the sport. He trained regularly with the Academy– eventually becoming a three-time National Collegiate Boxing Champion– and also spent time at various inner city gyms, where he was exposed to different fighters than that of the Academy. He was struck by the people he met at these inner city gyms. They had the same background as him, but were not awarded the same opportunities.

Reflecting on the impact boxing had on his life, and on that of others around him, Steadman was propelled to open Ironbound, as a way of bringing free recreation to kids in communities that need it the most. “Boxing is urban, it’s gritty, and it speaks to the people here”, says Steadman, explaining why boxing is a perfect fit for Newark– a city largely affected by violence and poverty. It is Steadman’s hope that for young men and women of color, Ironbound can become a sort of haven from the harsh realities of the streets.

Shortly after arriving, Steadman is joined by recent high school graduate, Brian Aguilar. With a kind and modest disposition, Brian, 19, tells us he joined Ironbound after leaving gyms he couldn’t afford, and soon after– began volunteering to come in early and stay late to help out, as well as training and mentoring some of the younger students, becoming Steadman’s right hand man of sorts. Brian began boxing when he was young, and found it to be a welcome escape and positive factor in helping him cope with the schoolyard violence he saw and experienced growing up. He says Newark is a place where “trouble can find you anywhere, you don’t have to go looking for it”. Despite this, Brian has managed to keep a level head and help those around him stay out of trouble as well. His motivation in volunteering at Ironbound couldn’t be more admirable: he hopes to help kids that are going through what he’s gone through, and ultimately “just want(s) to be remembered for something good”.

The next student we meet is Keith Colon Jr., a 16 year old amateur boxer who hopes to turn pro. It is immediately evident that Keith is the superstar of the gym, all the kids seem to gravitate toward him and look up to him for his talent in the ring, as well as his character. Upon meeting him, he is casual and unpretentious, saying one of the reasons he likes Ironbound the most is that it’s a place where “everyone is accepted” and no one is turned away for lack of experience, talent, or funds. Keith has lived in Newark his whole life, and knows that a lot of the young kids that live there often don’t have a positive role model in their life. He hopes to be someone that people can look up to, and at Ironbound, that dream is already coming true. Maribel Santiago, who has two kids at Ironbound, says “Keith is a great role model for our kids, they look up to him”. Her 14 year old daughter, Yandalee, expresses that boxing has made her gain confidence, discipline, and helped her stay out of trouble in school. At Ironbound, she’s found a community of friends and peers that push her to improve her skills, and is motivated to pursue boxing as a profession.

Despite the athletic promise that many of the kids at Ironbound show, Steadman’s goals for the program have always been broader than wanting his students to become professional boxers. The coaches teach with the mindset of giving equal attention and opportunity to all the students, whether advanced or beginners. Their hope is that the structural discipline and focus involved in boxing, combined with an atmosphere that encourages growth and community, will create self-improvement that extends beyond the gym. When asked what he hopes become of the students at Ironbound, Steadman says “Everything. I want them to get into good schools, I want them to get good jobs. If they want to go pro then I’ll help them get there. But I want them to know that if they want to be a CEO or something one day–that’s more than possible for them, and I’ll help them get there too”.

Humble beginnings are just that: beginnings. They do not define a person’s outcome. Like roses growing from cracks in the concrete, this is what Steadman and the kids at Ironbound are proving to themselves and the people around them everyday.

Choose your Size