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The Tallahassee Democrat

Shaping Futures Under The Tent

By St. Clair Murraine

October 7, 2003
Copyright ©2003
The Tallahassee Democrat. All rights reserved.

OCHLOCKNEE, Ga. -- One by one, three of Joe Sierra's four children climbed into the boxing ring, each taking a corner as their father gave instructions. He slapped his mitted hands together and gave the command to commence working out.

Amanda, the youngest at age 15, was first to jump into action - the pop of her punches echoed through the large tent. After one round, sister Veronica, the oldest at 20, was next. Raymond, 17 and the only boy, followed. Each of them got the same drill, although Sierra seemed tougher on Raymond.

"Jab, jab," he instructed each of them. "I want to feel it." Each responded with a combination of punches after a series of piston-like jabs.

All the time, 18-year-old Angi was tending her 7-month-old baby while working the telephone and computer. Angi, also a boxer who has a 5-3 record, was making arrangements for their next bouts.

Within 45 minutes, the workout was over. The children retired to a small, white building, which is their home on the 15-acre property. Angi was still working to make sure that she and her siblings wouldn't be overmatched on the upcoming amateur boxing show.

Boxing takes up a large portion of the Sierras' days. It's been their life before Joe, a divorcee, got custody of the children.

He teaches his children boxing because he believes they can learn life's lessons from the sport, Sierra said, explaining that boxing was his ticket out of poverty when he grew up in Puerto Rico. Now he wants every other child who could make it to the Phantom Boxing gym, located in this small South Georgia town, to benefit from boxing.

"I come from a foster family," said Sierra, a lanky 56-year-old, wearing a light fleece jacket on a chilly evening. "I remember wearing a jacket this thin.

"I want to give other kids what I didn't have. Eventually it will pay off."

He figures one day his effort will pay off with a world champion, repeatedly making a point about his patience to mold one.

He teaches the basics on one of four punching bags before they get into the ring - they have a choice of sparring indoors or in a second ring outside. When they're ready for competition, the boxers travel in a 1960s school bus that has the club's name painted on the sides. The bright red air-conditioned bus has a television that's used for watching videos, a required part of Sierra's training.

"Nobody wants to make the sacrifice," he said, referring to a national trend to seek out only the best talent in the sport. "They want boxers who are ready to go. Nobody wants to work for it."

Sierra isn't a wealthy man. He and his children make ends meet by selling ice cream in three converted vans. Each has a cooler that is powered by generators that he and his son mounted on the front of the vehicles.

Business isn't brisk, but it's steady enough to keep it going.

"Most of what comes out of that, we pay our bills and we buy something for the gym," he said.

Sierra and his two oldest daughters drive the vans. He usually completes his route before school is out so that he'd be at the gym to work with the influx of prospects. About 200 children come through, but only a handful manages to make the trip every day, he said.

Some travel 10 miles from Thomasville, while others come from farther away. But many of the children can't afford the required $35 registration fee, which includes membership in USA Boxing, the sport's amateur governing body. He doesn't turn away anyone, though.

But, despite the increasing number of children working out at the gym, Sierra said recruiting hasn't been easy. He's been having some success because Angi provides tutoring for the children who need help with homework, he said.

"All this whole community knows is football," he said. "You say 'boxing' and people go, 'Kick boxing?' But my daughters got the people interested and they come over to watch us spar."

Sierra believes one good turn deserves another. He was able to set up the boxing gym because of the benevolence of Jimmy Groover, a retired developer.

Groover first met Sierra about a year ago when Sierra moved to Ochlocknee from Tampa. He came north to Georgia after falling out with a partner who wanted to change a no-fee rule for youths after they started a gym for underprivileged children, Sierra said. Groover was impressed with the concept and he allowed Sierra to set up a gym in Sugar Mill RV Park, adjacent to the current location off U.S.19.

Groover, a casual boxing observer, was so impressed with the turnout that he struck a deal that allowed Sierra to set up camp under a 200-by-30 tent. They outfitted the old flea market structure with a ring, weight-training equipment and seating for about 50.

Groover did most of the financing.

"I'm very interested in helping people, and Joe has a program that he can take the worst kid in town and his grade level will go up and his anger will go down," Groover said. "I'm all for making good citizens. I like his concept. I haven't seen anything quite like it."

Neither has 11-year-old John Weeks, who has sparred once in the three weeks he's been going to the gym.

"The first time it was a little scary, because I was going up against a guy who was pretty good," Weeks said. "He took it easy on me the first time. It's fun."

Sierra smiled as Weeks uttered his last two words, beaming as if he'd found his first champion.

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