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The judges surround the ring because at the amateur level, the competitions are no longer about knockouts: Each round is about skill and precision. Rather than the old "punch count" scoring system, in which each actual punch by a competitor was counted toward an overall score, Golden Gloves recently introduced a ten-point system. Judges consider a boxer's overall aggressiveness and action in a fight, how controlled each movement is, and, of course, how many clean, hard blows are landed. Based on these criteria, a winner will receive a score of ten points; the opponent gets zero. As with a knockout, it's all or nothing.
Families settle into every available seat in this makeshift arena — which doubles as the Golden Gloves practice gym during the rest of the week — and proud parents shout a mix of instructions and encouragement from the sidelines.
"Uppercut, son! Uppercut!" one father yells, while another hollers, "Don't be so predictable!"
The matches will go on for hours, kids and adults alike duking it out for the chance to compete nationally and, in some cases, internationally.
In a back corner of the Golden Gloves gym, behind rows of enthusiastic parents and fidgety younger siblings, members of the 20th Street Gym boxing team wait their turns. The athletes range in age from ten to 33; by the time the tournament ends, all four of the team's competing boxers will be taking home ten-point wins.
But what home will they take them to?
The community meeting that Baca has called on November 6 at the Glenarm Recreation Center is tense.
Baca's family — including his daughter, Amorena, now ranked eighth in the country in her weight class; her eight year-old son; and the coach's father, Armando Baca — makes up a good portion of the full house. Shon Mondragon and his parents, Shon and Cassandra, are here. So is former heavyweight champ Williamson, as well as coaches and officials from Colorado Golden Gloves, Baca's boxing students and assorted supporters. They're all waiting to see what the first punch will be from the Department of Parks and Recreation.
Deputy Manager Brown presents two plans for how Baca could run the formerly free boxing program at the 20th Street Recreation Center. Option one would make Baca a program "partner": Essentially, he would rent the facility from the city and put on the program himself. To sweeten this deal, the city would offer a year of free rent at the 20th Street Gym, then 50 percent off for the second year; after that, they would talk about price. (These rates are greatly reduced from what the city suggested earlier this fall.) Baca would be responsible for the program's structure, setting fees and tuition rates — and paying for insurance. He would also no longer be an employee of Denver Parks and Recreation.
Brown stresses that Baca's "dedicated following" could help him find outside funding, and points out that this option would leave all decisions about the 20th Street program in his hands. But the crowd grumbles, with various members of the audience shouting about how this "restructuring" is "just about money" for the city and could mean "the end" for the program.
The second possibility is aligning the 20th Street boxing program with similar programs in the Denver Parks and Recreation curriculum, which would allow Baca to remain a city employee. But the city would set the rules and the fees. Participants would have to sign up for each session (which typically run in three- to eight-week segments throughout the calendar year); they would also have to pay for each session. Students under eighteen would pay $54 per eight-week session; adults would pay $84 per eight-week session. Participants could apply for P.L.A.Y. (Parks and Rec Looking to Assist You) financial aid, Brown notes. "We use the same sliding scale as Human Services," she explains. "These are fees posted in the municipal code; they are not arbitrary fees we've just decided to charge the program. It was never at all the intent of Denver Parks and Rec to get rid of the boxing program. Our intent is to align our program based on state, federal and municipal laws and code. The way it was currently operating was not appropriate. It put the city at risk."
Before he offers his response, Baca asks all of the program's current and former students in the room to join him. Close to half the people in the audience leave their seats to stand with their coach — elementary-age boys and girls, teenagers, moms, dads, even grandfathers. "This is what the program is really all about," Baca says, as little boxers crowd around his legs, looking up at their coach.
"We're all part of a family — whether it is our own team or if we're at competitions. We are all very respectful," says Baca. "Once these boxers get in the ring to compete, there is a mutual respect; that carries on to the families watching. It's why we have such a good reputation."
A reputation that deserves better than the options on the table, he adds.
"Slowly through the years, [Parks and Rec] has cut back the hours and cut back the equipment," Baca continues. "Now this — the final blow of making it pretty much unaffordable to continue. We have great kids here. We're being supportive, we're doing the right things, and all of a sudden, due to city restructuring, it feels like these 'parents' who wanted to take care of us want to disown us. It is a heartbreaking feeling to be cast aside like this, after all of the good in the community we provide for these kids, who go on to become outstanding members of this community."
But just as he teaches his students to stay strong and respect their opponents, he promises to do the same for 20th Street Boxing, a Denver institution. Baca won't go down without a fight.