Writer Bill Hillman Steps in the Ring with Golden Gloves Boxers | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Writer Bill Hillman Steps in the Ring with Golden Gloves Boxers

Tomorrow night a gymnasium in a Catholic School on the North side of Chicago will be the site of brutal battles. The Golden Gloves finals take place this weekend. If you attend, you'll witness the subculture that is the world of boxing and its enthusiasts. Bill Hillman has been inside. He's a former champ and he's reported for Eight Forty-Eight before. Hillman is something of an adventurist. Today, he brings us this peek into the lives of the men and women who fight with their gloves on. Several of the people Bill Hillman introduced you to will compete in the Golden Glove Finals. Among them are Paul Littleton and Alma Grason.

Warning: Graphic descriptions of fighting.

Golden Gloves Finals
April 8-10; 7:30 p.m.
St. Andrew's Gymnasium, Chicago

As a kid I'd always followed boxing and grew up in a family that had plenty of street fighters in it. Being tough was a virtue. So when I started getting into fights in high school, I tried to channel that into something more worthwhile. My high school history teacher, a Christian Brother named Brother Peter, had trained a few golden gloves champs. Brother taught me the basics in the basement of my high school gymnasium.

Through my many years in the ring, I learned that boxing is not a sport. It's a cultural happening.

AMBI: Boxing Match

It's high drama playing out before a crowd.

COLONNA: Boxing, I'll tell you something. It's like a drug. Really, it's like you're addicted to it.

That's Sam Colonna. He's been training fighters from novice amateurs to top professionals for two decades.

COLONNA: It's that drive it's that competition it's that victory and being a trainer it's not just being a trainer it's being a brother a father a guidien it's so much that goes behind being a trainer a lot of people don't realize.

Sam is the kind of trainer who leaves a lasting mark on his fighters.

COLONNA: These kids here they get nervous you gotta be there to calm'em down a little bit. Even the open fighters with experience they go through the same thing you could have a hundred fights and still be nervous going in that ring you. So you gotta be there for all of that and you see it when they lose you gotta hug ‘em-- hey it's not the end of the world. That's what makes a good coach not to criticize ‘em because they lost-- you shoulda done this you shoulda done that you-- could throw that in but not at that time. Right now they need a little pat on the back-- hey don't worry about it there'll be another time instead of like you son of a bitch you shoulda did this. I've seen that with coaches. Maybe down the line lets work on this, let's correct it, that's what you did wrong in your fight, if you woulda did it this way you might of won.


Paul Littleton is one of his fighters. I met him when he 17. More than a decade before then, his father had died, leaving him and his 3 older sisters to be raised in group homes and with foster families. Paul has performed very well in his preliminary bouts and in the semi-finals, and you can hear that he has found a new family in Chicago's Boxing community.

AMBI: Sound of cheering

LITTLETON: I go work out a few different gyms in the Chicago area the whole boxing community you see ‘em at the shows and the tournaments and I get a long with a lot of ‘em. I see a lot of the same guys everyday putting in work, putting in hours each day so yeah like a second home. When I began to build a home in the ring, I sparred with some of the best. Among them was Rico Gonzalez. He's a former Olympic Boxer and a top notch trainer. He learned to box in the streets of El Salvador.

GONZALEZ: Almost every night my uncle would bring out the boxing gloves and all the people in the neighborhood gather around a circle and people make the matches you know. There I was you know just asking how old are you as long as they looked my height as long as they weren't a lot older than me I'd take the fight that was my sparring and you know some I'd win and some I'd lost and I think I only lost one time though.

These day's it's not just men who face the challenges of the ring. While sometimes less skilled, the women's bouts are often filled with more blood and guts and passion then the men's.

AMBI: Women Fighting

28-year-old Alma Grasson is a single mother of two She's entered in the 140 lbs division of the tournament. She's representing Chicago Fight Club.

GRASSON: In Italian it's a tradition we better one day as a Lion rather than a hundred as a sheep so it's kind of my inspiration when I get into the ring that's how I get kind of the eagerness and the aggressiveness especially when you're a mother ya know everybody looks at you like you should be baking a pie, I said no, not when I get in the ring.

Even though it's the first time Alma has ever competed, she knows the dangers of the ring.

Rita Figueroa is a veteran of the professional ranks and a four time Golden Glove champ. A few months ago Rita was hit with a hard shot. She fought on and went the distance only to begin showing signs of a head injury after the bout. She was rushed to the hospital and was diagnosed with a broken blood vessel that required emergency brain surgery. She's now retired.

GRASSON: With Rita, yeah, that was a pro she's a great fighter. I mean it's amazing that she walked away and is still walking and can think, and I just home that never happens to me, but we never know. We could turn around and get in a car accident tomorrow so we never know.

Francisco Rodriquez was another tragedy from the ring last year. The 25-year-old was killed in a championship professional fight. Rico Gonzalez knew him well. He felt the loss but says that hasn't deterred his feelings for the boxing.

GONZALEZ: You know how many lives boxing has saved all those kids training in a boxing gym. Staying off the streets, staying away from gangs, drugs and all the negative stuff.

You're getting away from the street, but those few minutes in the ring can be just as treacherous. The knockdowns, the standing 8 counts, the clean crisp combinations. Dreams can be shattered, a decade long saga can finally be redeemed. The crowd roaring, some with the blaze of blood lust in their eyes, other's urging on a son, a daughter, a mother, a brother, a friend to not let it slip away and knowing that one day it will, no matter how hard they try.

AMBI: Roaring crowd

Quitting is not an option— in or out of the ring. Thom Jones is a former boxer and a writer. His writing has appeared in the Best American Short Stories of the Century. He's got a lot of great boxing stories. So I gave him a call at his home in Washington. He started fighting in gyms around his home town of Aurora. Back then, there were some old school methods still in place.

JONES: I was having trouble gaining weight, so it was sort of a ritual we were all to go through, and Chicago had the meat industry. The cows and pigs would come in on trucks and they would drop them of at the feed lot to beef em up. I mean I sorta knew what was going to happen, but we went in, and there was a guy in the blood pit, and he would bleed them out. And he had a milk bottle, a quart sized milk bottle. He would catch the blood, and then he handed it to me and he said drink it. I was to drink a whole quart of it, and the guy I was with was going to report me. Either you drink it or you didn't and I just couldn't do it. So the next day, I was back at the gym, and he ratted me out. Said he didn't drink it, and the coach at the gym said, well he'll never amount to anything. So I said well fuck that, and the next day I went back and drank it. And if you kinda don't breath and sort of hold your nose, you can get it down. But the funny thing about blood, is when you're around all that much blood you get kinda, you know, jacked up. It's almost like taking speed I think.

Thom has spent a lot of time reflecting on the psychological and archetypal elements of boxing.

JONES: It's always fun for me when I'm watching a fight to see somebody getting sucked into watching a fight. They become alive and they reveal themselves. You're watching them almost like you're a psychologist. And you're like oh he's like so and, and as soon as he gets knocked down, you're on your feet like savages, the alpha guy is the fighter and the rest of the crowd is just waiting to see who's gonna be the new boss.

Tony Fitzpatrick definitely spent some time as the new boss in the ring. He's a veteran of dozens of bouts. A big ole burly Irishman with a brim hat, he's also one of the city's most cherished artists and poets. Few can see as deeply into Chicago's soul and put it to words the way Tony can. He says this grammar school gymnasium is a portal into the heart of the city.

FITZPATRICK: St. Andrews is kind of like the UN it reinforces this idea of this city as a city of tribes. It's something particular here in St. Andrews, it's very much part of the fabric of Chicago.


Boxing is much more than a sport for Tony.

FITZPATRICK: I think it's the most honest of all competition there's something about stepping through those ropes you know. In boxing there's a beginning, there's a middle, and there is an end.

Like writing or painting, boxing takes a great deal of internal strife to achieve greatness. I'm following in Tony and Thom's footsteps and will make my impact on the mind, body, and soul through writing…with the echoes of the ring still fresh in my mind.

Music Button: Stanton Moore, "Pie Eyed Manc", from the CD Groove Alchemy, (Telarc)

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