Rubén Rosario: At St. Paul’s Element Boxing, discipline forges new lives
By Rubén Rosario
Boxer and trainer Dalton Outlaw, foreground, works on boxing techniques with boys at Element Boxing and Fitness Center in St. Paul. Outlaw and fellow boxer Cerreso Fort opened the recently relocated gym to offer kids a chance to be physically active, learn a bit about boxing and develop discipline. …
Schooling in more than one way began this past week for many kids, and 11-year-old twins Devon and Dylan Buege were busy absorbing a few lessons Wednesday afternoon.
“One, two! One, two, one! One, one, one!” they and others chanted in unison as the group of youths followed Dalton Outlaw’s commands to throw jabs and punches in succession. A few feet away, inside a boxing ring, pro boxer Cerresso Fort gingerly tried to coax a toddler to run to a large ball in the middle of the ring, touch it and run back.
About 25 inner-city kids took part in a different kind of class on this day in the Element Boxing and Fitness Center in St. Paul. They exercised. They were taught boxing tips. But they also picked up values like self-esteem, confidence and “hard work, dedication,” the mantra posted inside the gym.
Dorian Singer, 10, works on his footwork around the heavy bags at the direction of trainer and boxer Dalton Outlaw. (Pioneer Press: John Autey)
“We talk to them about how to use it, when to use it, and not to misuse it,” Outlaw said of the boxing skills acquired at the free weekly program he and Fort offer to youth. “We were given something growing up, so this is our way of giving back to the community and also some families who are poor or don’t have much means.”
Giving back. We read too often about misdirected youths and adults who take, from a street gang banger to Bernie Madoff, as big a Wall Street gangster as they come. These two young men and small-business owners are not among them.
“We know a few of the guys who were boxing with us who are no longer here or chose a different path,” Outlaw said. “Cerresso knows of some who were actually murdered. We stayed with boxing and the discipline it gave us. They did not.”
WANTED TO GIVE BACK
Outlaw, 26, and Fort, 27, grew up in St. Paul’s Frogtown. Outlaw is the youngest of four brothers raised by a single mother, Pam Washington. Fort was essentially given up shortly after birth by his 15-year-old mother. He was raised by two aunts and his paternal grandmother, Pearl Grady, affectionately called “Gamma” by boxers and others who train at the gym.
Outlaw and Fort met at the now-defunct BT Bombers boxing gym. They went to national tournaments. They would wake at 5AM without alarm clocks during their junior-high days and run before classes. A bond of brotherhood developed.
“They are about as family as you can get without being blood,” Washington said as she, Fort’s aunt Traci Fort and Outlaw’s fiancee, Lacee Evenson, staffed the spacious gym’s front desk.
The friendship endured after the teens went different ways after high school graduation. Fort went to a trade school while amassing an impressive amateur record as an up-and-coming Minnesota boxer. Outlaw attended a community college in North Dakota. By this time, football had become Outlaw’s passion. Concordia College offered him a full scholarship to be a cornerback and punt and kick returner on its football team. He graduated with a degree in business.
The idea for the gym came in 2010 after the two men sponsored a free three-day boxing camp for underprivileged youth and others at the Rice Street recreation center. “We wanted to give something back,” Fort recalled. “About 60 people, kids, adults, came. We bought pizzas for them out of our own pockets.”
THEY LOVE THE KIDS
Hard work, dedication. Fort and Outlaw sold their cars, pooled their tax rebates and rustled up other cash to come up with enough to lease space for a small gym on Prior Avenue. This year, they moved into a more spacious location at 655 Fairview Ave. It is adjacent to the Aspire for Youth nonprofit day care and social service program, which partners with the two men to offer the weekly youth program.
A certified personal trainer like Fort, Outlaw puts in 10 hours a day at the gym and has played for the Twin Cities Titans, a local semipro football team.
Fort, a middleweight, turned pro two years ago and has amassed an impressive 17-1-1 record. He and Osseo’s Caleb Truax will be fighting for the vacant U.S. Boxing Association and Minnesota state middleweight title Sept. 21 at the Minneapolis Convention Center.
Yet his focus this day was leading a group of children in aerobics. Reigning undefeated boxing champion Floyd Mayweather Jr. had Justin Bieber and other celebrities leading him to the ring at his last bout. Fort? He had his “Team Element’ kids escort him ringside.
“I’ve never met anybody like these two men,” Traci Fort said. “That sign up there — hard work, dedication — that’s them all the way. They respect people. They love the kids, and the kids love them. It’s always a beautiful atmosphere around here.”
OUR WORK NEVER ENDS
Fort and Outlaw would like to partner — much like the Circle of Discipline gym in South Minneapolis has done for the past 20 years — with school, police and other entities to reach out to at-risk youth before the lure of the streets gets too much of a hold on them.
That would be a great idea, said Sierra Leone Samuels, Circle of Discipline’s program director. Her son, Jamal James, who is fighting for the state welterweight title on the same Sept. 21 fight card, took part in the boxing camp Outlaw and Fort organized three years ago.
“It’s terrible what is happening over there,” Samuels said, referring to a spate of violence gripping St. Paul’s East Side. “I hope the community can come together and provide various programs and services to help address the escalating violence and crime that is happening over there.
“I know the community around the COD has seen an increase in crime and violence due to the recent increase of heroin addicts in the community,” she added. “Our work never ends.”
Casandra Buege watched as her twin sons wrapped up the hour. The mother of three lives in the Phalen Park area but believes the weekly drive to the gym is worth it.
“The kids are grateful every time they come,” she said. “They also play youth football, and this is fun for them and gets them ready. Anything that gives kids something to do and avoid them getting into trouble is more than all right.”
Rubén Rosario can be reached at 651-228-5454 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @nycrican.