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20th Street Gym boxing program is on the ropes

I have been boxing at the 20th Street Recreation Center -- Denver's oldest public recreational facility -- for more than four years. And while the boxing fitness class is a relatively new addition, 20th Street has also been home to a legendary competitive boxing program for over seventy years, one that has attracted everyone from Sonny Liston to Mike Alvarado to young contender Shon Mondragon. But as I describe in the current Westword cover story, "On the Ropes," that era may be ending.

I go to 20th Street because I get great instruction and workouts there. I also get to soak up a lot of history at this century-old building on the edge of downtown. But when 20th Street reopened earlier this month after a few weeks of renovation, the banners and photos of 20th Street's boxing stars were no longer hanging by the second-floor gym. And I heard from my boxing coach that Robert Baca, who's run the competitive program for almost a decade, might be knocked out of the ring, as the city restructures some of its Denver Department of Parks and Recreation programming.

I'd never met Coach Baca, but it sounded like a story. So I went to see him at the Golden Gloves Gym in Wheat Ridge, where he started training the 20th Street team during the renovations. The team isn't back at 20th Street yet; as I report in "On the Ropes," Baca is now negotiating with Parks and Rec officials, who want to change the boxing program he's run for almost a decade. Among other things, he wants to be sure the program remains affordable -- in essence, free -- for the kids who rely on it.

The members of the Mondragon family -- Shon Sr., Ariel, Shon Jr. and Cassandra -- have boxing in their blood.
The members of the Mondragon family -- Shon Sr., Ariel, Shon Jr. and Cassandra -- have boxing in their blood.
Photo by Anthony Camera

The 20th Street boxing program is on the ropes because the city has been reassessing the legal status of its offerings, but also which offers are popular with whom. And apparently, people like me are a priority. Fitness in Colorado is a huge industry; Parks and Rec wants to tailor more programs to adults who like to work out. But the city's unique, seven-decade old boxing program could pay the price.

In addition to boxing at 20th Street twice a week, I work out six times a week at various 24Hour Fitness locations. For several years, I also did yoga daily -- which I couldn't afford. So like many people I know, I was part of a chain yoga studio's cleaning program, cleaning a fitness facility top-to-bottom four hours a week in exchange for free yoga. I don't have much money to spend on my own fitness activities, but I have always found a way to make it happen.

But boxing at 20th Street -- even in one of the non-competitive fitness classes I take -- is like no other workout I've ever done. And it's no BS: The instructors are there to train you as if you were going to fight. I like the feeling of getting a really tough workout that is also mentally stimulating. Each 75-minute session focuses on strength training and fighting techniques -- if we're not jumping rope and hitting the speed bags or practicing throwing hooks and upper cuts, we're doing sit-ups and push-ups. It's not a class for wimps.

Continue for more about the 20th Street Gym boxing program.   When you're in the ring at 20th Street, it's not about who you are, where you come from or who or what you know. It is about focus and athleticism. As rough as the joint may seem, it is without an atmosphere of exclusivity. Boxing at 20th Street is open to anyone who wants to step in to a class -- whether it's your first time or your fifth year training, everyone is treated as an equal. All you have to bring with you to class is a desire to learn; the rest is provided.

20th Street Gym boxing program is on the ropes
Photo by Anthony Camera

It is the environment, the instruction and the expectation of hard work that keeps me coming back to a place like 20th Street. But it is also the price -- I don't know of any other fitness program that includes class time devoted to one-on-one training that costs $5.50 for just over an hour of training. Most sports and fitness-oriented activities that are supervised or led by an instructor -- whether yoga, Zumba, CrossFit or the like -- are nowhere near as affordable as what you get at this Parks and Rec class.

In a place like Denver, where much of our culture is immersed in sports and fitness, CrossFit gyms, yoga and Pilates studios and boutique training gyms are popping up all over -- and while many have free or low-cost trial options, I hardly ever come across a program that is truly affordable. Except at Denver Parks and Rec, where the cost of a membership is considerably less than memberships at any other fitness facility.

That's one of the reasons why the boxing program has been so popular; it's been included in the cost of a membership, and memberships are free for most kids. But now, among the changes that the city wants to make, kids will have to pay extra for the program. At a meeting two weeks ago, the city laid out suggestions for how the program could be funded: Baca and his supporters could look for sponsors. Or supporters could simply step up and pay to keep the legacy of 20th Street boxing alive.

What I have gotten out of the 20th Street is invaluable. But the impact of the 20th Street boxing program at the competitive level has been far greater: From the kids and adults who train and the coaches who have their backs to the national name that 20th Street has made for itself in almost seven decades, the program has made this city a contender.

Denver needs sustainable Parks and Rec programs that benefit every demographic, but the city also needs the 20th Street Gym boxing program to stay in the game.

From our archives: See "Best Place for Ladies to Kick Ass," our Best of Denver 2005 award for the 20th Street Gym

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