Jimmy Ford, owner of Flame in the Ring of Fire Boxing Gym in Brisbane, helps Victor Aroche, 8, with his boxing glove.
Volunteer boxing coach Joey Varni watches Azalia Cruz Alaguna, 15, spar in the ring.
Jimmy Ford grew up in a tough San Francisco neighborhood. He began boxing when he was 10 years old at a gym in the Tenderloin. Boxing was a way for him to escape the temptations of drugs and gangs.
“When I left the boxing gym is when I got in trouble,” he said.
Now Ford is grown up and out of trouble. He has a job at a water department, but his life’s work has become Flame in the Ring of Fire, a boxing gym for at-risk youth.
His boxing gym is a warehouse tucked in the middle of a row of machine shops and factory lots in Brisbane.
On any given weekday evening, the gym is packed with kids jumping rope, running on treadmills, punching bags and sparring in the ring. Kids as young as eight shadowbox with surprisingly good form as volunteer coaches float around giving them pointers.
The main goal of the gym is to build character and self-esteem in the kids, said Ford, who started the program near the grandstand bleachers at Crocker Amazon Park in San Francisco in 2003.
He sees a lot of himself in the kids. Some, like 17-year-old Guillermo Hernandez from South San Francisco, are in and out of trouble.
“It’s cool, I love it,” said Hernandez about the gym. “I love everybody here.”
Hernandez is focused on improving his boxing skills.
“I picked it up really fast,” said Hernandez. He competed in one fight, which he lost.
“It’s all right, I learn from it,” he said, before rushing off to continue training.
The gym is free and open to all boys and girls aged 8 to 18. The gym becomes a getaway for kids often dealing with high expectations from family members, said Ford. Many fathers will try to live vicariously though their sons, he said.
“We don’t have none of that here,” he said, darting around to check on his kids.
“He could care less if they fight,” said Laura Mulcrevy, who administers the program. “We’re not here to make fighters.”
The gym has more than 100 kids registered and serves about 25 a day. Some come in four or five days a week, said Mulcrevy.
From the upstairs office overlooking the gym, Mulcrevy pointed to different kids, rattling off their names, ages and describing how they’ve improved since they started coming to the gym.
She pointed to one boy in the ring who she had hoped to bring to an upcoming competition in Palm Desert, but can’t because of his school conflicts.
Doing well in school is a requirement for participating, said Ford and Mulcrevy, who keeps track of how the kids are doing academically.
The relationships between the kids and the coaches sometimes go deeper than boxing, particularly for the ones who struggle to stay out of trouble.
Some kids have been to juvenile hall and have ankle bracelets, said Mulcrevy.
She talked about a kid who was headed in the wrong direction and was tempted to join a gang. He started coming to the gym and now he has a job and turned his life around, she said.
“The sole purpose is to keep kids off the street and into a safe environment,” she said.
The gym provides a safe place with support and no judgment, said volunteer Walter Vidosh, who lives in San Mateo.
In the past, coaches have gone to juvenile court to advocate for kids, said Vidosh.
“The staff will go into court and show the other side,” he said. “They become like your adopted son. They can come here and communicate things they can’t communicate at home.”
Like Ford, Vidosh can relate to the kids’ backgrounds on a personal level.
“It would have been nice if someone had grabbed me by the collar,” he said, remembering his dangerous young lifestyle of drugs and violence.
His unresolved family issues and aggression motivated him to challenge other men and get people to fear him, he said. But that didn’t get him anywhere.
Flame in the Ring of Fire is a 501(c)3 nonprofit funded mostly by the San Francisco Fire Department’s FLAME Youth Athletic Program. The all-volunteer operation could use more donations to move to a more accessible location and provide a larger space, said Vidosh.
“It’s cramped,” he said, adding that the gym could also use more volunteers and equipment.
Professional boxers have come into the gym to train with the kids, he said. And Vidosh would like to see more special activities for them, including taking them to sporting events and having people come in to talk on a variety of topics.
Volunteer coach Joey Varni walked up to the ring and leaned on the ropes as he watched 15-year-old Azalia Cruz Alaguna spar with a smaller boy. Her coach, posted in a corner of the ring, hollered at her.
“Keep going, keep going!” he yelled.
Alaguna’s confidence visibly grew within minutes. By the end of her sparring match, she was leaning confidently into her jabs against her opponent.
After a long day of work at a steel plant, Varni, 29, volunteers his time to coach at the gym. He too can see himself in the kids who are at-risk.
“I never had this opportunity when I was younger,” he said of the gym.
Coaching the kids is rewarding because it keeps him focused, he said, adding that the kids look up to him because he looks young.
“The bigger picture is to keep kids out of trouble,” he said.
Flame in the Ring of Fire Boxing Gym is free to kids age 8 to 18. Located at 180 Industrial Way, Brisbane. Open weekdays 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m., and Saturdays 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information call the gym office at (415) 859-5568.