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How boxing is helping inner-city kids get a fighting chance in life

Montreal police officer Evens Guercy (left) watches training alongside 17- year old Alexandre Leng (centre) by the ring at Guercy's Hope Boxing Club in the St. Michel district of Montreal, March 19, 2012.

Christinne Muschi for The Globe and Mail/christinne muschi The Globe and Mail

It's nearing 6 p.m. at Louis-Joseph Papineau High School and the air is thick with sweat, dreams, and the thwack of gloves on leather. The tic-tic-tic of a skipping rope fills a corner. "Jab! Jab!" a trainer shouts.

It's the soundtrack of teenage ambition, playing out in a tough part of town.

Each day after class, kids from one of Montreal's grittiest neighbourhoods come together to prove themselves, and prove the doubters wrong. For Carlos and Mohamed, Karim and Kenny, a cement-floor room off a dreary high-school hallway has become a haven with a boxing ring in the heart of it.

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The sign on the scuffed green door says it all: Club de Boxe l'Espoir. The Hope Boxing Club.

In 2005, a Montreal police officer named Evens Guercy thought there had to be a better way than hand out $118 loitering fines to young minorities in Montreal's troubled St. Michel district who had no place to go.

He came up with the idea of a boxing club and asked local civic officials for a subsidy. They told him there was no way they'd give money to teach young toughs how to fight. So Constable Guercy called his project "Better growth through sports." He got a $4,000 grant, bought gloves and ropes, secured a room at a local high school and launched a six-month project.

That was six years ago. Next month, the club holds its annual charity gala to raise funds and showcase the young boxers who've been groomed at the gym.

"So many people tell these kids they're no good, they'll never amount to anything. When they come here they are something, they're something positive," says Constable Guercy, who came to Quebec from his native Haiti as a teenager and took up boxing himself in high school, then went on to get a sociology degree at the University of Montreal.

Boxing's narrative has long been one of inner-city kids rising above their circumstances. This one's woven into the backdrop of the new Canada, a place where kids from a dozen ethnic backgrounds find a common purpose under one roof.

One of them is Alexandre Leng, the son of parents from Cambodia. The 17-year-old first came to the gym five years ago, so shy he barely spoke and looked at the floor when he did. He started to train five days a week. He competed. In 2010, he won bronze at the Canadian boxing championships and took silver at Quebec's Golden Gloves competition last year.

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"I'm a lot more confident now," Mr. Leng says with a gaze as direct as a punch in the jaw. "Since I started coming here, I haven't fought on the streets once. Boxing channels your aggression."

The club tries to give a fighting chance to kids who face daunting odds. St. Michel is a heavily immigrant neighbourhood in north-end Montreal beset by poverty, single-parent households and unpredictable bursts of violence that have, in the past, turned relations between police and minority youths toxic. News out of the district has traditionally involved shootings, fire bombings and gang clashes.

The neighbourhood's older Italian community has slowly made way for waves of newcomers from Haiti, Latin America and, increasingly, North Africa. Kids growing up in the district's densely-packed apartment blocks and public-housing projects face the constant temptation of the streets.

"I face competition from delinquency, from prostitution, from drugs, gangs, easy money – everything that's out there," Constable Guercy says. "I can't fight them. But I can offer an alternative."

That alternative starts after classes end at 3:55 p.m. The kids shuffle in, changing into t-shirts and silky shorts that their lanky adolescent frames don't quite fill out. Before long, dozens of boys and a handful of girls gather in a circle on a fraying gym mat to go through push-ups, sit-ups, and other exercises that spread an expanding map of sweat on their backs.

Many kids turn up out of curiosity and stay for years. Huseyin Sicimli, whose parents emigrated from Turkey, started out at the gym as a 13-year-old, tipping the scales at 200 pounds and unhappy about it. Now 17, he's at the club nearly every day, 40 lbs. lighter and rarely without a smile. He recently found out he was admitted to Montreal's popular Dawson College with an 85 school average.

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"Boxing requires you to train, be in shape, have discipline. Even my teachers are aware of it," he says, wrapping yellow tape around his hands. "Instead of working off my energy on people around me, I come here."

Then there's the improbably named Tcheguevara Saint-Jean, 18 years old and born in Haiti. His old nickname translates roughly as General Hot Head. Mr. Saint-Jean was a gifted athlete and natural performer, but used to get into scraps and faced suspensions from school.

He started to attend the club, training regularly. Now 18, he plans to graduate from high school this year and has landed a role in a movie as well as on a hit Radio-Canada TV show.

"This place gave me discipline. It taught me how to control myself," Mr. Saint-Jean said at the club one night as he doffed gloves. "I'm calmer. Boxing made me more mature."

Constable Guercy, a 40-year-old father of three, is often at the club sparring with the kids or standing on the sidelines talking to them about their studies; the club is free and open to all students as long as they remain in school. He gives them his cell-phone number, helps pay their registration fees for boxing competitions, and has been known to plead with judges to let kids attend the gym rather than push around a broom for community service.

But when it's time to lay down the law, he's no pushover. Last year, he rushed to the high school not to mentor students but to arrest one for a break-and-enter. The boy was sentenced to community service for a year. Two weeks after his punishment was done, he showed up at the boxing club and hasn't stopped coming since.

Boxing has always had its detractors. It bruises. You play hockey and you play soccer, but you don't play boxing. Still, Constable Guercy says no one has ever suffered a concussion at the club. And boxing can teach kids about rules. "If you respect the rules and you respect your trainer, then maybe you'll respect your teacher and your parents and people in authority," Constable Guercy says.

When the club's May 11 gala comes around, guests will gather at the circular stage of the TOHU, a complex in St. Michel that stages top-flight circus performers and is partnered with the Cirque du Soleil. But this time, before the eyes of parents, schoolmates, and VIPs, the stars taking centre stage will be kids from the Hope Boxing Club of St. Michel.

It will be a crowning moment for many of them. "They'll be sending a message to society: 'You may label us, but we believe in ourselves,' " Constable Guercy says. 'And just look at what we can do.' "

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