Tre’Sean Wiggins didn’t so much stumble into his own salvation as run into it. At 12 years old, he couldn’t have known it, but he had found his escape — literally. His big mouth had landed him in trouble again. Riding the bus with his little brother Tevin, he’d stepped off at the wrong stop, in the wrong neighborhood, populated by the wrong people. There are no gray areas in Newburgh’s inner city: it’s your territory, or it’s my territory.
He wasn’t in a gang — that didn’t factor in until later. But he was in the wrong place all the same. Some other kids began heckling him. Tre’Sean, short and slight, had never been very good at keeping quiet; he talked back. So, as these things go where he grew up, a mob was soon hot on their tails, knuckles balling into fists. The besieged brothers scurried up a fence, Tre’Sean shoved Tevin over the top, and they burst through the first open door they found.
Tre’Sean had never been in a boxing gym before.
Some say boxing is a dying sport, knocked from its perch decades ago by corruption and concussions; American life is no longer put on hold when a major prizefight is on TV. But on a very dark and very cold winter afternoon in one of the region’s most destitute towns, the racket inside the Newburgh Boxing Club is indeed decidedly undead. The tall windows in the back of the building on the corner of Broadway and North Robinson are frosted with condensation. Sweat pools on the rubber floor and in the canvas ring. The walls are cluttered with framed posters and drawings of all the sport’s greats, the men we know by one name — Louis and Ali, Duran and Tyson.
The terrible rage that swells inside the boy pummeling the speed bag comes pouring out of his fists. His taped-up knuckles take turns mashing it in a white orbital blur. Again and again and again, the red, teardrop-shaped ball collides violently against the disc from which it dangles before shooting back into the path of its punishment.
Nearby, Jaime Estrada stalks a heavy bag that is a good deal taller than the five-foot-three-inch slugger. He hops around, his ears adorned with shiny studs and headphones, which block out the salsa music booming over the speaker system with rap. His closely cropped hair has a whimsical swirl shaved into it. It’s hot in the gym, but his warm-up jacket is zipped up to his carefully groomed chin hair, hiding the tattoos on his dark, sinewy body. He circles the bag as it bobs and twirls on its chains and spring. Every now and then, he deals it a swift, unprovoked blow, denting the bag deeply and making it groan as air rushes from its seams.
Now and again, Ray Rivera, a portly 47-year-old man with a gentle face and a harsh voice, bellows instructions from behind a desk in a corner. Every three minutes, a red machine on the wall pierces the air with a shrill noise to indicate the end of another imaginary round. Between shrieks, Jaime discusses the merits of beef steak with a few other boxers who are hanging around. He isn’t eating any right now; in fact, he isn’t eating anything at all. In a few days, he’ll leave for the USA Boxing National Championships in Spokane, Washington. He’s right on weight for his 123-pound division, dropping down from his usual 135 pounds. So it’s just water and protein shakes for him right now.
He came in fourth at last year’s nationals, and he hopes that a better showing this time around — combined with two prestigious New York Daily News Golden Gloves titles and a 37-12 amateur record — will give him the right kind of resume to go pro with a big signing bonus from a promoter. He dreams of the house, the cars, the security for his brother and mother. If he gets lucky, he might get close to six figures.
The timing of your entry into the pro game is everything. Not too soon, when you’re unproven; not too late, when you’ve taken too many punches and you’re damaged goods — especially now that the amateur tournaments are doing away with headgear. Jaime has planned it ever so carefully. He beat a 21-year-old when he won his first Golden Gloves in 2011 at age 17, and won the event again in 2013. That got people’s attention. And you need their attention if you’re going to climb the ladder and make a career of boxing.
But first, nationals.
To say that Newburgh didn’t have a boxing club before Rivera opened his in 2000 isn’t quite right. He was working as a boxing coach for the New York City Housing Authority in a gym in his native South Bronx when he happened upon a few boxers representing Newburgh in a tournament. He’d moved up there in 1996 but knew of no boxing gym. He asked them at which facility they trained. None, as it turned out. They worked out in a park.
So Rivera took some retirement money and moved into a building on Washington Street, at the epicenter of all of the city’s persistent problems, where drugs, crime, and gangs conspire to make the future bleak for local youth. He refurbished it with the help of his large extended family, chased off the prostitutes and drug dealers working his block, and opened the Newburgh Boxing Club. At first, he would rent a bus and take the whole gym along if one of his boxers had a fight. Dozens of them would travel to support one another. He once took 20 kids to Lake Placid for a tournament, putting them up in a hotel and covering every last expense; for many of them, it was a rare glimpse of life outside Newburgh. They went to California, too, for an entire week, and Rivera footed the bill, spending thousands of his own money. He took the promising boxers and the mediocre ones. Because boxing was never really the point.
Success came quickly. One of Rivera’s first boxers, Nagy Aguilera, turned professional. He went on to knock out former heavyweight world champion Oleg Maskaev in 2009, and has had a steady career. Encouraged, Rivera brought up six more fighters from Puerto Rico in 2004 to train at his gym. They lived at the club. Three of them went pro as well.
Rivera would manage his fighters when they turned professional. When Luis Orlando Del Valle made a promising start to his career, Rivera quit his day job. He’d been working in the Department of Corrections’ construction services at Sing Sing and then Downstate and Fishkill prisons. Inmates taught him construction skills, and then he passed them on to the next wave of prisoners.
By casting his lot with Del Valle’s career, he hoped to carve out more time to run the gym and bring other boxers along. But Del Valle, who had lived in Rivera’s house and had gone on vacation with his family, had other ideas. “It didn’t work,” Rivera says in his heavy Nuyorican patter. “He forgot where he came from, forgot who helped him.” Things got ugly. Lawyers were brought in, just as they had been with Aguilera. “This is a very dirty business,” says Rivera. He never got another job. And his earnings from management are meager.
At the grassroots level, where the primary ambition of clubs like Rivera’s is the mere pursuit of a positive social influence, the business of boxing is chronically insolvent. While the Newburgh Boxing Club is registered as a nonprofit, Rivera says he gets no funding or grants of any sort. So he relies on donations and dues from the 25 to 50 active members. He charges $25 a month if you are younger than 18, $50 if you’re older. But Rivera has never turned away or thrown out a boxer who couldn’t pay. He asks that they contribute what they can, and if they can spare nothing, that’s fine, too. More than half of his members don’t contribute at all. Rivera knows not to even bother asking some of his members for money, no matter how long they hang round. In a good month he’ll take in $700, but most months it’s more like $300 — not even enough to cover the phone and electricity bills. The place forever teeters on the brink of closing.
Rivera has been bankrolling the gym out of his own pocket from the day it opened. And that was fine while he had a steady job and a decent salary. When he had to, he’d take out personal loans to cover the heating bills when they piled up. In 2008, talk show host Jenny Jones gave him $25,000 as one of “Jenny’s Heroes” for his work in the community. One of his boxers had nominated him without telling Rivera. They used the money to pay some $16,000 in overdue bills and to buy a van to get around. But somebody dumped sugar in the van’s tank and ruined it.
Things have been hard lately. “My wife tells me, ‘You can’t work hard and put all your money into this place because you need help,’ ” Rivera says. “I ignore it.” He works odd jobs in construction when he gets the chance. Anything to keep the doors open and the lights on. He has closed four times already, sometimes for a few months, once for a year.
In early 2011, Rivera had to sell the building to cover the mounting tax, utility, and maintenance debts on it. It took another year to reopen in a new location. Vincent Cappelletti, a local real estate developer and manager, donated space in the building on Broadway. His friends pulled together to furnish and equip it. Rivera doesn’t pay rent, and Cappelletti covers whatever bills need urgent settling.
The gym will probably never sustain itself. But its work is too valuable to be lost. It is open every day from three in the afternoon until nine at night. Members are mostly teenagers or in their early 20s from Newburgh’s inner city. They can come as often and for as long as they like. What matters is that they’re off the streets. Rivera insists that those of school age are receiving some kind of education, that territorial squabbles between neighborhoods are left at the door, and that his boxers stay out of the city’s gangs. “I tell them, ‘Look, that’s not the life, brother. If it is, I can’t help you. I can’t be around that,’ ” he says.
Having worked in the prison system, Rivera knows what a gangbanger looks like: “I can see it from a mile away.” He tries to help, to extricate them somehow, by keeping them off the streets and away from the gang’s clutches.
As it always has, boxing brings structure and discipline to wayward lives. “That’s what the sport is all about,” says Rivera. “Taking the kids that have a lot of anger issues and think they’re badasses.”
By Rivera’s estimation, 60 percent of his boxers don’t have their fathers around. “They need that tough love, they need somebody to discipline them,” Rivera says. “They like that.”
Since opening, almost 1,000 young adults have come through the Newburgh Boxing Club. A quarter or so never got away from the streets. They wound up, almost without fail, in an early grave or in jail. “In the beginning, it used to bother me a lot,” Rivera says. “But you can do but so much. It’s the statistics. You can’t help everybody; you can only help those that will let you help them.” But when you think about it, a 75 percent success rate, with almost no resources, is improbably high.
At the apex of the sport, the piles of cash are mind-boggling. World champion Floyd Mayweather — nicknamed “Money” — was paid $45 million for his last fight. So the attraction of ill-intentioned people to young boxers is inevitable. Some people have accused Rivera of looking at his fighters as a meal ticket. He shakes his head at the suggestion. He has long since lost count of the thousands of dollars he has sunk into his gym and he says that he harbors no illusions that he’ll recover that money.
When he manages his boxers who turn pro, it’s in the hope that any earnings might benefit the collective. “If I can hit the big time with one of them, the Newburgh Boxing Club will always be around,” Rivera says. “Other kids could get help.”
Gym rats: Boxer Jaime Estrada (above, far left) spars with a trainer; Tre’Sean Wiggins and Derrick Gibson (above right) land some punches on the training bags
The stabbing scar on Jaime’s left arm — a jagged bump surrounded by a tiny moat — looks a little like a bellybutton. I ask to see it, and he doesn’t hesitate to unbutton his shirt in the middle of a Starbucks, and slide out of his left sleeve so he can show it to me. He’s gregarious like that.
He has three knife wound scars: on his lower abdomen on the left side; below his left shoulder blade, where the knife punctured and imploded his lung between his ribs; and on the back of his left biceps. On his other arm, in roughly the same spot, he has a tattoo. It reads “Success is my revenge.”
He has other tattoos: praying hands; a pair of boxing gloves with a crown over them and another caption — “My ambition.” To be a world champion has been the goal from the time he took up boxing at age 12. He badly lost his first amateur fight. Then he lost two of his next three, but he kept at it.
Jaime graduated from the Newburgh Free Academy last year and turned 20 in March. He’s thinking about enrolling at Dutchess Community College in the fall. He’d like to become a personal trainer and wants to learn about nutrition. Composed and self-aware, he credits his maturity to boxing. “The way you carry yourself, not just your confidence but your structure and who you are, it helps you with stuff like that,” he says. “You really grow up.” There is a disarming sweetness to him — a short, high-pitched chuckle punctuates many of his sentences. He lives with his mother, who is originally from St. Lucia, and his brother. Jaime hasn’t seen his Panamanian father since he was deported for selling drugs a decade ago. His mother works two jobs, looking after disabled children in a home at night and at a car dealership during the day, a job she got with help from Rivera’s wife.
Jaime works out at the gym six times a week, augmented by three additional strength and conditioning sessions. “Sometimes I wish I could eat normal and go hang out with my friends,” he says. “But I know what I got planned is different from what they got planned.”
To Jaime, the club is a nurturing incubator for his dreams. “The people around you all train hard and that makes you want to train hard and do better,” he says. “We’re all a family in there, but it’s competitive. We all want each other to do good, but we all want to stay on top of each other.” By aspiring communally, they push each other upwards.
But not even Jaime has altogether escaped the viciousness of his environment. On July 7, 2012, he left a party early to go stand in line for the new Air Jordans. While he waited for a cab, someone came up from behind and stabbed him three times. Jaime knew his assailant. “We had problems before,” he says. “Nothing serious.” I prod him about the dispute that instigated the attack. He won’t tell me. He doesn’t want to distract the narrative from the pursuit of his boxing crown. “I don’t like to think too much of what I could have done if I didn’t have boxing, because that could open the gate for other bad ideas in my head,” he explains. Besides, success is his revenge. And even after losing in the first round of nationals, he had already charted out a new course to his destination. He’d win the Daily News Golden Gloves a third time. Then he’d win the National Golden Gloves. And he’d go pro after that.
As it turned out, he would place second at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, getting upset in the final. But his sights are still set on going pro. “That would mean I’d be financially stable, and could provide for my family,” he says. “And I want to be one of the greats.”
Ray Rivera grew up in the rough South Bronx in the 1970s and ’80s. His Puerto Rican parents had 21 siblings between them and were each on their second marriage. They brought six children into the relationship and had three more together, of which Ray was the oldest. There were never fewer than 15 people living in their five-bedroom apartment. Ray loved the arrangement. “That’s one thing my mother always taught us: Family is first,” he says.
But when Ray became a father at age 14, his own tough, unforgiving father threw him out of the house. That caused a rift in the family which was never quite patched up.
Even though Rivera had nowhere to go, he had to support Ray Jr. and his baby’s mother, with whom he never had a relationship. His options were limited. “I had to survive,” he says. “But I had no mentors, no people looking out for me. I chose the wrong route. The streets got a hold of me.” He dropped out of the eighth grade and worked a series of menial jobs, forging birth certificates and wriggling his way out of filling out applications, since he couldn’t read or write. He dealt, robbed, and stole — “everything and anything to make some money” — and got arrested often.
Somehow outrunning the odds, Rivera never did time and managed to put together a life. Ray Jr. wasn’t so lucky. He was shot and killed at 16 while having an argument over a girl.
Fatherhood ended Rivera’s own boxing aspirations. He had a strong 72-15 record as a junior, even though he’d never been very focused. And once he had mouths to feed, he didn’t have time to train. It still eats at him.
He’d been going to a neighborhood boxing club since he was nine. It was 15 miles away, but he got there however he could — by subway, bike, or on foot. Maybe he should have found ways to go more often. It was a safe place that superimposed some kind of order onto his life. It was run by a tough-loving father figure.
After Tre’Sean burst through his door, Rivera mediated with the mob of pursuers and sent them on their way. But Tre’Sean was scared to leave — so he never really did. He hung around until they closed that night. And he came back the following day, to do homework. The gym became an after-school program for a spell. Eventually, he gave boxing a shot — reluctantly.
“I was the whackest one in the gym,” Tre’Sean recalls. “They started sparring at six o’clock. I used to get there at 6:40 just to make sure I didn’t have to spar with anybody. Everybody was beating me up — everybody. I didn’t want to get hit.” He got over that; after a while, his friends started coming, too. There were 20 of them at one point. They went to tournaments, and won often. They’d put shaving cream on Rivera as he slept.
“We had a lot of fun,” Tre’Sean recalls with a smirk. As the years went by, most of them quit. Tre’Sean’s good friend Levi Flores didn’t. But during one of the club’s hiatuses, Levi was stabbed to death by a gang-affiliated 13-year-old. He was 17 and survived by his girlfriend and infant daughter. Tre’Sean kept going.
His life became moored to the gym. His own dad did time for second-degree murder. For a while, he lived in a shelter with his mom and three younger half siblings. Gangs pressured him to join. Tre’Sean says he never gave in. He had boxing. But eventually he fell in with the wrong crowd and Rivera kicked him out of the gym. One night, walking through the city alone, he got in a fight and was stabbed twice in the back and once in his hand. He ran for his life, was hit by a car, got up and kept running. His girlfriend Ashley was very pregnant with their first child. He was hospitalized for a month and spent a few days in critical condition. “I pulled through,” says Tre’Sean. “I’m a fighter, man.”
After Tre’Sean recovered, Rivera allowed him to return to the gym. “I told him, ‘In the good and the bad I’m not gonna turn my back on you. But I am gonna be tough on you,’ ” Rivera recalls. “And I am a tough son of a gun with him, man. I’m real rough with him. But it’s so he can know.”
Tre’Sean picks up the story. “I had a decision to make,” he says. “Either work through the pain and adversity or lose to the streets. Nobody survives the streets, I don’t care who you are. Growing up here is hard — really, really bad. The gym saved me big-time. It made me a different person.”
Tre’Sean was expelled from school; he eventually got his diploma online and zeroed in on boxing. He’d been unfocused as an amateur, losing his first four fights. His record was pedestrian, but he plainly had potential. In his first professional fight as a welterweight, he knocked out his opponent in 20 seconds. He won three of his four other fights by knockout before the second round was over, and is convinced he was robbed by a hometown referee in his one loss.
But his career has been a struggle. When you’re an unknown coming out of the amateur ranks, getting a fight is hard without the clout of a big-time promoter behind you. And when you start knocking out better-known fighters, booking you becomes a liability for boxers who have a lot of money invested in them. Tre’Sean is a professional boxer, but boxing is hardly his profession. He has never made more than $3,000 from a fight, and gets no more than three per year. But at 24, the humdrum rhythm of training for fights has brought him stability. Last year, he moved to Johnstown, Pennsylvania with Ashley. They’re engaged now and have three kids. Tre’Sean comes back to train with Rivera ahead of his fights. For the first time in his life, he doesn’t feel on edge all the time, the way he did in Newburgh.
The sport’s biggest achievement in Tre’Sean’s life has been to make itself redundant. He has a job he likes as a personal trainer at a gym, giving boxing lessons. Ashley is a manager at a Walmart. If his fighting career doesn’t pan out, they’ll be okay. “I’m very happy with the choices I’ve made,” he says.
Tre’Sean recently hung a speed bag in their apartment for his oldest son Alijah, who is five and talks just as much as dad does. He encourages his son’s interest in boxing. “I know what it did for me,” he says. “And I know what can come out of it if you work hard.”