Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson Kiwon Toney, 10, practices on a heavy bag Thursday night at the Westside Boxing Club in Chattanooga. Kiwon has been boxing for three years and is ranked eighth in the country for his age group and will compete in the Silver Gloves competition this year.
Driving past the old No. 7 firehouse on Central Avenue, few would guess it is home to world-champion boxers.
But inside the building, Westside Boxing Club trains them in the old engine bay-turned-boxing gym. For two hours a day, four days a week, the boxers work with nothing but the smell of sweat, the grunts of sparring fighters and the shouted advice of coaches motivating them.
The club has garnered 25 national championships, five world championships and even a bronze medal at last year's Junior Olympics.
Head coach Andy Smith shies away from discussing the accolades. Smith, part of the training staff for the 2008 Olympic boxing team, said the club focuses on helping kids.
"The most important thing is they take the things they learn in this gym and use it in their everyday lives," he said. "Very few of them will be national champions or world champions, and even a smaller few of them will ever be Olympic gold medalists, but all of them are gonna be citizens in our communities. All of them are gonna have jobs and families, so we want to teach them all the things they learn here to use in their life."
Smith's father, Joe, a 2008 Olympic boxing team manager, founded the club in 1999 to give kids walking the line between delinquent and criminal a place to channel their anger. Today, about 40 people -- most of whom are between 8 and 17, though all ages are welcome -- show up for free lessons and workouts. Smith said he's seen real changes in several boxers.
"The winning takes care of itself. It's a direct result of kids doing the right thing," he said. "That's what we teach them. If they do the right thing here and in their own personal life, then success is gonna follow. That's just life in general."
For some boxers, success has come faster than the wap-wap-wap rhythm of a speed bag.
Emily Dagnan, a 16-year-old junior at Sequatchie County High School, spends every day at school and softball practice before boxing at Westside, then heading home for homework, a shower and sleep.
Dagnan said her work started to pay off last year when she won the Junior Olympic bronze, but she's nowhere near satisfied.
"I wanna do it again for sure. I hope to go farther than that," she said between breaths as she took a break from her training.
The five-year veteran plans to try out for the 2012 Olympic team when she graduates high school and said she came to Westside to get to that level.
"This is where you actually compete," she said. "And that's what I wanted to do."
Using his experience from the Olympics, Smith designs practices that challenge even the fittest and most skilled.
"It's the best workout I've ever had," said LaShanda Johns, a two-year boxer who completed two Army tours in Afghanistan as well as Army basic training.
Basic training and Westside are "kinda equal, besides not getting yelled at," she said. "And (at Westside) you get to go home and go to sleep."
Smith said the workouts are supposed to be tough, but after soaking the gym's dark blue mats with sweat, boxers leave with more than just sore muscles.
"It's hard work, discipline -- the actual things that they're learning here. Self-esteem, focus, learning how to focus, and then, going back to what I was saying earlier, doing the right thing," he said. "If they just do the right things in their personal lives, they're going to be successful."
IF YOU GO
What: Boxing training
When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday
Where: Westside Boxing Club, 1600 Central Ave., Chattanooga
How to Help
The Westside Boxing Club is supported largely by private donors. To help, contact head coach Andy Smith at 423-847-7682