FLATBUSH — Christopher “Lil B-Hop” Colbert got into boxing at 13 because he was good at fighting and thought it would give him a chance to blow off some steam.
But he never bargained for how hard he would have to work.
From the first time he stepped into the ring at the Atlas Cops & Kids gym in Flatbush, Colbert experienced everything that serious training requires — from the repeated punches and two-hour train rides from his Bronx home to running, dieting and exercising for countless hours.
Now, that hard work is starting to pay off.
Trainer Areliano Sosa tapes Lil B-Hop's hands. (Credit: Noah Hurowitz)
Colbert, 20, whose nickname pays homage to former middleweight champion Bernard Hopkins, has a 6-0 pro record and has moved into his own apartment on the Lower East Side.
And ever since starring in the recent Netflix documentary “Counterpunch,” he said people come up to him on the street at least once a day.
“If I hadn’t come to Atlas, I’d be dead, in jail, or selling drugs,” Colbert said, noting he owes it all to the free city gym run by Pat Russo, a former NYPD narcotics sergeant.
“I had the brains to be something, but I gave up on school. But this place is my life now. I come to the gym and I know this is my family.”
The opportunity Colbert found at Atlas Cops & Kids, which the gym continues to provide to the approximately 600 kids registered with the program, is increasingly hard to find in New York, according to “Counterpunch” director Jay Bulger, who spent months following Colbert around as he trained.
The number of free gyms in the city has plummeted in recent years, even as boxing has seen a resurgence in popularity among more well-to-do gym-goers, Bulger noted.
When Bulger — himself a boxer and former Golden Gloves competitor — moved to the city in 2000, each borough had at least one free boxing gym run by the Police Athletic League, offering him and other young boxers a place to get off the streets and train, giving some of them a real shot at a career in the sport.
But in 2009, then-director of the PAL Felix Urrutia shut down the boxing program, bowing to pressure from funders who complained of the sport’s “barbaric” nature, according to news reports at the time.
The sudden closure of gyms citywide dealt New York’s youth boxing scene a huge blow, Bulger said.
“I can’t imagine how many at-risk kids were no longer able to box because of that,” he said. “The go-to staple for community gyms was the PAL program, but now you’ve got so many boxing gyms for cardio that are really just for wealthy people.”
Russo, who was director of the PAL boxing program at the time, fought the closure but was ultimately overruled.
“They were biased against boxing,” he said. “They had the most ridiculous excuse for disbanding the program — they thought it was teaching kids more how to fight than how to box.”
To Russo, who has always seen his boxing programs as crime prevention, the decision stung. So he struck out on his own, founding a new program with the help of Staten Island native and boxing trainer/commentator Teddy Atlas, who agreed to fund the new program as a form of "preventative medicine" to keep kids healthy and out of jail, Russo explained.
Pat Russo, Lil B-Hop, and Areliano Sosa stand outside Atlas Cops & Kids. (Credit: Noah Hurowitz)
The proof of its success is visible to anyone who steps inside his gym, Russo said. Atlas Cops & Kids, which is now located at the Flatbush Gardens housing complex, as well as two other gyms on Staten Island, gives hundreds of kids like Colbert structure, purpose and a place to hang out off the streets.
On one wall, kids who have a high enough GPA get to hang their report cards with pride. There’s a classroom built into the gym where kids can study. And in a time when the relationship between police and communities of color is often strained, the gym gives kids and police alike a space to learn from one another, Bulger said.
“Having a cop who’s your coach bridges that gap,” he said. “If they get in trouble, they can say, ‘I’m friends with cops, let’s have a conversation.’ Both of them can relate better.”
In the wake of the release of “Counterpunch,” Russo said the opportunity his gyms provide has been underscored by the increase in signups. He said that thanks to Bulger’s decision to put Russo's phone number in the film, he’s been getting calls around the clock from parents seeking his help.
“I got a call from one mom at 2 a.m. asking for help because she didn't know where her son was,” Russo said. “It’s clear that what we do is necessary.”