On a hot Wednesday afternoon in July, Gerrard Achelles stepped into the ring at the Friday Night Fights boxing gym in Central City to train for an upcoming bout. Wearing blue boxing sneakers and khaki cargo shorts, Achelles bounded around the ring, sweat spraying off his body as he traded blows with his sparring partner.
Achelles, 27, was just a month out of prison — where he first learned to box — after serving a 12-year sentence for charges related to an armed burglary. Now a free man, Achelles has turned to boxing to distance himself from his criminal past, a past he says he could have avoided had he put on gloves earlier in his life.
"I was caught into the street life," he said. "If I would have had boxing, I would have had discipline, and if I had discipline, I wouldn't have been able to do the crimes that I committed."
Born and raised in New Orleans, Achelles hopes to turn a life half-spent in prison into a successful boxing career. This month he plans to attend a boxing camp in Florida hosted by Roy Jones Jr., the first professional boxer to start competing as a light middleweight and eventually win a world heavyweight title.
Had Achelles been released from prison three years ago, it might not have been so easy for him to continue his boxing training. But since 2009, there has been an increasing interest in boxing in New Orleans. At the head of the boxing movement is Friday Night Fights Gym, which hosted his debut fight July 21.
Founded by Mike Tata, Friday Night Fights has been producing boxing showcases about every two months for the past three years. The business initially occupied a building on Freret Street, but audiences for the boxing bouts quickly outgrew the space, and Tata took the matches outdoors on the gym's parking lot. Now the gym is in Central City, and the fights, which consist of several different bouts, have moved to Euterpe Street off St. Charles Avenue.
Achelles lost that first fight to 17-year-old Sean Hemphill. The three-round bout elicited some of the strongest reactions from the crowd that night and resulted in a judge's decision for the teenager.
Hemphill did have an advantage. His father introduced him to boxing at a young age. His goal, he told Gambit, is to bring boxing prestige to his hometown.
"I've been boxing as long as I can remember," Hemphill said. "I love the sport of boxing. This is what I want to do."
Bright futures in boxing in New Orleans are few compared to the sport's glory days in the early- to mid-1900s. A couple of fights each year draw large numbers of viewers and receive mainstream media coverage, but mixed martial arts, ultimate fighting and other martial arts championships have lured away much of boxing's traditional audience.
New Orleans is no stranger to premiere boxing events. The Superdome hosted legendary boxers Muhammad Ali, Sugar Ray Leonard and Thomas Hearns when they won world championships. The boxing website The Sweet Science (www.thesweetscience.com) noted that boxing in New Orleans dates back to the late-19th century, and that Louisiana produced three world champions who won their title bouts in New Orleans in the 1950s and '60s: Joe "Old Bones" Brown (lightweight title, 1956), Willie Pastrano (light heavyweight, 1963) and Ralph Dupas (junior middleweight, 1963). However, the last major boxing match held in New Orleans was in 2000, when Roy Jones Jr. successfully defended his light heavyweight title at the Superdome.
Tata has been relentless in marketing his fights and proudly boasts of his experience. "We were the first to put on outdoor fights," he said. "We've done the most, and we have the biggest fights." The July event was the 31st edition of Friday Night Fights, more fights than all other New Orleans based boxing gyms combined over the past three years.
Almost 1,000 people attended that event. Many brought lawn chairs and coolers filled with drinks; others came early and claimed balcony seating overlooking the ring at The Blind Pelican next door.
For Tata, the fight series is a hobby that gives him the opportunity "to drink beers, womanize and watch some fights," he says. The gym owner says he doesn't make any money on the bouts. The $15 ticket price, he says, pays for the ring setup, city permits and some entertainment between bouts.
The entertainment aspect is what makes Friday Night Fights stand out. Though officially sanctioned by USA Boxing, the national governing body for amateur boxing, the scene at the last fight skewed far from traditional boxing matches. Between fights, musical acts that took the stage ranged from lip-synchers to a Michael Jackson impersonator to a head-banging rapper who broke a skateboard across his face.
Tata acts as emcee and ringmaster, urging the proceedings along between swigs of beer and the occasional obscenity. When fights were held on Freret Street, the crowd consisted mainly of regulars at the Friday Night Fights Gym, according to gym member and aspiring boxer Kim Vu-Dinh. Now, though, she says the crowd includes more people she doesn't recognize, and she thinks Tata's emphasis on mid-fight entertainment has attracted a more eclectic crowd.
"Mike goes out of his way to make it more than just about boxing," she said during the July fight. Shortly after, Tata invited women from the crowd into the ring for a beauty contest. Tata had teased the event earlier saying that the winner "gets the crown, gets the sash and gets the cash."
The July event featured 10 fights and lasted three hours. Several former world champions were in attendance, including former International Boxing Association Welterweight Champion Ronald Weaver, who trains men and women. He said boxing isn't as popular today as it was when he was fighting in the 1980s, but Friday Night Fights reminds him of the sport's heyday.
"It's a definite blast from the past," he said. "It makes me think of the good old days."
Weaver echoed Achelles' idea of boxing as a vehicle for young people to escape dangerous scenarios — and gives young men an outlet for their frustrations.
"They realize that real men fight with their fists and not with guns," he said.
The Friday Night Fights series has sparked a renewed interest in boxing in New Orleans and coincides with other gyms and boxing events cropping up around Louisiana. While Tata's events feature only amateur fighters, Harrah's New Orleans has staged professional fights downtown and the Landmark Hotel in Metairie has presented Thursday night fights in its grand ballroom.
Alvin Smith opened the Crescent City Boxing gym in 2009 down the street from the Friday Night Fights gym. Smith, who also owns Uptown Recycling and was raised in Central City, is more low-key than Tata and doesn't host amateur bouts. His Erato Street gym boasts two regulation-size boxing rings, air-conditioning and showers. By contrast, the Friday Night Fights Gym has just one ring, no air-conditioning and a portable toilet out back.
Smith, who says his gym can safely accommodate more than 1,000 people, will host a professional fight Aug. 11. Like Tata, Smith says promoting boxing in New Orleans is a labor of love and that the fights he produces are not moneymakers. There is an inherent value, however, in having a boxing gym in Central City.
"You see a lot of youngsters in the gym, and when you walk in you can feel the excitement in the air," he said, adding that people who take up boxing, especially at-risk youth, can learn valuable life lessons in the ring. He is working with corporate sponsors to give youth who can't afford a gym membership an opportunity to work with professional trainers in a professional environment.
"The lessons you learn from boxing — perseverance, working out and having the discipline to run four to five miles a day — all of it builds good qualities in young people that will serve them well in life," Smith says.
At the Friday Night Fights gym, lightweight boxer Delvin Parkersaid that having two Central City boxing gyms gives young people in the area an outlet to take out their frustrations by pounding a punching bag or going toe-to-toe with an opponent in the ring.
"We all try to find a way to vent our anger," Parker, a 24-year-old former Marine, said. "I think coming to the gym and punching on a bag is the best way to vent it."