Coach's 'box not fight' mantra transcends ring, seeks to diffuse violence
KALAMAZOO, MI — Curtis Isaac's boxing career began when he was 17 years old with a promise of grapes and a swimming pool.
"For a young black kid at the time that was a big deal," said Isaac, who grew up in the 1960s on Kalamazoo's east side.
In 1970, Isaac was playing for the football and basketball teams at Loy Norrix High School, but Eddie Bridges had a different plan for him.
Bridges had promised Isaac that if he came to his farm in Mattawan and put on boxing gloves for a day, he could go swimming and eat grapes from the orchard.
The young Isaac took him up on the offer. After sparring with Lionel Ford, a skilled boxer at the farm, he was hooked.
Thirteen years later, Isaac earned his professional boxing license. It was during his professional career, which included a state title in the cruiserweight division in 1984, that he began training amateur boxers.
In 1990, Isaac retired from fighting with a professional boxing record of 18-3 and began training boxers full time. That same year, he started Eastside Boxing Club in Kalamazoo.
The gym is open to the boxers seven days a week. Practice starts with a 30-minute warmup which includes stretching and exercises. After warmups, Isaac tapes the boxers' hands and rubs petroleum jelly on their faces.
They spare for about a minute each, rotating in and out. While the boxers are sparring, their coach instructs them from the edge of the ring.
Isaac, 63, was inspired to start Eastside Boxing Club because of his two role models, John Caldwell, former director of the Douglass Community Association and principal at Kalamazoo Central High School, and Willie Turner, former teacher at Milwood Middle School for 30 years. "They were always there for me," he said. "If I could be half the man they were, I'd be happy."
Isaac felt the need to give back the same way his mentors gave back to him. Eastside Boxing Club caters to all races and ethnicities, but Isaac says he leans towards the blacks and Hispanics in the community.
"When it comes down to the black and Hispanic, they're lost in the shuffle," he said.
Many of those he trains are at-risk youth, and he tells his boxers to "box, not fight." One of his main goals is to keep them off the streets.
"I'm trying to direct them towards something positive and basically diffuse the violence," he said.
Isaac is currently training more than 20 boxers, ranging in ages from 13 to over 30. They take part in a handful of matches that the Eastside Boxing Club participates in throughout the year.
The club's most recent match took place on Aug. 20 at Parchment High School with two of Isaac's boxers participating. Kelly Baraka,a former state champion sprinter at Portage Northern High School, lost by TKO in the first round to Seydou Ba, of A-squared fight club, and Tyrese Ligon boxed in a non-scoring developmental match against Vincent Misiak, of Team Glass.
The Eastside Boxing Club's next match is scheduled for Nov. 12 in Bart Hall at St. Mary's Church in Kalamazoo.