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THE SJC BOXING GYM – A SPECIAL PLACE
As the SJC Boxing Gym celebrated being in Fort Myers for thirty-three years, we look back at its storied history.
There was never a shortage of willing participants. The City of Fort Myers had a boxing program but closed it down. We had mainly been involved in professional boxing but decided it was important to provide an outlet for the amateurs. We started meeting and training outside on the grass and in the parking lot of Shady Oaks Park. We trained Monday through Friday from 6pm until 8pm. Twenty-five kids came but we had no equipment, so we improvised, using broom sticks and garden hoses as exercise tools.
Ronnie Layne and Dave Miller, from Bill Branch Chevrolet, were kind enough to sponsor and set up a boxing ring on their property where our newcomers could show off their skills in boxing exhibitions. It was a fun day and very successful. One of the spectators, Robert Ellis, introduced himself and gave us a set of keys to a building he owned on Jackson Street. He said we could move in and set up a gym there and eventually buy the property from him.
However, it was not zoned for a boxing facility, so we applied for a conditional use of the property, and it was approved by the city. It was a very large property; large enough to train, hold shows, handle concessions and parking. It was home for a couple of years until the property was eventually demolished by the city.
Through the sacrifice and dedication of our coaches Larry Willis, Octavio Soto, Joe Taylor and John Mitchell, and the hard work of our youngsters, we quickly assembled a truly outstanding boxing program. During the first six months we had 29 boxers compete for state titles. We won 21 gold medals, 6 silver and 2 bronze. 3 boxers were voted the “Outstanding Boxer” of various tournaments. We hosted the Florida Association Golden Gloves Tournament and were selected to take a team of 10 open champions to compete in Miami. We won 5 gold, 4 silver and a bronze medal there. SJC Boxers won several Regional championships and one National title. Two SJC Boxers were selected as “Outstanding Youth of Lee County,” by the Edison Kiwanis. We sent a team of 8 boxers to the Florida State Junior Olympic Boxing Championship Tournament and came home with 7 gold medals and 1 silver medal and earned the team trophy. We then took a team of 10 boxers to the State Sunshine Games Tournament and came home with 7 gold, 2 silvers, a bronze medal, and another team trophy.
During our first year of competition SJC won three team trophies in the four major tournaments we participated in. As time went on, the SJC Boxers continued to improve and impress. We hosted teams from Georgia and Ohio (two of the top teams in the nation) and did extremely well.
The City of Fort Myers decided to set up a boxing program once again through the PAL program. Coach Larry Willis moved on from SJC to run that program and was very successful. The Cape Coral Police Department contacted us to help set up a program for them. We met with Chief Arnold Gibbs and Major Bill Austen and a program was implemented. Another amateur program was started in Port Charlotte, and we were pleased that opportunities were now available for the area youth to participate in amateur boxing.
In the meantime, the SJC Boxing Gym moved a few times between renting the Armory at Terry Park, to a storefront on Palm Beach Blvd. and finally settling on Fowler Street – where we stayed for 15 years. In 2010 we found our location on Winkler Ave where we stayed for 10 years.
We turned our attention back to professional boxing and John LaMarca came on board as a trainer and cornerman. Our first show was a huge success. It took place at the Charlotte County Memorial Auditorium in Punta Gorda, Florida on Tuesday, October 17, 1995. It was a nine-bout card and featured former SJC amateurs David Armstrong, Richard Diaz, Martin Santos, and Scott Erickson, along with Future SJC world Champions Freeman Barr and Steve Frank and top fighter Feliciano Correa. We started our tradition of bringing in a former great hall of fame VIP to be a special guest at all our promotions. Carmen Basilio was the guest that night.
Several shows followed and the SJC boxers continued to excel. Some moved into the world rankings and won titles. The guests who came to our shows included Gene Fullmer, Beau Jack, Johnny Saxton, Emanuel Steward, Angelo Dundee, Hank Kaplan, Curtis Cokes, Juan LaPorte, Jose “Chegui” Torres, Aaron Pryor, Sean O’Grady, Ruben Olivares, Carlos Ortiz, Gerry Cooney, Chris Byrd, Kid Gavilan and Buster Mathis Jr., among others.
We traveled the world, fighting title eliminators and title fights in such places as England, Germany, Italy, Scotland, Denmark, Finland, Australia, the Bahamas and throughout the U.S. in New York, Detroit, Las Vegas, Philadelphia, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, and Puerto Rico.
During its heyday, our gym had some of the best fighters in every weight class, both amateur and pro, working and sparring daily. Some of the sparring was better than many of the fights you watch on television now. We frequently brought in top fighters to spar with and help get our guys ready for big fights. Corey “T Rex” Sanders, Raymond Joval, Wayne Powell, Jonathan Reid, Mathew Barney, Freddie Pendleton, Axel Schulz, Juan Carlos Suarez, Brian Minto, Alexis Barcelay, Diosbelis Hurtado, Allan Vester, Robert Davis, Zab Judah, Glen Johnson, Lamar Murphy, Danell Nicholson, Hector Camacho, Cesar Bazan, Kassim Ouma, Peter McNeeley, Ravea Springs, and Sherman Williams are just a few who trained with us.
Twelve fighters who were with SJC won world titles: Freeman Barr, Steven Frank, Ezra Sellers, David Armstrong, Bernard Harris, Uriah Grant, Stacy Prestage, Olga Vlassova, Andre Purlette, Ronson Frank, Felix Camacho, and Mathew Barney. Eleven others won Regional titles: Vitaliy Kopytko, Sherman Williams, Allan Vester, Joey Negron, Jose Alonzo, Joey Stevenson, Ubaldo Hernandez, Paulino Villalobos, Ravea Springs, Fontaine Cabell, and Ernest Cabell. Oscar Montilla, who started with us in the beginning at the age of 14, won several amateur state titles and enlisted in the Army rather than turning pro. He spent 18 years in the service and won the Army Olympic Gold Medal in Atlanta in 1996. To date, Freeman Barr, Ezra Sellers, Uriah Grant, Steven Frank, Oscar Montilla and David Armstrong have been inducted into the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame.
SJC Boxing promoted the first internet broadcast of boxing, viewed by over 250,000 people in 15 different countries. Now, watching boxing on the internet is common but we did the first one. SJC Boxing promoted the first casino boxing in the state with a great event at the Seminole Indian Casino in Immokalee. SJC Boxing promoted the first live pay-per-view boxing event in the Caribbean with a successful title defense by Freeman Barr.
The help we got from the community was appreciated. We have great memories of working with Bill Malstrom and Mel’s Diner and setting up a boxing ring in front of their restaurant on U.S. 41 where we had sparring exhibitions and promotions on a few occasions. We also had a nice book-signing event there. Jones Intercable TV was very helpful during our early years as they televised a few of our amateur shows and it was great working with them. KIX Country 92.9 radio was a sponsor of several shows and always a pleasure to work with. There were so many other companies and individuals who were instrumental with our success.
The loyalty, professionalism and friendship which was developed after many years of working together will always be cherished. “Bowtie” Bob Alexander has been our announcer for every Florida promotion we did and even worked in the Bahamas with us. In my opinion, he is the best ring announcer in the business. Butch and Kathy Flansburg were a blessing, may Butch rest in peace. They founded the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame in 2009 and we had an annual Open House in the gym each January where they announced the new inductees for that year. Others who quickly come to mind with warm memories and strong friendships are Pinklon Thomas, John Daddono and Gerry Brown. Gerry worked tirelessly to obtain sponsors and cater to our show VIPs and is missed.
The costs of operating the gym are a constant problem. We have been blessed to have had two sponsors who are now deceased, Charlie Pechette and Brian Boyle. Without their help and support it would not have been possible to accomplish what we did. Presently, Phil Spencer has made it possible to maintain the gym with his financial support, help and guidance. He has been with us since we moved to our location on Winkler Ave in 2010.
January 8, 2021, we had the Grand Opening of our current gym at 4220 Cleveland Ave. While opening our new gym we also set up and opened the Florida Boxing Hall of Fame Museum, separate from but in the same building as the gym. In April 2021 we established the SJC Mentoring Program. We take students Monday through Friday from 12:30pm to 3:00pm and give them a lunch, mentoring, gym training and send them home with a snack. Those students who are unavailable during the day are invited to come in the evening during normal gym hours where they receive training, and their families are given groceries at no charge. We partnered with the Midwest Food Bank of Florida to make this possible. We originally started with 1 school and 3 students as a pilot and currently have 154 students from 44 different Lee County schools involved. Nine students have since graduated from High School and a few others are close to graduating.
In November 2021 SJC had our first annual Thanksgiving Day Dinner, catered by Mel’s Diner. Those Southwest Florida families who came had a wonderful meal and enjoyed a memorable day together.
We are now in the process of doing a documentary about the gym and the services we provide and will be setting up a legacy fund in order to ensure that the gym, the Mentoring Program and the FBHOF Museum continues to serve the community for future generations.
As we look back on 33 years of operating the gym in Fort Myers, there are indelible memories of hard work, sacrifice, accomplishment, and achievement. We are proud of the success our boxers have attained and we are proud of all the people who trained with us and never boxed but realized important health goals and benefits and learned valuable life lessons which made them better people.
The gym is internationally known. We have had movie scenes shot there, press conferences televised overseas, and boxers from 76 different countries training there. There are very few truly “Old School” boxing gyms left in the country. We thank everyone who has made this possible and hope to continue training boxing techniques the way it used to be.