By Ashlee Green

Photos by Clifton Loosier

It’s 6:30 p.m. on a Monday night and the city is winding down as workers head home for the day. But for Eric Quarles, 20, of Manchester, and Justin Bermudez, 16, of Perry Hilltop, the action is just getting started.

“Let’s go, let’s go,” “Giddy up, giddy up,” “You’re a rock star!,” shouts their coach, James Hoy, also a Northside resident and real estate developer well known for his uniquely themed housing properties. Hoy is standing in the
center of a boxing ring, leading Quarles, Bermudez and a few other young men in a warm-up.

“Be an athlete, be an athlete,” he cheers, as they drop to the floor for push-ups. The boxers come to Third Avenue Boxing most days of the week to train for the Western Pennsylvania Police Athletic League (WPAL), an organization started as a mentorship program between volunteer trainers and local youth, to give kids an athletic alternative to violence and drugs.

WPAL was founded by Jimmy Cvetic, a former Allegheny County police officer and local poet. Cvetic runs ten boxing gyms throughout Western Pennsylvania and views the sport as a stepping stone for kids to become champions of their own lives.

“I believe everybody has good in them,” says Cvetic. “Sometimes you just have to hunt harder and look deeper for it.”

Hoy, who goes by “Coach,” has been training the team for the last five years. He boxed when he was in college and coached high school basketball for 30 years. He says he was “bored,” and that’s what landed him here.

“I’m from Manchester. [This league] keeps me who I am,” says Hoy. “I’m never going to be the retired guy yelling at the T.V. because these guys won’t let me.”

He’s trying to find a new space for the boxers to train on the Northside, but for now, he regularly drives some of the guys back and forth to the downtown gym.

Quarles is one of them. He lives next to Hoy and often has dinner at his house before Friday night matches.

“I’m the only fighter he can’t leave,” Quarles says with a laugh.

Known as the “Black Panther,” a nickname Hoy gave him because he “moves like a cat,” Quarles says his father first pushed him and his four siblings to try boxing when he was 12 years old. He was being bullied and needed an outlet to cope. Within one year of training, he noticed the positive changes it was making in his life.

“It taught me confidence,” he says. “It taught me leadership.”

“It’s a lonely sport. You can play tennis, you can play
basketball, but you can’t play boxing.”

According to Hoy, Quarles is the team’s captain and role model. He’s also a former Western Pennsylvania Golden Glove Champion.

Bermudez also comes over from the Northside to train. He’s been with WPAL for seven months.

“Even on holidays, we’re down here doing our work,” he says.

Bermudez, known as “June Bug,” heard about the program through a mentor at The Pittsburgh Project. He likes boxing because it’s stress relieving.

“It distracts you from everything else,” he says. “It keeps your mind occupied.”

Hoy starts new boxers out on what he calls the “skateboard,” a two-by-four positioned on the floor of the gym. The guys balance and shuffle back and forth on it while practicing a series of punches. On conditioning days, Hoy splits his boxers in half, training one group at 6:30 p.m. and the other at 7:30 p.m.

His dedication to coaching is a testament to the WPAL credo: “Always For the Kids.”

“Some of the best fighters in the city come out here,” says Hoy. “If we’re not fighting, we’re here.”

On August 4, Quarles will face off against Sage Hicks from the Boyce Gym at The Meadows Casino in Washington, PA. For more information about WPAL, visit the website at www.wpal.org.