By Albert Samaha
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Whoever said that youth is wasted on the young never got punched in the face during a professional boxing match.
The pros are a young person's game, and most pros, by the time they've hit 35, are as beat-up as an old car. In amateur boxing, however, where full-grown men are pitted against teenagers, the kids are the ones getting beaten up.
The New York City Golden Gloves began on January 24 at sites throughout the city and in Nassau and Westchester, and the tourney doesn't end until early next month at the Garden. With fighters as young as 17 and as old as 35, boys can often face men old enough to be their daddies. It's easy to forget, given their bravado in the ring, that some of the competitors are still in high school, staving off drugs and dealing with teenage pregnancy and all of the other crap teenagers go through. But while their classmates worry about exams and who to take to the spring dance, they have to worry about broken noses and headaches and who they're fighting next month.
Nevertheless, being an amateur boxing star at 18 has its perks, and it helps replace the nightmare of the streets with some dreams of better days ahead. Just ask Charles Vanderveer, a senior at Paul Robeson High School.
Vanderveer is a senior with an 85-5 amateur record. Last year, at 17, he lost in the New York Golden Gloves finals to 26-year-old James Eason in the 125-pound open class. That loss didn't tarnish his celebrity at Robeson, where he's treated the way Division 1 colleges treat their stud football and basketball players.
"As a boxer, I get benefits," said Vanderveer, who is fighting in the 132-pound open class this year. "I tell the teachers what I want to. If I don't want to do homework, sometimes they let me slide. I can walk the halls all day and do no work if I want to. It's very surprising to me. I don't have to get scanned [for weapons] in the morning with the other students. The security guards just let me pass through. I never have any problems in school. Everyone knows I box. I ain't never fought a day in my life."
At school, anyway. After school, while other boys chase girls and eat pizza, Vanderveer does his roadwork and then is off to Coney Island, where he trains at the L&R Strong Brothers' boxing gym until nine every night. He said he doesn't spend as much time as he would like to with his girlfriend or with his friends who are aspiring rappers, but that's the sacrifice. Vanderveer wasn't always like this. For a while, his sport of choice was the streets.
"When I was 16, 17, I was down with a gang, the Crips sect," recalled Vanderveer, who lives in Brooklyn with his aunt and two cousins. "It was crazy. We stuck up people. I was holding guns in my home. We sold drugs. We made fast money. I had to go train, and a lot of times I was ducking the gym after school. Then when I fought I was getting tired. At the same time I was going to church Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday every week. I've been in two shoot-outs. The second one, the kid put a gun to my face. He was another gang member. After that I said, 'No more of this,' and I decided to dedicate myself to boxing. All that's behind me now."
Curtis Jones, a classmate of Vanderveer's at Robeson, is another accomplished amateur. Going into this year's Golden Gloves, Jones was already a five-time Junior Olympics champ and had a 32-7 record. And big goals.
"I have high expectations," Jones said before the tourney began. "I want to turn pro at 160 pounds. I want to be the next guy to unify the 160-pound division since Bernard Hopkins. I want to pick up where Felix Trinidad left off. I want to be better than Sugar Ray Robinson. I want to leave an impression on people."
In the juniors, all of this seemed possible for Jones, who began boxing when he was eight. But as he's moved up, he's faced older fighters in the Gloves who can't match his skill and polish but make up for it with their intensity.
Last year, as a 17-year-old, Jones lost to 28-year-old James Onnikian in the Golden Gloves finals in the 165-pound novice class. During the match, Onnikian absorbed Jones's best blows and came back with some strong shots of his own. His resolve surprised Jones and toyed with his mind, discouraging the kid to the point where, as the fight wore on, he lost his will to win.
"Last year I felt a lot of pressure going into the Gloves," said Jones, who is from Crown Heights. "People were expecting me to win. I feel I won the fight, but I did the Ali shuffle and I think the judges didn't like it. After that I really felt like quitting. He was older, and it's like whatever I threw at him, he just came back, and I got tired."
Jones might wonder to himself why it is that sometimes he trains hard and loses and other times he hardly trains at all and winsthat's just the teen voice inside his head trying to talk him out of having to train. In his heart he knew he had to work hard. He said he wants to make the Olympic boxing team in 2004 and win world championships after that. First up, though, was this year's Golden Gloves 160-pound open class. When you're 18 and an accomplished boxer, everything seems within striking distance.
That's true for Vanderveer, who advanced through the early stages of this year's tourney, but not for Jones. He showed up late for his opening match and wasn't allowed to fight.