>Through a maze of warehouse hallways and a shadowy set of stairs lies one of Dorchester's best kept secrets: its very own orchestra hall. Though perhaps not traditional by most musical standards, Grealish Boxing Club's orchestral qualities cannot be denied.
Although tucked back in a corner of the East Cottage Street gym, the weathered ring draws center stage attention, its battle-worn canvas bowed and slightly warped after years of sparring. It harbors an irregular glow likely attributed to the weakened overhead lamps mixed with years of dust kicked up from the ring.
The gym is a haphazard collection of heavy bags and other tools of the trade. Its instruments are tuned with spreads of Duct-tape as nearly every bag in the hall has been pushed to its brink after years of punishment. The eyes of Frazier, Robinson, Tyson and Ali stare intensely upon Grealish's maestros from framed photos next to Martin Grealish's office, serving constant reminder that greatness is all around them but must be earned through hard work
Amidst these wall hangings are protÃ©gÃ©s hoping to follow in the footsteps of the greats. Grealish touts a number of fighters in his roster, including Gabriel Duluc, a lightweight who punches like a heavy. But Donnie Palmer, at 6 foot 8 inches and 260 solid pounds, naturally towers over his fellows.
"I want to be the best boxer ever at my weight class, I want people to talk about me like they talk about Ali," said Palmer.
The 25-year old super heavyweight is taking strides to do just that. Rising quickly in the amateur ranks 2008 saw Palmer win the Golden Gloves, the Northeastern Regionals and the Tournament of Champions. He also came in third at the USA Eastern Regionals, an unlikely finish for such a new fighter. In fact he accomplished all of this in just 10 fights, finishing the year with an 8-2 record.
Born in South Boston, Palmer grew up playing basketball and after attending the Brooks School in North Andover he went on to Brown Mackie Junior College, where he won a national championship in 2005. After earning a degree in criminal justice, he played D1 basketball at Robert Morris College, graduating with another degree, this time in computer and information science.
It was at Robert Morris that he was introduced to boxing. According to Palmer, it was after Nikolay Valuev, the 7-foot Russian boxer defeated Johnny Ruiz for the title that he realized boxing was where he needed to be.
"I saw a tall guy do it, and knew that since I played ball I had the coordination, I could do that," said Palmer.
After returning to Boston, he began working out at local gyms, testing the boxing waters, but found few partners to train with, or people to push him. The young athlete was becoming frustrated with the direction he was heading. On a friend's recommendation Palmer tried out Grealish Boxing Club one day, and he knew where he would train from that day forward.
Every young charge needs a mentor, and at Grealish, Palmer had two: Martin Grealish, who owns the gym, and Kenny Butler, a renowned local boxer. The duo took young Palmer under their wing and molded his raw talent into honed machinery.
"We've been working on his jab," says Butler, "early and often. I know what this kid can do, and more importantly what he can't sometimes."
Butler's knowledge of fighting does not come without experience. He competed at both the amateur and professional levels, tallying over 60 fights in his decade long career. A Golden Glove winner at age 16, Butler was also an All-Army champion during his time in the service.
This familiarity with the ring compliments Palmer's raw athleticism well, and coach and athlete work off of each other nicely.
"I got to make sure my fighter gets off that stool and turns it around no matter what. I teach my fighters not to get emotionally involved," noted Butler.
In amateur boxing, unlike professional bouts, precision is key, as points are scored for direct blows. Therefore keeping a fighter focused is key as mental lapses lead to sloppy punches and lost points. Butler describes this game as " the art of hitting and not getting hit." He has spent countless hours building Palmer's ring savvy, and the dedication has begun to pay off.
Realizing through his teacher's guidance that he had to make the next step in his career, Palmer enlisted in the Army so he could train with US Olympic coaches.
The amateur level requires fighters to fund their own careers for the most part, but the Army will completely cover Palmer's costs and expenses during his service. He will work as a carpenter and mason part-time while training full-time. Palmer takes off for the training center this week.
Palmer acknowledges that his family and particularly his training partners have been incredibly encouraging the entire time.
"I know everyone will be here [at the gym]," said Palmer, "and if they're here, then that means I'm here."
The constant motivation between fighters has led to a solid core of boxers emerging from Grealish Boxing Club of late. Beyond Palmer, Tony McKenna has experienced recent success at the middleweight division, taking home the Golden Gloves at the novice championships this year. Others experiencing recent successes are Josh De la Rosa and Gabriel DuLuc.
The successful dynamic within the gym is contagious and all the fighters appreciate each other's ability. Palmer's steps up in the national rankings are embraced by his teammates, as they know his success will eventually reflect back on those who influenced him.
And as he departs, Palmer knows the solid rhythm of punches, shoes and jump ropes will roll on at the Grealish. A rhythm that is undoubtedlyâ€”after hundreds hours of trainingâ€”playing in his own head each time he draws on the motivation he found there. gym's cacophony can flow like a sophisticated musical number, composed of many intricate parts. Distressed wood floors creak and groan rhythmically under the weight of bouncing fighters as jump ropes skip at a constant meter. The thwap-thwap of combinations against faded pads provides the melody, with each jab-hook adding complexity to the rhythm. Punching bags thud and boom as the overture begins to pick up pace, and then momentarily subside after a chime rings, later picking up again in a flurry of blows.