VIEWPOINT / BY RICHARD TOSCHES : Young Boxers Know There Are 2 Kinds of Battered Existence

Richard Tosches is a Times staff writer

D a thing is, boxing aren't so bad. OK, so mebbe you get ponched on my head every so offen and maybe when I'm 50 years old I'll momble my words a little bit. But if it won't have for boxing, I don't know where I'd ba right now.

That's the fear, isn't it?

That everyone who ever laces on a pair of leather gloves and steps inside a boxing ring will end up talking like some bizarre combination of Gomer Pyle and Mr. Ed and occasionally stroll into church on Sundays wearing a band uniform and swim goggles?

After all, the man acknowledged as the greatest boxer ever, Muhammad Ali, whose speech was once so crisp and bursting with life, is now a collection of mumbled whispers. And doctors know that the sad transformation of Ali is a direct result of being punched repeatedly in the head during his more than 20 years of boxing.

Even boxers know that boxing is dangerous, and this is the last group you would expect to come to that conclusion.

"I know I'm getting brain damage from boxing," said John Bray of Van Nuys. "I can feel it. When I was younger I just got headaches from being hit. But now, after all these years of doing it, I can feel the damage. I forget things all the time."

Bray is the national amateur boxing champion.

He is 21.

So why is anyone even flinching over news that Burbank Parks and Recreation officials oppose a proposal to create a youth center that would feature boxing? I mean, if someone proposed making a recreational sport out of having our children run as fast as they can headfirst into a concrete wall, would it get much support?

The City Council will rule on the proposal later this year. But given Parks and Recreation opposition, its prospects seem slim.

And it's not like Parks and Rec is going out on a limb here.

Everyone knows boxing is dangerous. The American Medical Assn. has done studies showing the effects of being punched repeatedly in the head.

No time to go into great detail here, but let's summarize: There is not a single known health benefit from being hammered into unconsciousness on a regular basis by a blow to the head.

Currently, a $1.8-million study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University is nearing completion. It was commissioned by the USA Amateur Boxing Federation to document the incidence of injuries in amateur boxing, where fighters wear protective headgear and use larger, more padded gloves than professional boxers.

But George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Assn., said no further studies are needed.

"A fist hitting a head," he said, "is a fist hitting a head."

So what's the big deal? Boxing is dangerous. If you do it long enough, your answer to the question: "How much is two plus two?" might be: "Very big pine tree."

Well, this is the big deal: For hundreds of young men, boxing is their only possible ticket out of hell.

We're not talking about kids from Woodland Hills or Tarzana or Encino who wake up in the morning and ponder the real meaning of mall or think of themselves as poverty stricken because they haven't had their golf clubs re-gripped in a year.

We're talking about kids who have the self-esteem of garden slugs, who are desperately seeking something to belong to, something that doesn't involve a body full of tattoos and later, bullets.

For many, boxing is, literally, a lifesaver.

Other sports? Please. This may come as a big shock, but fathers of hard-core gang members don't spend a lot of time at the local park on cool autumn evenings tossing a football back and forth.

At the Youth Boxing Club in Chino, about 200 youngsters go through the boxing program each year, said Ray Mendoza, one of the directors of the center.

"About 90% to 95% of our kids have been affected by gangs, or their siblings are in gangs or they live in a gang neighborhood," Mendoza said. "Being in a program like this helps take care of their aggression."

Alex Garcia of San Fernando would certainly agree. He was convicted of killing a man and served five years in state prison.

But while in prison, he was guided into a boxing ring.

Today, Garcia has a new life. No more gangs. No more killing. And as a highly regarded heavyweight boxer, Garcia recently turned down a $400,000 deal to fight George Foreman.

"Without boxing, where would I be?" Garcia asked. "In jail again, most likely. Or dead. Boxing saved me. For a lot of guys like me, it is the only chance. People don't ask us to play golf with them."

Bray, the amateur champion with the headaches, said the pain and the concern that blows to the head could take a toll decades from now don't detract from the roaring success story that boxing has made him. Bray has traveled through much of Europe with the U.S. boxing team, and in November he will venture to Australia to fight for the world amateur championship. In addition, he is considered the top candidate to represent the United States in the heavyweight division in Barcelona at the 1992 Olympics.

Dan O'Hanian, a veteran Los Angeles police officer with a street gang unit, has watched Bray grow from a child into a man in a less-than-perfect environment.

"I see the neighborhood John was raised in, and sometimes I can't believe what he has done," O'Hanian said. "There are drug deals in front of his house all day long and murders quite often, right on his family's sidewalk. It is a bad place. But John, without a father, has risen above it all. You've just got to guess that boxing was a big part of that. Boxing helped to provide him with that great discipline.

"I'm so proud of John Bray."

So, if Burbank wants to avoid youth boxing, everyone will understand.

Everyone except the people who need it.

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