Michael Lugo sits ringside sipping coffee and keeping a close eye on two teenagers throwing jabs.
“We are promoting the sport of amateur boxing, Olympic-style boxing to help kids find a better path, an outlet, as opposed to getting in trouble, staying in the streets, dealing with anxiety, depression, bullying,” said Lugo.
As the Olympics get underway, there’s one amateur sport with a rich history that often doesn’t get the funding many other youth sports receive.
The walls of the gym Lugo operates in Cobb County are covered in championship belts and posters. Punching bags hang from the ceiling. And the place is busy again after an uncertain 16 months.
“Boxing gyms don’t make a lot of money, we’re a poor man’s sport,” said Lugo. “Most of us offer services for free. So when the pandemic hit, the lights went off, the doors had to close, which also put our youth at more risk.”
Boxing legend Evander Holyfield, who grew up in Atlanta, credits a youth program with starting him on a path that eventually led to heavyweight titles. Lugo says young boxers can apply what they learn in the ring to other parts of their lives.
“For us, there’s no clear cut line that separates the two,” said Lugo. “You come into the gym, you work hard, you put in effort, you’re going go outside these doors and you’re going to put in that same type of effort.”
But many of the thousands of amateur boxing gyms in the U.S. struggled to stay open during the pandemic. Among those pitching in to bolster funding is 18-year-old rapper DICI, who says he got into boxing last fall as a way to get into shape and focus his mind.
“How much time I put in, is what I got out,” said DICI. “And the discipline that I learned in boxing really helped me on that side and it kind of carried over as well [to music.]”
The sport helped him so much, he says, it inspired a new single called “Five Rings”. He’s donating the profits to USA Boxing, which has 1,700 member clubs including nearly 40 in Georgia.
“USA Boxing, they don’t have huge sponsors like track does for the U.S. team, so they don’t have money to be balling, they’re limited,” said DICI, noting the extra expenses brought on by COVID-19 testing and precautions.
He hopes his support for boxing programs will help young people get involved in the sport, like he did.
“You may not always see thousands of people in the stands watching you, but you know through the support that you get, whether that’s online or people donating, that people are still backing you,” said DICI.