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Sam Colonna's Boxing -- A Training Ground For Champions, Children

By Ed Komenda | July 6, 2015 5:52am
 Young boxers spar at Sam Colonna's Brighton Park gym.
Young boxers spar at Sam Colonna's Brighton Park gym.
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DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

BRIGHTON PARK — From the wide-open windows on the second floor of this brick warehouse off West 35th Street, the faint patter of what sounds like a heartbeat pulses down to the parking lot.

Take the elevator up to investigate, and you'll see the source of that sound, pounding much louder now.

Welcome to Sam Colonna’s Boxing, an old-school gym where up-and-coming fighters, champions and children show up every day to learn the pummeling sport often called "the sweet science."

Sam Colonna talks about boxing and inspiring kids at his Brighton Park gym. [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]

Dotting the gym’s sweat-spattered floor, many of Colonna’s guys — some training for exercise, others for a paycheck — jump rope or drive their fists into worn boxing bags of all shapes and sizes.

Thwomp-Thwomp. Thwomp-Thwomp.

Together, the bagwork and ropes skidding off the floor builds up that heartbeat patter: The life-source of the gym.

“Everybody in here has got a story. Everybody,” said Colonna, 54, who has been training fighters from all walks of life for three decades. “Whether it’s good or bad, they’ve all got a story.”

Colonna watches over every one of them.

You’ll know when he has his eyes on you. You’ll catch him in your periphery, looking like he’s been swept away by a deep thought, bobbing with your movements.

On this particular Tuesday morning, at 2600 W. 35th St., Colonna spends some time watching 23-year-old LaMarko Walton launch his worn-out, white gloves into a bag. He’s working on combos and head movement.

“Move your head,” Colonna says, bobbing with his fighter, and Walton moves his head between punches. “That’s it.”

A Golden Gloves champion, Walton looks like he was born to fight. His jabs and hooks are crisp and calculated — and fast. With every punch, he lets out a controlled grunt, a technique boxers use to maintain stamina.

Walton had to sideline his boxing in February, when he was in a bad car accident. He suffered a gruesome gash across his right eyebrow, where a mound of scar tissue has grown.

Though he can’t fight until later this year, Walton makes the 50-mile commute from Waukegan every day with his brother, 23-year-old D'Marcus Mull.

The brothers can’t afford to pay the $50 a month for gym dues, but Colonna doesn’t make them. As long as the boys want to train and listen to what Colonna has to teach them, they’re welcome as long as they want.

Young boxers spar at Sam Colonna's Brighton Park gym. [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]

A transplant from Calabria, Italy who moved to Bridgeport with his family when he was 6, Colonna has since achieved reached legendary status as a South Side boxing trainer.

As head coach of the Chicago Boxing Club, Colonna led a group of fighters to the Chicago Golden Gloves Tournament Team Championship five years in a row from 2008-2012. And as head trainer of the famed Windy City Boxing, Colonna cornered fighters like Andrew Golota, Angel Manfredy, Angel Hernandez and Vaughn Bean.

He once bonded with Mike Tyson over the fact that both men raised pigeons.

Sure, he's trained champions, but the truth is no matter how many fights you’ve got under your belt, there’s always room for improvement.

Earlier that day, in a ring near the front of the gym, Andrzej Fonfara, a 27-year-old light heavyweight champion who recently dominated Julio Caesar Chavez Jr. in nine rounds, shadowboxed with six pounds of weights in his hands.

Colonna stood ringside, watching Fonfara — who walked into the gym a tall, skinny kid at 130 pounds — practice the explosive combinations that eventually won him a belt.

“Last 30 seconds,” Fonfara yelled, and the timer went off, signaling the start of the last round. By the time he’s done, his arms will be pumped up with blood.

Colonna watched every move, directing his fighter like a conductor.

“Turn it over! Snap it! Good. Keep going, keep going keep going. Don’t stop until that bell rings.”

Before his fight against Chavez Jr., everyone pegged Fonfara the loser. Over nine rounds, Fonfara broke his opponent down with more than 900 punches, averaging more than 100 shots a round, a rare statistic for someone his size.

The steady barrage and one knockdown hook in the ninth round — a move he practiced over and over again with Colonna — forced Chavez Jr. to quit.

“That’s why I broke him, you know? I punch a lot of punches,” Fonfara said of his performance.

After Fonfara’s win, he traveled to his native Poland. At the airport, dozens of reporters waited to talk with the champ.

Young boxers spar at Sam Colonna's Brighton Park gym. [DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner]

Over the years, Colonna has been more than trainer to many fighters. Many guys walked in from the streets, looking for guidance, a path around the gangs and drugs flooding the neighborhoods.

JuJuaenson Web started boxing with Colonna back in 1996.

Now 44, the South Side native grew up watching Muhammad Ali and wanted to start fighting when Mike Tyson hit the scene and branded himself a brawling knockout artist from the streets.

Web fought several amateur fights under Colonna but gave up training seriously after he had his first kid: JuJuaenson Web Jr.

Now Web comes into the gym to keep his blood pressure down, but it’s really for his 14-year-old son, who wants to learn the sport and fight professionally one day.

The father and son often spar together — sometimes in the ring next to champion fighters like Fonfara.

If there’s one thing boxing taught Web, it’s discipline and hard work. He hopes his son picks up the truth he learned in the ring: When life doesn’t seem to be going your way, keep fighting.

“It teaches you how to bite down when you think you’re about to give up,” Web said. “Right when you think you’re going to give up, bam! You knock someone out. Then you say, ‘I was just about to give up.’"

Web is one of many fathers who bring their kids to the gym.

Jose Garcia, a 37-year-old electrician, has been training at Colonna’s gym for the past month.

He started boxing after he his 12-year-old son Moses started training more than a year ago. Since then boxing has become a family endeavor. Nautica, his 7-year-old sister, trains alongside her big brother.

When Garcia grew up, he didn’t have a strong, role model around to show him the way. So where did he turn?

“Gangs,” Garcia said, walking on a treadmill while Moses shadowboxed in the ring.

Garcia sees boxing as a way for his son to stay out of trouble and learn discipline. He didn’t have the option when he was kid. He learned to survive the hard way.

Colonna, who has put boxing at the top of his priorities since his beginnings, says the sport sticks with you long after you stop fighting.

"It's like a drug," he said. "Once you do it once, it draws you back all the time. Even guys that quit — they always come back."

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