by George Hassett
In a drafty room inside the Masonic Temple on Highland Avenue, a lone Somerville teenager shadowboxes under a banner that reads “Victory Goes To Those Willing To Pay The Price.” The teenager dances, grunts and throws punches until sweat pours off him and onto the hardwood floor.
But Elvin Flores is doing more than training for an upcoming exhibition bout in New Bedford, he is studying in Somerville’s most unlikely classroom—the Somerville Boxing Club—under the tutelage of a most unlikely professor—Norman Stone, affectionately known as “Stoney.”
Despite producing two pioneering champions – John Ruiz, the first ever heavyweight champion of Latino descent and Raphaelle Johnson, the first female New England Golden Gloves champion – the Somerville Boxing Club tries to do more than teach the basics of the sweet science, according to the volunteers who sacrifice their time and effort.
Stone, a founder of the club and trainer for the past 25 years said, “The club’s goal is not turning out champions. It is to get the kids off the streets and teach them about respect, sacrifice, leadership and family.”
Stone and the club recently received a helping hand in attaining those goals from United States Congressman Michael Capuano, who assisted the club in obtaining a $150,000 congressional grant for a program entitled Operation Rehabilitation.
“I try to consider what local programs have a maximum positive effect on youth with minimal money. The Somerville Boxing Club provides a unique service to a group of kids who normally would not be able to participate in sports because of financial difficulties. Stoney and the club help kids find their way to becoming happy and productive members of society, and the volunteers there do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Stoney has always worked with youth in the schools, speaking on drug and alcohol awareness. I thought it was time to get them financially stable,” said Capuano.
All of the grant money from Operation Rehabilitation, like the effort of the volunteers, will go to helping the at-risk youth of Somerville. The program, not yet completely designed, will feature boxing, nutritional and educational aspects, said Ann Cooper, the executive director of the club.
The club and the sport of boxing in general reaches a specific niche of kids who Capuano is trying to reach out to and empower, said Stone.
“For most boxers the legacy of poverty follows them. Since I’ve been involved with the fight game that is usually who I see participating—kids who come from neighborhoods and homes where there is not a lot of money,” said Stone.
The fighters of the Somerville Boxing Club are no exception to that rule, said Cooper.
For that reason, Operation Rehabilitation is trying to give low-income youth the skills they will need in a twenty-first century dominated by technology.
“Computer literacy will be the backbone of survival in the future. Today’s minority and underprivileged youth do not have equal access to technology and face a kind of digital discrimination. The club’s goal is to provide a sound core of computer basics to help keep today’s digital discrimination from exploding into tomorrow’s financial discrimination,” said Cooper, who is playing a vital role in developing the club’s computer bank.
The grant money is sorely needed according to Stone, who, like everyone else at the club, volunteers his time free of charge.
“In the past, the only funding we had was whatever we could get out of our pockets. Most of the kids can’t afford the membership fee and we never turn a kid away, so we were always in a tough spot financially. But Congressman Capuano is the greatest thing to ever happen to us. We all love him down here for helping to keep the club open to kids who have no place to go after school but the corner,” said Stone.
Capuano, a longtime friend of Stone and the club, believes the grant is integral to the future of the city.
“This grant gives every single kid in the city a chance to pursue a dream while strengthening their self-esteem and character. This grant will pay back huge dividends in the future when these kids become successful adults and role models for the next generation,” said Capuano.
After battling drug and alcohol problems early in his life, Stone has dedicated years of his life to teaching young people the evils of addiction. He and Ruiz travel the local area telling children they can attain their goals if they just work hard and live healthy, said Cooper.
Recently, the pair of marauders visited an alternative high school in Malden, where they met and spoke to students who had faced numerous obstacles in graduating.
“John and Stoney really made an impact here. What they do, investing time and energy to help kids, is invaluable. As an educator I see the Somerville Boxing Club as a vital part to keeping kids in school and off drugs,” said Anne Marie Rothstein, a teacher at the school.
This self-sacrifice and caring may be a surprise to fight fans who are used to seeing the bombastic Stone trading insults, and sometimes fists, at the opposition during press conferences and weigh-ins, said Anthony Cardinale, the club’s attorney and board of trustees member.
“People see the rough and gruff guy yelling in the corner between rounds and they only see part of the picture. He is doing that to take the spotlight off Johnny so Johnny can concentrate on doing his job. You won’t find a more loyal or caring individual in the world. He’s a big marshmallow with a huge heart. To me, Stoney’s the guy who will always give a kid a helping hand and who cries when one of his dogs dies,” said Cardinale.
Bob Trieger, Ruiz’s publicity man, shares many of the same feelings about Stone and his dedication to youth at the club.
“When you first meet Stoney, you think he’s a crazy man because he gives you such an earful. But once you know him, you learn that he is intensely loyal and will defend his fighters and his people like a lion would a cub. Just look at what he does at the club. He works hard down there not to build fighters but to build character and self-esteem in kids who wouldn’t normally get that, and by accident he built a heavyweight champion,” said Trieger.
Stone disagrees with those who praise him for his work with youth. If you listen to him, he is the lucky one.
“As much as people may say I help kids and the club, they have helped me so much more. I’m the most blessed guy in the world. To be able to reach out and help kids and adults who are dealing with the same pain and anguish that I have gone through is a great feeling. I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” said Stone.
With the help of Capuano, Stone, Cooper and all of the volunteers, the Somerville Boxing Club will have the chance to continue and build on the goodwill they have been providing for Somerville’s children the past 25 years.
“Coming to the club has made me more motivated in everything I do. I’m not lazy anymore—I’m doing better in school and at home now,” said the fledgling pugilist Elvin Flores between training sessions.