The Spring Hill gym will pit its best boxers against the rest of the Greater Pittsburgh area in September 29 event: ‘Northside vs. The Outside III’
By: Charles Davis
A boxing gym is judged by the fighters it trains. Steel City Boxing has produced a number of standouts. Bobby Helms, 23, Danny Bodish, 18, and Brody White, 15, all recently won their respective Western Pennsylvania Golden Gloves championships.
Helms, whose blonde man bun may make him look more like a Lawrenceville millennial than a fighter, stalks around the gym with bravado, jesting with fellow fighters as he weaves in and out of heavy bags offering advice to newcomers in the process. Bodish, whose compact frame gives one the impression that he’s perpetually coiled and ready to fight, wears a T-shirt with a Cuban flag pattern on it. He shadowboxes alongside White. The two of them seem synchronized in their patterns feeding off of each other’s energy in between the buzz of the simulated round timer.
Their achievements have required immeasurable sacrifice. Helms works construction during the day. Bodish works for the West View Water Authority. They can train only after putting in a full day of work. But they still show up.
They tape their hands, slip on headgear, lace up their gloves, climb into the ring to punish their opponents and to endure punishment from them – a pugnacious game of tag. Hands get bruised, muscles get torn and bones get broken. Yet, they keep coming. In addition to the countless hours that they put in at the gym sparring, shadow boxing, and jumping rope, they have put in even more outside the gym working on conditioning and fitness.
The sacrifices are more than physical. They spend time away from families and girlfriends. They don’t hang out with their friends the way most young men like to do. Their commitment to boxing trumps an array of outside interests.
“I’d like to be out stuffing my face with pizza and partying with my friends,” Bodish said. “But boxing always comes first.”
The gym isn’t open on weekends, but he frequently has one of the trainers unlock the doors for him so he can train by himself. He plans to turn pro soon.
Many of these young fighters come from troubled backgrounds and have suffered more than a few bad breaks. They have chips on their shoulders. But, refusing to be beaten down, they strive to overcome their lives’ hardships to prove themselves as boxers – and as men.
Helms is coming back from a devastating motorcycle accident from an April 2015 crash which left him with six pins in a reconstructed right shoulder. It’s a grisly injury for anybody to suffer, but for a boxer, it can be career-ending. Instead, Helms has worked tirelessly over the last two years to rehabilitate.
“I never once thought of walking away from the sport. I’ve been at it for eleven years. I work construction, but boxing is my life,” he said. “I am going to turn professional soon, or make a career as a trainer.”
White attributes his success to the scrupulous attention he devotes to fundamentals.
“I’m a technical fighter, not a brawler. For me to land my punches, I have to have perfect timing and positioning. I have to focus on the small details.”
It’s working out so far. He has won his last four fights.
On the evening of Friday, September 29, Steel City boxers will have the opportunity to prove how their hard work is paying off. For the fighters, the mood will be ‘us against them.’ These three along with fellow Northsiders will match up against fighters from across the region. The match has been billed: “The Northside vs. The Outside III.”
The converted Spring Hill fire house – formerly home to Station 53 – now serves as the training facility for Steel City Boxing; a free-to-join, nonprofit organization located at Homer and Damas Streets. The Outside team will draw on boxers from the twenty-three other registered gyms in the city, as well as from the greater tristate area.
They will fight in the Grand Hall of the renovated and re-purposed St. Mary’s Catholic Church, located at 614 Pressley Street. Owner John Graf took over the property in 1986 and converted it into The Priory Hotel. The Grand Hall cemented its pedigree as a boxing venue when the movie Southpaw used it as a filming location for its fight scenes.
Bob Sobocinski, a construction worker by trade, grew up in Spring Hill and lives around the corner from the gym. He has served as the gym’s president since 2008. In that role, he handles everything from fundraising to promotion to janitorial duties.
“We provide a structured, safe environment where kids learn to box and receive mentoring from positive, professional role models from their own community,” he said.
Jack Mook, a retired Pittsburgh City detective, and former Army paratrooper, is one of many volunteer trainers at the gym. He has organized the event for the last three years. This year, his son Josh (who is also a golden glove winner) is scheduled to be on the card.
Mook believes that the fighting is a secondary aspect of the boxing experience. “We want to get kids off the street and into and through high school. They can stay with boxing if they want, but with a diploma, they’ll have a world of opportunities.”
“To improve in the ring boxers need exposure to a variety of competition and a variety of fighting styles,” Sobocinksi said.
They get both at Steel City. In addition to fighting regularly throughout the area, their members have participated in the three annual “Donnybrook” matches, first held in 2014. In alternating years, Irish boxers travel to Pittsburgh to face local fighters and vice versa. The 2014 match was televised from The Priory and drew more than 700 spectators, many of whom flew from Ireland to witness the fights. Several members of the gym, including Bodish, traveled to Cuba to fight in 2016.
“It was a highlight of my nine years here at the gym,” he said.
Bodish, whose fight against Teddy Mrkonja will be the evening’s main event, is one of many Steel City veterans. Once kids come in, they stick around. The gym inspires loyalty.
“I’ve been here three years,” White said. “I’d come every day if I could.”
The gym also instills discipline. Steel City teaches them the discipline to show up on time on a regular basis, the discipline to endure grueling workouts and the discipline to drill painstakingly on the less than glamorous fundamentals–hand placement and footwork.
The gym’s trainers (all volunteers and all North Side residents) are as dedicated as the fighters. Their priority is to give kids the chance to succeed in the ring and in life. George Heinlein, a firefighter, and former Golden Gloves champion, attributes his life accomplishments to boxing.
“It taught me the value of preparation. Just as I used to train intensely for fights, I now train just as intensely for my job,” he said. “I always made sure that I was prepared when I entered the ring. It’s the same with my job. When I walk into a burning building, I better be totally prepared because people’s lives are at stake.”
Trainer Giovanni Cavaliere stresses the ancillary benefits of the sport. “You have to adapt, improvise, and overcome during a match. It’ the same deal in life,” he said. “The lessons the kids learn in the gym are easily applied to the real world.”
Ron Francis, a former amateur fighter who isn’t affiliated with the gym but who keeps an eye on the local talent likes what he sees at Steel City. “The boxers learn from the ground up – [the] footwork, [the] defense, the fundamentals,” Francis said. “Bad footwork can get you clobbered. In basketball, if your footwork is bad, you get shook for a layup. In boxing, it can get your nose broken for you.”
But Steel City isn’t just for competitive fighters. You don’t have to jeopardize the sanctity of your nose to train there. All ages are welcome, from those who want to learn self-defense to those who just want an intense cardio workout.
Sobocinski’s vision for the gym extends far beyond the ring. “I want to build a community around the sport,” he said. “Kids need support to succeed in life. That’s what we give them. Anybody who walks through our doors gets the focused attention of the whole organization.”
It is perhaps ironic that the gym brings people together in such a combative environment. For funding, it relies on private citizens, Northside businesses, public grants and private contributions.
And just as the community supports the gym, the gym always gives back to the community. After all, it is in their backyard too. Recently, members participated in Spring Hill Gardening Day, a communal event paired with the Spring Hill Civil League, where members of the gym participated in a neighborhood cleanup, planting flowers at various locations across the Spring Hill neighborhood.
The gym was established as the result of community effort, but it thrives internally because of the collaboration of its members. Volunteer trainers work with young boxers, who in turn teach the fundamentals to newcomers. It’s a pay-it-forward effect.
“It helps me to help the new guys,” said Helms. “When I go over the basics with them, it’s a refresher course for me. My footwork gets better when I have to teach it. Theirs will get better when they have to pass it on.”
Older boxers take the younger ones through their routines. One worked with three girls aged 11 to 14 on how to move around the ring. He walked them – half-step, jab; half-step, jab – half-stepping across the room embracing the unadorned basics of fighting with them. On the other side of the gym, Bodish ran young fighters through a conditioning program, alternating between jumping rope, sit-ups and push-ups.
The gym is animated by the spirit of community. And on the night of September 29, even though each Northsider will step into the ring alone, he will be fighting for his gym, and he will have the whole community behind him.
Northside Vs. The Outside III takes place Friday, September 29 at the Priory Hotel at 6:00 p.m.
Tickets will be available at the door. General admission is $20, ringside seating is $40 for more information visit steelcityboxing.org.