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Stamford Advocate

Boxing Club Finds A Home In Church

By Scott Smith

May 4, 2003
Copyright © 2003
Stamford Advocate. All rights reserved. 

This is not your average church group.

On Monday through Thursday evenings, the young men gather in the basement of the Union Memorial Church in Stamford. They stand in a circle in the middle of a meeting room, beneath signs quoting Bible psalms. As a Winnie the Pooh clock on the back wall approaches 6 p.m., they stretch their arms and legs.

Twenty minutes later, they pull fold-down metal chairs across the linoleum tile floor to the middle of the room. The upright piano stays against the wall as they set the chairs up in a square, backs facing the center. Two young men enter the square, the others move back toward the walls. And they all begin to box.

Montalvo's Boxing Association is back in session.

Boxing? In a church?

"Basically, it's an alternative to aggression and violence, and we're certainly all for that," said Pastor Blaine Edele of Union Memorial, a United Church of Christ congregation on Church Street, across from the Glenbrook Metro-North Railroad station.

An alternative to aggression and violence? Boxing?

"See, boxing is good because all the energy don't explode outside in the street," said Orlando Montalvo, 45, who founded his eponymous boxing club 23 years ago with his wife, Sandra. "My goal is to give the kid something positive, get him off the streets."

Montalvo speaks from experience. "I was a street fighter," he said, recalling his youth in Puerto Rico. "Boxing changed my life."

Boxing would take him to Montreal, where he won a bronze medal for Puerto Rico at the 1976 Summer Olympics. It would take him to a Top 10 ranking and 22-5-2 record, with 18 knockouts, as a pro. It would make him a favored sparring partner of such greats as Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran and Thomas Hearns.

And now he is trying to give a similar break to young people in the Stamford area.

Montalvo's Boxing Association is a nonprofit organization free to anyone, male or female, who wishes to join.

"The rules to come into the program are to be enthusiastic, to keep away from doing wrong and to have a goal for themselves," Sandra Detres-Montalvo said as she watched two boxers spar in the makeshift ring. Others shadowboxed along the walls as Montalvo and other instructors moved among them to offer encouragement and advice.

There's one other rule: The boxing stays in the ring. "If he's going to train here at Montalvo's Boxing Association, he can't go out and fight in the street," Orlando Montalvo said. "It's discipline."

To Montalvo, discipline is the key to success -- inside the ring and out. It is discipline to training and conditioning that helped six of his fighters reach the finals of a Golden Gloves tournament in Holyoke, Mass., in February. It is discipline to technique that helped two of them -- junior welterweight Albert Pope and junior featherweight Alex Beaujour -- win their respective weight classes.

Most of all, it is discipline that helps the boxers in Montalvo's Boxing Association turn their lives around. Hector Hernandez has been training with the group for six months. "I was 220 (pounds); I am now 178," the 25-year-old father of three said proudly. "I feel better now. I run in the morning, and I go to my job (at Pitney Bowes). Then I come here."

"Here" is not exactly a scene from "Rocky." Besides the folding chairs, the only equipment is some headgear, boxing gloves and a jump rope that Montalvo brings to each session. "I tell everybody I don't got a boxing gym," he said. "I've got a place where you can learn about boxing."

The Montalvos would love to move their operation to a permanent gym, complete with heavy bags, speed bags and other amenities associated with boxing. That, however, costs money, and while the Montalvos have financial support, including from the church, they have not found a benefactor who can set them up in a proper space.

The boxers do occasionally train at the Police Athletic League gym in Bridgeport, but for the most part they share the church room with a moms' play group and the AARP tax counseling service, among others. The workouts usually extend to 7:30 or 8 p.m. -- except on Tuesdays. "We stop at seven to clear the room for AA meetings," Sandra Detres-Montalvo said.

"I admire him for doing this because he receives no compensation," Pastor Edele said of Orlando Montalvo. "He does it for the love of it."

A sign hovering over the boxers in the church basement quotes a psalm: "Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life."

Orlando Montalvo hopes boxing impacts his charges all the days of their lives, too. It's a calling to him. And what better place is there to fulfill a calling than a church?

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