Local boxing gym takes fighting off the streets

By Giulia Petroni
Medill Reports

For the last two and a half years, Juliana Hirales has been training at Little Village’s youth boxing gym 20 hours per week.

One hundred and twenty-five pounds, 5’2″, and not afraid to punch. She was only 14 when she started fighting on the streets, a teenager dealing with her dad’s substances-abuse problem and her peers’ bad influences. Today, she is the only female boxer among a group of amateur and professional youths practicing boxing on the neighborhood’s west side.

Boxing is a form of prevention, said Paulino Vargas, mentor and coach at Urban Life Skills, a local organization counseling and advocating for youths in Little Village.

“It’s a way to keep children off the streets,” said Vargas.

Competitive boxers train for months to participate in a variety of competitions, from Power Gloves, an annual tournament hosting youth from all over the state, to the Chicago Golden Gloves and the World Boxing Council.

Mentors and coaches collaborate with After School Matters, a network of almost 200 community organizations that provide different services throughout the city. Sponsored by Chicago Public Schools, the association gives teens an opportunity to explore and develop their talents outside of school, according to chief executive officer Mary Ellen Caron.

To encourage participation, the Chicago’s Youth Boxing Gym also offers monetary compensation based on attendance, said coach Ferdinando Macias, who started as an amateur and now has been working at the gym for five years.

There, youth compete against each other, but also learn how to be a team. Mutual support and encouragement help to break down the gender barriers that afflict the athletic industry.

“Here boys treat Julie as an equal, that’s why they’re not afraid to get in the ring with her,” said Vargas. “They are very supportive.”

Today, Julie is 17 years old. She doesn’t swear as often as she used to, she knows she needs good grades in order to go to college and now, only fights in a ring. Her dad comes to all her fights.

“Julie has grown very much both on and off the ring,” said Vargas. “And when she in the ring, it’s like watching a Rocky movie.”

Photo at top: Chicago’s Youth Boxing Gym, Little Village (Giulia Petroni/MEDILL)