If MMA has overtaken boxing as America's favorite combat sport, you wouldn't know from visiting Ace Miller Golden Gloves Sports Arena on a Tuesday night. More than 50 sweat-soaked young fighters, on some evenings, make the spacious gym seem almost cramped as they pound heavy bags, shadow-box, and spar with each other in two centrally located regulation-sized rings.
To work out at the arena, you have to be between the ages of 8 and 34, pay a $60 fee to U.S. Amateur Boxing (gym membership itself is free), and you have to compete—at some point—in a sanctioned boxing event. An amateur event, that is—no one who trains here can accept money for fighting, and that extends to tough-man contests, MMA matches, and pro boxing cards.
Coach Jack Rose explains that resources are too scarce to indulge dabblers or cross-trainers. "We have kids who want to be Golden Gloves fighters, and we have limited equipment," says Rose, a former amateur fighter himself. "We're trying to be as welcoming to the kids as possible.
"Our doors are open to everyone who qualifies. But we really try to get the city kids in. Very few of them will become great boxers, but we hope they'll leave with more discipline and motivation than when they came in."
Detroit native Michael Holmes' introduction to the sweet science sounds like it was torn straight out of a movie script. Having moved south for a job a few years ago, he met retired Tennessee boxing great Frankie Randall, a three-time world champion, while working out in Morristown.
"I didn't even know who he was," says the soft-spoken Holmes, his dreadlocks poking out of a silken black head cover. "He was just an old man jumping rope, and I was, ‘Why is everyone around this guy?'"
Holmes says he was "kind of star-struck" when he finally learned of Randall's life, and his legend. "I asked him if I could box, and he said no," he remembers. "I asked why, and he said, ‘You're not dedicated enough.' From then on, I decided I was going to bother this man to death until he would train me. And he finally did."
Holmes worked with Randall for about six months, whereupon Randall suddenly disappeared, he says. Holmes moved on to a gym in Jefferson City—which he didn't like—and then came to Knoxville.
Currently attending Tennessee Tech for special auto body repair, Holmes has a good record in the ring. But unlike many of the fighters who enter this gym, he says he's not placing a huge burden of expectation on his boxing career.
"It gives me a dream," Holmes says of his boxing. "But the main thing, I'd just like to be financially stable. Everyone wants the big trophy or the belt. But I'm realistic about it. I might not be cut out for that."
Kate Graifer's trademark sparring gloves are bright pink. But there's nothing girlish about the discipline and determination with which Graifer—a raven-haired Roane State nursing student in her mid-20s—approaches her boxing, which began about a year ago.
"I was dating someone who boxed here, and just like anyone, I thought it would be cool to try," says Graifer, innocently unaware that the average anyone has relatively little interest in getting socked in the mouth in his/her spare time. "Things didn't work out with that guy, but I'm still here.
"I grew up with two older brothers," she says. "I got sick of taking their crap. I always liked Mortal Kombat, wrestling, all of that stuff."
But despite her dedication—the New Jersey transplant is a fixture at the gym's thrice-weekly sessions, sometimes taking her schoolwork to the arena—Graifer faces an extra hardship, inasmuch as there are few women fighters around. "On occasion, I'll spar with boys," she says. "But it's usually younger boys, which is embarrassing to me."
Though competition is hard to come by, she expects a fight soon, and she hopes to compete in the springtime East Tennessee Golden Gloves tournament, the first stepping stone to nationals.
Over the long haul, Graifer says she's prepared for all contingencies. "Wherever boxing takes me is fine," she says. "If I go pro and get paid for it, that's great. If not, it's a good workout and a good stress reliever from school.
"I like the fact that it challenges you in every possible aspect, physically. And that you showcase yourself; there's no shortcuts in boxing. There's no hiding."
Matthew Maloney knew his University of Tennessee track coaches probably wouldn't see boxing as acceptable rehab for a broken back. So Maloney, a javelin thrower for UT from 2007 to 2010, kept his pugilistic endeavors a carefully guarded secret through his redshirt season of 2009.
"I took a redshirt because I had a stress fracture in my back," Maloney says. "But I was fully healed halfway through the year, and I needed something to do. So a friend told me I should try this out. I've been coming ever since.
"While I was still on the track team, though, it was definitely on the hush-hush."
A muscular, square-jawed 235-pounder from Rhode Island, Maloney seemed to relish his new sport, even its grueling training regimen. "I enjoyed it as a challenge, to see how good I can be," he says. "Even the workouts are tough to get through. Being in boxing shape is a whole different level. There are no easy days in boxing."
"The best guys are the ones who are coachable," says Rose, Maloney's coach. "Matt's like that. He follows instructions and works hard. And he does a little bit more than I ask him to do. That's what it takes to get to the elite level. When everybody else is out on Friday and Saturday doing fun stuff, you're putting in the extra work."
And so far, it is paying dividends for Maloney. Amateur boxing has three large national tournaments in the U.S.: Golden Gloves, the National Police Athletic League Championships, and the USA. Last year, Maloney took second at the National PAL Championship, and he made it to the Golden Glove Nationals, winning the East Tennessee and Southern regionals to get there.
"Right now, my immediate goal is a national championship," he says with a smile.
"It's hard to describe the feeling you get after winning a fight. You get all this tension built up beforehand. Then you go, and you win after nine minutes of boxing."
When people see 8-year-old Logan Divine, "future boxing champion" aren't the first words that come to mind. Standing not a great deal over three feet and weighing in at 52 pounds, he's diminutive, even by third-grade standards. With his big eyes and rosy cherub cheeks, he is decidedly—in the words of his boxing coach Jay Dudley—"a cute little feller."
But sometimes appearances deceive. When Logan shadow-boxes, or hits the bag, he sets his little face in a determined, grown-up scowl, and throws crisp, disciplined punches—at least for a while.
"He's got some coordination," Dudley says admiringly. "He's got some coordination."
A Blount County resident, Logan had friends and family members who boxed. "My brother-in-law asked me if I wanted to box and I said yeah," he explains.
Most of his conversation—at least with strangers—is of the simple, unadorned variety. He says of his new hobby that he "likes to hit things and he likes to work out." He says he has a fight upcoming, his first, and predicts he will "do pretty good." He says his favorite television consists of boxing and Ultimate Fighting Championship programming. He says he's never had a fight at school. He wiggles and squirms a great deal.
Like all newbies, Logan is still in the stage where he is mastering fundamentals: learning the basic punches, the jab and the straight right; keeping the hands up in a defensive posture; then throwing the left hook; then improving footwork. "We've started on the left hook, footwork, and balance, and he's learning that real good," Dudley says. "And he's learning to run around the gym real, real good.
"I've got an open-division heavyweight hoping to move on to state Golden Gloves right now. Who knows? Maybe in eight years, Logan will be there."