The author won an SPJ award for profile of iconic Milwaukee gym
By Kevin Meagher
Two pre-teen, African-American boys walk into the United Community Center Boxing Gym on Milwaukee’s South Side. The gym is not much larger than a classroom. There is a small ring and a set of eight punching bags. There are trophies displayed on shelves circling the room. One wall has neatly framed pictures of past and present UCC fighters extending in a line at eye level. There is a bulletin board filled with pictures of boxers, and a banner reading “Home of Israel ‘Shorty’ Acosta and The UCC Boxers.”
“Who is Shorty?” one of the boys yells over the sounds of punches connecting with bags and boxers’ chatter.
Israel “Shorty” Acosta is standing ringside and yelling at two sparring pupils. Acosta is in his mid-sixties with a salt and pepper mustache. He wears a baseball cap, sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and thin black rimmed glasses. At 5’11, Acosta is not the most dominating physical presence, but his loud voice and confident demeanor fill the small gym.
The two boys approach Acosta and ask him how to join the gym. He tells them in broken English that it costs 50 dollars to join and they have to buy a helmet. He tells them they must be at the gym at 4:00 p.m. every day.
Fifty bucks, a helmet, and a commitment are all it takes to receive boxing lessons from one of the most successful boxing trainers in the state of Wisconsin. Acosta was a notable amateur boxer in the 1970s and 80s, winning the 1984 National Golden Gloves light flyweight title and fighting prominent boxers like Freddie Roach, the current trainer of Manny Pacquiao.
As a trainer, Acosta has coached his pupils to golden glove championships and Olympic trials. He coached on the 1996 Olympic team and trained many of the best fighters to come out of Wisconsin in the past two decades.
Like any successful amateur boxer, Acosta faced the temptation to go pro, but with 74 fights already under his belt he decided to continue with his new passion: training.
“It’s like I tell everybody,” he said “I came so close, like a piece of hair from your mustache, to winning the gold medal. But my gold medal is the kids. That’s my real gold medal.”
A Cast of Characters
Peter Ehrmann of West Allis is one of the rare sports writers who make a living reporting on what he calls a dead sport. Ehrmann remembers a time when boxing was still front page news.
“When I first got interested in boxing in the very early 1960s and there was a heavyweight championship fight, the next day the Milwaukee Sentinel would have the results in a banner headline on the front page,” said Ehrmann.
Ehrmann fell in love with boxing as a boy and wrote his first story at age 14. These days, at age 60, he writes primarily about the history of boxing in Milwaukee, recalling the glory days of what is now a “niche” sport.
“In the 50’s the golden gloves tournament attracted 10,000 people to the Milwaukee arena,” said Ehrmann.
The sport’s popularity is far from its pinnacle in the 50s and 60s and Ehrmann blames that on a number of factors including bad promoting, bad coaching, and conflicting governing bodies. However, one thing Ehrmann does remain optimistic about is the UCC gym and Israel Acosta, who Ehrmann says is a contrast to less experienced boxing trainers.
“If they have a towel slung over their shoulder and learn how to put a mouth piece in, they think they know how to box,” said Ehrmann.
Ehrmann said there’s no question that Acosta is the most important person in Milwaukee boxing today. His fondness for Acosta extends beyond his success as a trainer. Ehrmann spent time covering the UCC gym as a freelance writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He recalls going to one of Acosta’s boxing exhibitions in the early 90s with his two children.
“Israel spent half the time running around to get the kids food,” said Ehrmann.
It is Acosta’s passion for helping that keeps young people coming through the door at the UCC gym.
“They come looking for me. I never say no to the kids,” said Acosta. He does not recruit students, and he said his approach to helping kids is simple.
“You can never do anything wrong with kids because they will remember for the rest of their lives. You may forget, but the kids never forget,” said Acosta.
The nurturing environment is what brought Luis “Cuba” Arias to the UCC as a young child. Arias’ mother knew Acosta from when her husband was a fighter in the 1980s and 90s. At age eight, Arias began boxing and 13 years, two USA men’s national championships, one under-19 national championship, one AIBA Youth World Championship, and a slew of others later, Arias must decide if he should go professional.
“I knew I wanted to wait to finish college. It’s just way tougher (to balance pro boxing and college) and I didn’t want to risk it,” said Arias. He is already receiving offers to go pro and he knows that will be his fate after college.
“I am going to go pro,” said Arias without hesitation when describing his future. For a young successful amateur boxer, the temptation to go pro is always there, but coach Acosta helps put things in prospective.
“Everybody cannot make it in boxing,” said Acosta “People have to want to see you fight. People pay to see Mike Tyson fight. People pay to see Evander Hollyfield fight.”
In fact, most people cannot make it in boxing, but that doesn’t mean they can’t participate. Ray Stubbe is an example of the open-door philosophy at the UCC. Stubbe is 73 years old. He picked up the sport in his mid-sixties. He is an ex-minister, marine, and author. Stubbe cites the death of his father as one of the reasons he started fighting. He said he became out of shape, depressed, and knew he needed a change.
After training with another coach in Milwaukee for some years, Stubbe joined up with Acosta and the UCC.
“The guys here are really happy, and they do a lot of good work,” said Stubbe.
Even in his seventies, Stubbe is no slouch. He fought in a number of tournaments including three appearances at the Ringside World Championship in Kansas City. He also made his Youtube debut in a bout with 70-year-old Michael Turnoff at Milwaukee’s Italian Community Center. Stubbe called the Youtube fight embarrassing and said that he has improved since then. His boxing skills are not the only thing that has improved since he began fighting.
“I have the weight and blood pressure of a 40-year-old,” said Stubbe. Despite his age, Stubbe’s doctor encourages him to box.
No Silver Spoons
Much like Stubbe, the kids who choose boxing are not always in the best living situations.
“Boxing is a sport for the poor people. (A lot of times) the mother is real poor and the child is coming for the get up. The people want to get to the top,” said Acosta.
Hobart Davies is a psychology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who specializes in child psychology and community violence.
“I think historically it tends to be more inner city kids, who probably don’t have all the other options available to them,” said Davies.
Davies is not one of the many health professionals opposed to youth boxing. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages doctors to steer young people away from the sport. The American Journal of Preventive Medicine takes a similar stance. While they do not rule out the sport, they do suggest that increased efforts are needed to prevent boxing injuries.
“I think you have to look at the slice of kids who are interested in boxing,” said Davies. “If the choice is, ‘are they boxing? Or are they fighting on the street?’ I’d certainly rather have them boxing in a controlled environment, and learning self discipline in that context.”
Public Perception and an Unclear Future
Acosta calls boxing a “duty sport.” In order to make it as a professional boxer, you have to pay. He says you have to pay out of your pocket and you have to pay through your work ethic.
“The promoter will keep money for himself. When you go pro you gotta pay the doctor, the trainer, the coach, the cut man, depending on however much you got,” said Acosta.
When discussing the future of the sport, it is impossible to ignore the controversy around it. Professor Davies points to the 2010 blockbuster “The Fighter” and FX’s show “Lights Out,” which debuted shortly after.
“Both of those shows painted the sport as a little bit corrupt, and not looking out for the welfare of the fighters, and with football they are all about looking out for the players, said Davies “I think you need that sort of shift for people to feel comfortable with (boxing) again.” Peter Ehrmann points to some of the recent fights that have brought negative attention to the sport.
“In the (2011) light heavyweight championship between Bernard Hopkins, who is almost 50 years old, and another guy, the guy threw him down and separated his shoulder,” he said. “There’s always controversy. There’s always something like that happening and people are just sick of it.”
Negativity may surround the sport but it’s hard to find at Acosta’s UCC gym.
“Every day people come in, more and more and more. People come in from West Bend, Racine, Chicago,” he said. “I got a guy who came from Detroit today. People recommend to him, you want to be a fighter, go to UCC and see Israel.”
With a barrage of people coming to his gym, one might think that Acosta would occasionally choose to turn some away, but that is not the case either.
“I got a big heart for people. I love people,” Acosta said. “When I die I want to take it with me. That’s what happens we gotta pass everything on.”