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June 1, 2014 at 1:10 PM

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A look into the White Center PAL Boxing Gym


BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

"You know what it says on the back of your shirt, don't you? Leave no doubt. That's what you're going to do today," says White Center PAL Boxing Gym trainer and coach Tony Rago as he wraps boxer Mariana Santiago's hand for a youth tournament at the Sea Mar Amateur Boxing Gym in Seattle's South Park neighborhood on May 10. Santiago, 17, lives in White Center and has been boxing at the PAL gym for a little under a year. 'Leave no Doubt' is their motto. "Leave no doubt in the ring that you want to fight, and in your heart that you give 100 percent," said Rago.

It's a bright, spring Saturday afternoon, but the chandeliers in the restaurant-turned-boxing gym are dim.

Young boxers, mostly Latino, prepare in shady corners to square off in the ring for a youth tournament at the Sea Mar Amateur Boxing Gym in Seattle's South Park neighborhood on May 10.

Tony Rago, trainer and coach for White Center PAL (Police Activities League) Boxing Gym, wraps one of his fighter's hands in a heavy gauze.

"You know what it says on the back of your shirt, don't you?" Rago says.

"Leave no doubt," they both answer.

"That's what you're going to do today," says Rago, looking into the eyes of Mariana Santiago, 17, of White Center, one of the gym's few female boxers.

Explaining later, Rago says that the motto means to "leave no doubt in the ring that you want to fight, and in your heart that you gave 100 percent."

Rago and his fellow coach, Keith Weir, of Bonney Lake, use the same conviction to run their gym out of old handball courts at the Steve Cox Memorial Park complex in White Center.

A portrait of one of the late founders of the boxing gym, King County Police Sgt. Ken Migita, hangs on the wall above a whiteboard with the rules. No cursing. No trash-talking. No boxing until the coaches feel you're ready.

The Police Activities League was started in King County in 2003 by Sgt. Reid Johnson, and the boxing program was founded in 2004 by Migita and a fellow deputy, Steve Beets. After Migita's death following an illness in 2007 the gym was essentially closed, until Rago volunteered to get involved and revive the program.

"When I walked in there, there was nothing," said Rago of the old gym. Heavy punching bags hung on portable basketball hoops. It was an echo of what the space looks like now.

Over time, they built up a proper ring, and welded racks for punching bags. Colorful photos of famous boxers and the kids that cycle through the gym over the years plaster the white walls. On weekdays about 5 p.m. the buzzing begins, as kids file in for the two-hour workout.

The White Center PAL Boxing Gym serves around 30 kids, ages 10-18, mostly from South King County, who pay no dues for their membership. They sell tickets to the quarterly benefit boxing shows they host to raise funds. "I tell them their dues are paid in loyalty to the gym," said Rago.

Weir, the other coach, knows about loyalty. He has driven from Bonney Lake for more than three years to train with the kids. "It's worth the drive every day," Weir said. "The community needs a gym like this. We're all family here."

At the tournament, White Center PAL had three boxers compete. Brandon Crespo, 15, of Renton, and Alex Gonzalez, 10, and Mariana Santiago, 17, both of White Center. Gonzalez and Santiago won by unanimous decision, families and coaches beaming.

Crespo, battered by a powerful opponent, returned to the corner, upset and apologizing. He hugged his coaches and his mother. They all gathered around to take one more group photo together.

"I told him, you lose, you're going to go back to the gym and work harder, and you're going to win," said Rago.

No doubt.



BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Kids warm up at the White Center PAL Boxing Gym at King County's Steve Cox Memorial Park. They contract with the King County Parks Department for the space, which is in two old handball courts.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Mariana Santiago, 17, of White Center, wraps her hands in red before practice at the White Center PAL Boxing Gym at King County's Steve Cox Memorial Park. She has been boxing for a little under a year, after her family encouraged her to join the gym. "It's a really good workout," she said.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Coach Tony Rago calls out combinations of punches with boxers shoulder to shoulder on the old handball court.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

With steady rain coming down outside, boxers do sprints, strength training and calisthenics inside as part of their workout. The gym is open 5-7 p.m. Monday through Friday.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Boxers take a water break after a cardio workout.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Coach and trainer Keith Weir eggs on the boxers as they throw punches during training. He drives from his home in Bonney Lake each weekday to coach at the gym. "This community needs a gym like this," Weir said. "We're all family here." Mariana Santiago, 17, is in the middle.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Exson Sanchez, 11, of White Center, has his Mexico-inspired headgear cinched tight before boxing by coach Tony Rago. The majority of the boxers at the gym are Latino.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

A portrait of the late King County Police Sgt. Ken Migita, one of the founders of the boxing program, hangs in the gym above the list of rules. The Police Activities League was started in King County by Sgt. Reid Johnson, and the boxing program was founded in 2004 by Migita and a fellow deputy Steve Beets. After Migita's death following an illness in 2007, the gym was essentially closed, until Tony Rago volunteered to get involved and revive the program.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Brandon Crespo, 15, of Renton, takes a moment before sparring in the ring. When coach Tony Rago took over the gym, he began by building up the equipment. Rago said that at the time, the old handball court was converted into a boxing gym with just a few punching bags hanging on portable basketball hoops. Over the years, they built a ring, got proper protective gear, welded racks for heavy bags, and plastered photos of the young boxers all over the white walls. "I like to give the kids some recognition," he said.


BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Jose Martinez, 10, gets a bit of help with pullups from Jose Arreola, 18. Both live in White Center, as many of the kids in the program do. Others come from Burien, Renton or nearby in South King County.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Coach Keith Weir trains with Chadene Djekkoun, 15, of Kent. Weir has been around boxing all of his life, from his father, who was a local amateur boxer, to his uncle, a local professional heavyweight.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Brandon Crespo, 15, of Renton, gets his hands wrapped before he competes at a youth tournament alongside two other White Center PAL boxers at the Sea Mar Amateur Boxing Gym in Seattle on May 10.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Catholic iconography, trophies and medals disguise the old bar at the Sea Mar Amateur Boxing Gym in Seattle's South Park neighborhood, where the youth tournament is held.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Alex Gonzalez, 10, shadowboxes nonstop before the tournament. Fellow White Center boxer Mariana Santiago praised his commitment. "He's always so excited to fight. He's always like, 'I'm gonna dominate him!'"

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Alex Gonzalez, 10, gets a kiss from his mom, Cynthia Gonzalez, for good luck before his match.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

The atmosphere at the Sea Mar Amateur Boxing Gym reflects its past as a glitzy restaurant-turned boxing gym.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Alex Gonzalez, 10, of White Center, gets some last-minute encouragement from coach Keith Weir before taking to the ring.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Alex Gonzalez, 10, of White Center, goes after Diego Mota of Squared Circle Boxing in South Park. Gonzalez weighed in at 67.6 pounds that morning.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Cynthia Gonzalez cheers on her son Alex, 10, as he boxes in the ring, while her next-eldest son Estiven, 9, holds his fussy baby brother Matthew, 18 months.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

"Relax, think about your training. Go out there and show what you have, show people who you are," says Rubi Barojas, 19, to her friend Mariana Santiago before she competes. Santiago, a Catholic, says she prays before each match. "I just try to stay calm and positive. Try not to think about how nervous I am."

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

White Center PAL Coaches Keith Weir and Tony Rago give Brandon Crespo, 15, of Renton, words of encouragement before he gets in the ring.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Selina Rodriguez of Cal's Olympic Boxing Gym, left, takes a punch by Mariana Santiago, 17, of White Center PAL during the youth tournament at Sea Mar.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Brandon Crespo, 15, takes on Marcos Flores of Azteca Boxing Club. Crespo lost by unanimous decision, while Flores won an award for being an outstanding boxer of the tournament.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Mariana Santiago, 17, is announced the winner by unanimous decision over Selina Rodriguez of Cal's Olympic Boxing Gym.

BETTINA HANSEN / THE SEATTLE TIMES

Brandon Crespo, 15, of Renton, gets a hug from his mom, Mercedes Guevara, as he apologizes for losing a match at the Sea Mar Amateur Boxing Gym on May 10, 2014.

The next fundraiser for the White Center PAL Boxing Gym is Saturday, July 12, at the Evergreen Campus, 830 S.W. 116th Street, Burien. First bout at 5 p.m. For more information, contact Tony Rago at 206-293-3742, or Keith Weir at 425-442-2017.



For more information on the gym, visit whitecenterpalboxing.com.

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