The championship rounds in one of the longest running amateur boxing tournaments in the nation kick off Thursday night.
More than 70 boxers, men and women of various skill levels and ages, will compete at the 96th annual Chicago Golden Gloves tournament in Cicero through Saturday.
The boxers are not there for big payouts or endorsement deals. Many come to compete under the bright lights of the intimate Cicero Stadium and the right to be called a Chicago Golden Glove Champion.
“It started out as just a place for me to work out at. I wanted to challenge myself and see if I can do it in the ring,” Michelle Travina, 30, an emergency room doctor at University of Illinois Hospital in Chicago, said.
Travina’s been training for about a year and made her successful boxing debut two weeks ago at the Golden Gloves tournament. She’ll compete in the championship round this weekend.
“It was my very first fight ever,” Travina said about her debut. “Very nervous for sure,” she said.
Some of the contestants have dreams of boxing fame just like greats Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis and Sonny Liston did while competing in this very tournament decades ago.
“Since I was 14, I told myself this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life,” said 23-year-old Caleb Hernandez of Crown Point, Indiana, who trains at the Hammond Boxing Club.
In the preliminary rounds, the stands were packed with onlookers eating snacks as the boxers duked it out.
On the first night of the tournament last month, there were some 25, three-round bouts.
The boxers warmed up in the wings of the stadium until their number was called.
Another young boxer, Kyron Brown, sat quietly in the stands until his bout — No. 22 — finally came up late into the evening.
At 19 years old, Brown’s been boxing since he was 9. Brown’s first bouts were on the streets of Chicago’s West Garfield Park neighborhood where he grew up.
“As a little boy, I was always confident. I lived in a rough neighborhood, and all we did was fight,” Brown said. “I didn’t see the difference between the streets and the boxing ring. If anything, I learned a lot from it.”
Brown stopped boxing two years ago to concentrate on graduating high school and starting his freshman year at Malcolm X College this year. He returned to the ring a few months ago as the Golden Gloves tournament approached.
One of his trainers, Daniel Ruiz, thinks Brown has tremendous talent with only one possible weakness: his eyesight.
Blind in his right eye since birth, Brown doesn’t allow it to define him, Ruiz said.
“Some fighters have slow reflexes, some fighters don’t have power, but I don’t see it as a huge disadvantage,” Ruiz said. “Actually, I think it developed the way he fights now because you see he’s really fluid.”
Brown’s other trainer, Carlos Castaneda, owner of Oakley Fight Club in Chicago, said safety is always first, and he wouldn’t let Brown compete if the young boxer couldn’t or didn’t want to do it.
“I think he has a sixth sense now with that eyesight out,” Castaneda said. “He does things that are very untraditional with boxers, and I think his handicapped has nothing to do with it. When I talk to him, I don’t see him as a [partly] blind person. I see him as a special person.”
About 30 minutes before his fight, Brown spared with his trainer Castaneda.
At 5’9”, Brown’s slim build and quick body movements are reminiscent of his idol, former welterweight champion Pernell Whitaker who competed in the 1990s.
“I feel like I have the same style. I can relate to him. Just that cocky, hands-down movement. I always learn a lot from him,” Brown said.
Despite the risks, Brown isn’t concerned about injuring his left eye.
“My family is always concerned about me and my health being, but I’m not worried. My vision in my left eye is completely strong, and I get it checked out,” Brown said. “It’s something that I can do. I’m confident.”
On Thursday night, Brown will compete in the 152-pound elite division for the Golden Gloves championship against a fighter who won this weight class last year.
Even as Brown touts his confidence and ability, he doesn’t come off as arrogant.
“I know it’s early, but I see myself as great,” Brown said.
Michael Puente covers Chicago and Northwest Indiana for WBEZ. Follow him on Twitter @MikePuenteNews.