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Right Hooks and School Books 

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By Scott Rosenberg

Ninos Abraham is 14 years old, a clean-cut, attentive honor student who respects authority, follows instructions, and gives his all when it matters most--usually somewhere in the first 30 seconds of round three.

Watching Ninos fight is a joy. It doesn't take a trained eye to see that he has skill and talent in the ring. He looks completely natural and comfortable in gaudy, glittering shorts and bright red gloves, as if he were wearing a favorite sweater. In the five years since he started boxing he's racked up a reputation that includes winning the Junior Olympics of Illinois. Ninos boasts he's had almost 60 fights and won around 55, but his father, Anwar Abraham, says it's more like 40 fights and 37 wins. He goes on to claim that Ninos won the National Silver Gloves Tournament in his division two years in a row, but then quickly corrects himself: "He has won once. He will win again this year."

Down in the gray moist cinder-block gym of Hamlin Park, at the corner of Hoyne and Barry, Ninos is in the middle of his two-hour daily workout. He pounds a heavy bag with quick body punches, exhaling sharply with each blow. Dancing in a circle, he keeps his focus on the bag, even as his father bellows commands over his shoulder. The proud father can't help but brag: "He loves boxing too much. It's his habit."

Anwar Abraham divides his time at the gym between coaching his two boys and working out himself. Both Ninos and his younger brother, Ashur, who's ten, got involved in boxing at an early age. Their father hopes it's put them on the straight and narrow. His attention seldom strays: "I don't care how good he is, if a child has no parents taking care of him from age 6 to 16, he'll get in trouble." Looking at Ninos, he adds, "God bless he doesn't mess with the wrong people."

Some kids might consider this vigilance a burden, but Ninos seems to thrive on it. "I get extra support from my dad," he explains without pausing from his routine. He talks about his love of boxing and describes his rigorous training schedule while Ashur braces the bag for him, watching with admiration. When asked whether he prefers boxing to school, Ninos abruptly drops his gloves and says solemnly, "School's always first."

Discipline has been the constant buzzword in youth and amateur boxing--it's repeated like a holy mantra. Discipline is what a kid gains from training. Discipline is what it takes to become a good boxer. Discipline separates the winners from the losers. Whether it's Golden Gloves or Park District bouts, the rap is always the same: they'll carry these lessons throughout their lives. Boxing becomes social work.

"Most of the time being a good boxer equals being a good person," says Bill Heglin, who's been coaching at Hamlin Park for 26 years. He can claim responsibility for launching the careers of several pros and Olympians (Fres Ozuendo, an up-and-coming heavyweight, and David Diaz, a member of the 1996 Olympic team, won the 1994 Golden Gloves under Heglin's tutelage). But Heglin's not in this for the glory. "The kids come first," he says. "They will surprise you, especially if you put some time into them. They'll become good boxers." He adds, "Some of them go on to become medical doctors or go to law school."

Heglin looks out across the stuffy, dilapidated gym and sees potential. A lanky teen with nipple rings bats rhythmically at the tear-shaped speed bag; a couple of kids wearing plastic jocks on the outside of their warm-up shorts spar ferociously in the practice ring; a chubby boy practices his side step with his dukes up, cartoonishly oblivious to the swinging bags and whipping jump ropes that constantly threaten to hit him.

The program that Heglin oversees every day from 3 to 9 PM is open to all ages, though it's primarily intended for community youth. "We're trying to focus on the younger kids now--10 to 14. Once they get to high school and they get distracted by jobs, girlfriends, homework, they often drop out." When he considers the rare committed few like Ninos, his eyes light up: "The ones that stay and that started young develop into really good fighters."

Last month Ninos won the final match at the Hamlin Park Annual Boxing Show, one of many fighting events organized by the Park District. His father, brother, and numerous cheering friends attended, as did Sammy Merza, a 23-year-old Hamlin alum who's turned pro. "Homicidal" Merza is undefeated in eight fights, six of which were knockouts. He's Ninos's uncle.

Anwar Abraham's not thrilled that Ninos has expressed a desire to follow in his uncle's footsteps and go professional. But he has a father's understanding that eventually a child will do whatever he or she pleases. "I tell him he could get damage. My son says he could get brain damage walking down the street."

Heglin says he's tried to dissuade kids from pursuing a professional boxing career, citing its brutality and greed. "I don't encourage anyone to go professional," he says. "If they do go pro, I tell them to get in and out when they're still young. Don't stay."

Ninos remains unfazed by the lack of enthusiasm. He's clear about what he wants. "I like the competition. It's just fun."

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