Soul City Boxing, top floor, is one of many gyms that have opened as the city schools have cut athletics. More Photos »
The new fighter knows he will bleed, and he fears it.
He used to play football and run track at Robinson Middle School here until both teams were disbanded for austerity reasons. On a recent snowy Monday, he flings a wild right hook at the punching bag, steps back and takes a self-conscious look around Bang ’Em or Hang ’Em, a gym that is suddenly overflowing with young, sweaty boxers.
“Every time my nose gets hit, it starts bleeding,” the fighter, Antonio Ellison, says quietly, rubbing his face gently with his boxing glove’s padded red knuckle. “I’m really scared for my first fight.”
Antonio, 14, is among the hundreds of Toledo youths who have discovered boxing this year after the public school system, facing a $39 million deficit, cut its athletics budget. It is a scenario that is being played out across the country, as high unemployment, falling home values and declining tax revenues continue to batter school finances.
Some children, and their parents, are checking out sports that until recently were unfamiliar, including boxing — and without inspiration from the Oscar-nominated movie “The Fighter,” which many here have not yet seen.
In Southern California, “boxing actually is growing here because pretty much all the districts in our area have cut back on sports,” said Connie Cervantes, director of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Police Athletic League, which in recent years has seen an eightfold increase in the size of its boxing program.
The cuts to the athletic programs in Toledo were among the most severe in the nation. At the beginning of the school year, the district disbanded all sports teams for middle school students and high school freshmen. It also cut high school cross-country, wrestling, golf and boys’ tennis teams, along with all intramural activities, including cheerleading and dance teams.
Some parents said they did not have many alternatives when the sports teams were eliminated. They could send their children to boxing clubs and live with the inevitable bruised foreheads and bloodied lips. Or they could leave them alone after school in neighborhoods that are often troubled by gangs and crime.
“I don’t like to watch them fight — I cover my eyes and ask someone else to see if they’re O.K.,” said Tambria Dixson, 35, a nurse’s assistant who pays $90 a month to send her three sons to Bang ’Em or Hang ’Em. “Paying for it is a struggle. But the kids in our neighborhood who aren’t involved in athletics are getting involved in gangs. So yes, it’s worth it.”
After Toledo’s schools announced the cuts, the city’s older boxing gyms quickly filled to capacity. Three new gyms have opened in the last year, and they are now full, too. Until last year, about 40 people used to attend the fight nights featuring boxers from different gyms. The latest bouts attracted 400 fans.
On one recent afternoon, Chris Lawrence, owner of Bang ’Em or Hang ’Em, negotiated to trade his eight-passenger van for one that held 15 people. Ten minutes later, he talked to the landlord of the cinderblock strip mall where his gym is located about moving into a larger space next door.
“For years, boxing in Toledo was dead — I mean dead,” said Mr. Lawrence, who opened Bang ’Em or Hang ’Em last year across the street from the Toledo Boys and Girls Club in an effort to attract children who had nothing to do after school. “Now it’s back, and it’s huge. We can’t handle all the kids coming in.”
“If it’s a sport like tennis or golf that can’t generate income, a lot of the schools around here are doing away with it,” said Jerry Babcock, the group’s director.
He said hockey seemed an unlikely substitute for Florida’s traditional high school sports. “Most kids here never see ice,” he said, “much less ice skates.”
In Oxnard, Calif., the school district’s budget was reduced to $95 million this year from $115 million three years ago, said William Dabbs, an assistant superintendent. The district has not cut athletics as drastically as in Toledo, but some high schools no longer offer sports for freshmen.
Interest in youth boxing is growing fast, said Terrel Harrison, director of the Police Athletic League in Oxnard. The city has nine boxing gyms, all of which are full. It could open another five, “and we still wouldn’t have enough space for all the kids,” he said. “Since they’re cutting back on these different school programs, young kids are turning to boxing because it’s an extremely inexpensive sport.”
In Toledo, where many parents know that the temptations of street life begin early, they hope the ring will became a haven.
Otha Jones III, who is four feet tall and weighs 80 pounds, trains at Soul City Boxing, a new gym in a barely heated space above a beauty salon in the rough Southside neighborhood. Last year, he won the world championship for his weight class at theRingside World Championships.
“I used to get in trouble in school because I had friends to get in trouble with,” said Otha, who is 11. “I started boxing, and now I don’t get in trouble anymore.”
A version of this article appeared in print on February 27, 2011, on page A16 of the New York edition.