BROOKLYN, NY—When 18-year-old Anthony Washington first walked into Hurricane Palmieri's Gym he knew only one way of life: using his fists on the streets. But now, thanks to his involvement in this inner-city youth boxing program, he has a new sense of purpose that comes from pummeling others head-to-head in the ring.
"What Palmieri taught me is that we don't have to rely on our guns or our knives," said Washington, hitting a heavy bag. "Our fists can be lethal weapons, too."
For six years, gym owner Ralph Palmieri has been turning young people caught up in the violence of Brooklyn's rough-and-tumble East New York neighborhood into disciplined, trained fighters.
"Kids need to see that they don't have to give in to the status-driven gang hierarchy by punching each other bloody for no good reason," said 65-year-old Palmieri. "Here, they learn to believe in their own ability to deliver a barrage of well-timed hooks and powerful uppercuts, until they knock their opponent unconscious in an organized tournament."
Palmieri said he's following in the footsteps of his late father, Dominic "Hurricane" Palmieri, who was tired of watching young men throwing their lives away with senseless violence in the streets, and wanted them to see what they're really made of over nine minutes of violence in the ring.
According to Palmieri, the thing he's most proud of, beyond showing his kids how to cause the most damage to an opponent, is teaching them, often for the first time in their young lives, how to take care of themselves.
"Our guys can stitch up an inch-deep gash or reset a broken nose faster than anybody," Palmieri said. "You'd be amazed how many young people never knew they had to ice their hands after an hour and a half of pounding on someone else's face."
East New York High School junior Jamal Strothers, who used to regularly come home covered with scrapes and bruises, said the three days a week he spends at Hurricane's has taught him discipline.
"I would get into wild fights all the time, trying to punch anything that moved, but I've learned that it doesn't have to be that way," Strothers said. "Now I wait for the right moment and exploit my opponent's weakness, over and over and over, until the ref has to call the fight."
The boy's mother, Florence Strothers, said she's thrilled her son will appear next month on the undercard in a night of fights organized by Palmieri, nothing he has gotten away from "dangerous and shady characters" on the street who only use him to make them money.
"I can finally sleep soundly at night, knowing my son is in safe hands," she said. "Young black men need to see that violence is not the only way, that they can follow in the footsteps of heroes like Mike Tyson."
"We'll all be all praying for a first-round KO," she added.
Palmieri says several "very eager" Las Vegas-based scouts will visit Hurricane Palmieri's in the coming weeks.
"Just picturing one of my boys, totally exhausted, covered in sweat and blood under those bright lights—it gives me chills," Palmieri said. "Let's be real, most of these kids will never go pro. But every one of them will gain valuable punching skills they'll need to get them through the rest of their lives."
Palmieri says that if he can change one kid's mind about when to turn down a fight, he's done his job.
"I don't want them to see people from other schools, gangs, or neighborhoods as enemies to clobber on till they're black and blue," he said. "I want them to see them as opponents to defeat in the ring with a relentless flurry of jabs, counters, and body blows that leave them out cold on the mat."