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Boxing their way to a stronger community

A new year always brings new resolutions and the most common one is getting into shape. On Buffalo's East Side, a husband and wife team are using the sport of boxing to strengthen bodies, minds — and the community.

The journey starts at the rear entrance of 307 LeRoy Ave. Up three flights of stairs is a gymnasium, where on this Monday evening, Coach Terry Williams was leading a co-ed group of sweaty people in a conditioning workout reflecting his eight years in the U.S. Army.

The youngest person is 16, the oldest 65. There's a stage at one end of the gym, a boxing ring at the other and punching bags along the walls, which are covered with pictures of boxers who have come through the nonprofit Bombshell Academy over the years.

"The key to boxing is getting in condition," Williams said. "I don't put anybody in the ring 'til I know they've had this type of training. You have to be in condition, you have to be in shape and have the right frame of mind to get out there and execute what you need to do to survive, because somebody's trying to do bodily harm to you. So you have to be prepared mentally and physically to get out there and fight. Be the most smartest person in that ring."

Williams said he learned that from his trainer, the late national lightweight Golden Gloves champion Johnny Green, who fought with world welterweight and then middleweight champion Sugar Ray Robinson. Williams, himself, has been a trainer since 1994.

"My main focus is, we try to work with whoever comes into the gym if they give 100%. If you only got one soldier that's ready to fight the battle, I'm here," he said.

There to fight was Tazia Jackson, 18. She recently had a baby and joined the program to strengthen her body before going into the Marines.

"I'm going into the Marines because I want to learn hand-to-hand combat and things like that. So someone brought up boxing to me," Jackson said. "I can go in there knowing something already. So I won't be too far behind. I'll actually be further than most people, you know."

What does it feel like to punch somebody?

"It feels good," she said. "It lets your pressure out. It lets your anger out, your emotions. It feels good."

John Elmore points to two former state troopers who have helped mentor young people in the Bombsquad Academy. The walls of the gymnasium are covered with similar pictures.
Marian Hetherly
John Elmore points to two former state troopers who have helped mentor young people in the Bombsquad Academy. The walls of the gymnasium are covered with similar pictures.

Attorney John Elmore was all-Western New York in track and field and played basketball as a kid, but agreed there's no other feeling like stepping into a boxing ring.

"When someone steps into the ring, in a real fight, they have an opportunity to walk, to chicken out." he said. "But if you can face that fear, with the butterflies and nerves, and go in there knowing that someone's gonna try to knock your head off, nothin' in life is gonna scare you after that."

Elmore not only serves as a coach for the academy, but as a mentor to the inner city young people who participate. He said the program is a safe haven that develops physical and inner strength.

"We try to just show them a new normal," he said. "We bring in speakers — whether it be a banker or a judge, a medical doctor — so that it's a normal for them to see people doing well. And being around people that really care about 'em. We expect them to be excellent here and to be excellent when they leave here."

Fish eye view of the ladies class.
Marian Hetherly
A view of the ladies-only EmpowerMe Fitness class.

That's also the theme behind EmpowerMe Fitness, a new ladies-only boxing program that meets before the BombSquad. Also a 501(c)3, it's run by Terry Williams' wife, coach and registered nurse Regina Williams.

"I definitely wanted to start a program for women that would empower them, that would let them know that fitness should be a lifestyle, not just a destination. Boxing fitness," she said. "So along with the boxing, I add things like dumbbells. We do a lot of things called Tabata HIIT training. They're just different ways you can exercise the heart. I'll throw in things like a obstacle course. So I try to really be versatile with it."

About now, one may be thinking that just about every woman has joined a workout program sometime in her life — and maybe quit soon afterward. But as a newcomer, the feel at EmpowerMe — like the Bombsquad — was immediate fellowship and support.

"You see women looking like you and looking for the same goal, so it's encouraging and that also makes you want to support each other," said Kimberly Johnson.

Johnson works as a senior billing account clerk for the Erie County Probation Department during the day and participates in classes two evenings a week.

"I mean, somebody new is always welcomed into the fold. How often you come is up to you. There's no body shaming. It makes you feel good regardless of shape, size. It's awesome," Johnson said.

"The momentum and the energy always has you ready for whatever," said Hilda Ramos. "We're here because we want to be here. It's not about we want to look cute."

Ramos is a semi-retired teacher who met Regina Williams working summer school together. She likes that the program develops her physical as well as inner strength.

"I like the coordination. I like the fact that I'm building stamina. I like the fact that I'm feeling empowered. And I like the fact that I'm staying healthy," Ramos said. "When you have your box on, you got to really be attentive at all time. It's kind of like a form of dancing, you know? You have to really have coordination. You have to think about a lot of things at the same time. So it's almost even mentally simulates. You can't just sit down to do sit-ups and daydream."

Both programs close each session with a prayer and a high five before sending people back out into the world. Because as Terry Williams said, "God is in the method."

Marian Hetherly
The Bombsquad Academy ends each session with a prayer and a high five.