Josue “Josh” Rosa, who opened BadLandz to train his nephew and his sons, also works with neighborhood kids whether they can pay or not. “You never who’s going to be a champion,” he says.
Jeremy “J” Chaulisant, one of BadLandz Boxing Club’s top prospects, goes for a training run in North Philadelphia.
Boxer Luis Esquillin gets encouragement from his uncle and trainer, Josue Rosa (left), and cut man Billy Briscoe, who’s “one of the best trainers in Philadelphia,” according to Rosa.
Below: Clockwise from top left, Rosa and trainer Lewis “Sharif” Brown with Badlandz’ boxers-in-training, Gabriel Medina, Isaac Rosario, Mojo Rosario, Jasir Harris and Devon Rosa.
Josue Rosa’s son, Josue Jr., spars in the ring at BadLandz. Watching, from left, are Jose Gordian, Luis Esquillin, Anthony Arvelo, Gilbert Perez and Jeremy “J” Chaulisant.
Luis “Smurf” Esquillin has a full-time job and a daughter at home. But a boxing title remains his dream.
American Street in North Philadelphia is five lanes wide, a forgotten commercial boulevard lined with vacant lots and anonymous warehouses. It does not attract many joggers.
But on this overheated August afternoon, a ragtag band of teens comes trotting right down the middle of the street and files through a doorway, clattering downstairs into a basement. They emerge into a humid cavern of a boxing gym, the air thick with old sweat and fresh ambition.
Heavy bags hang from the ceiling, swaying like eager dance partners. In the boxing ring, a couple of teens spar, wearing padded helmets and thick gloves. Kids attempt sit-ups in front of the mirrors, some more successfully than others.
This place, BadLandz Boxing Club, may look like just a gym. Actually, it’s the embodiment of a dream shared by a man, Josue “Josh” Rosa, and his nephew, Luis “Smurf” Esquillin, trying to make their names in this resurging fight city.
They scraped up the money to open BadLandz in January, and did all the work themselves. In May, Esquillin relaunched his pro career after taking a few years off to regroup. They’re making their move at a time when being a Puerto Rican kid from North Philly means something in the boxing world: Rosa, 36, and Esquillin, 24, grew up at Harrowgate Boxing Club in Tioga, watching and sparring with Danny Garcia, the current unified light-welterweight world champion. While Philly has had its share of champs, in this corner of the city Garcia’s name is everywhere.
The story of his ascent from hardworking prospect to international star lends an aura of credibility to the aspirations of Rosa, an ex-offender who never went pro, and his nephew, who holds an unimpressive 2-6-1 record. “Danny opened the doors for all the Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia,” Rosa says. “Now it’s not just the African-Americans who can fight.”
Esquillin, who has sleepy eyes and long black braids, figures he’s two years away from a world championship shot. All he needs to do is to keep fighting — and get lucky.
The fighting part, at least, is in their blood. Growing up in the Badlands means growing up fighting. It can make you rich if it doesn’t kill you first.
In his teens, Rosa lived in a bad neighborhood and made bad choices, selling drugs and messing around with guns. After he went to jail, he realized, “It wasn’t for me. I don’t like being around a bunch of men all the time.”
Esquillin grew up fighting in the street — and winning. He didn’t have any special technique: “I’d just go crazy with the punches.” Later, at Harrowgate, he fell in love with the sport.
“I like to get hurt. I like pain. I like the adrenaline. I like people to tell me, ‘You can’t do it,’ and I just look at them and laugh at them, like, ‘Yes, I can.’ I like people to tell me, ‘You can do it.’ The good or the bad, I like everything about it.”
But he lost a few pro fights, and watched his championship dreams and his trainers’ attention slip away.
He came to the realization that successful fighters like Garcia had something he didn’t.
“Every boxer who makes it, their dad is always there. Danny Garcia was trained by his dad. My dad wasn’t here for me,” he says. “Now, with my uncle, we in this together. Now I got a team.”
Even though Rosa admits he’s “not the best trainer,” he believes he can give Esquillin what no other trainer can. “Before boxing, I had to show him love.”
This is a dream built on Rosa’s disability checks (a motorcycle crash left him with screws in his spine), on whatever Esquillin can spare from his day job working for the city, and on a thousand bucks here and there from a guy named “K.” (“I don’t ask him where he gets his money, but he helps me sometimes,” Rosa says.)
For both of them, building BadLandz was about starting over together. It’s a story that’s part Rocky, part Bad News Bears. “The two of us had to believe in ourselves,” says Rosa. “The gym was about taking a risk.”
Whether Esquillin wins or loses, the gym will be his legacy, shared with Rosa’s own sons, now 7 and 13 and already learning to fight.
More than 60 kids train here, some learning to box and others trying to get in fighting shape. Rosa charges them $20 a month if they can pay. If not, they train for free. He figures if he keeps them off the streets for three hours, “I’m saving their lives for three hours a day.”
Jeremy “J” Chaulisant, 22 years old and poised to launch his pro career out of BadLandz, says that’s not hyperbole.
Like just about every kid here, he used to fight in the streets. “It’s not fun anymore. Nobody puts their fists up. Everybody pulls out a gun,” he says. “Inside here, I can show you I can fight and I can really beat you. Out there, you knock somebody out and you got 10 more people coming after you, you got 10 more guns coming after you. It’s retarded out there. That’s the streets, that’s Philadelphia.”
Troy Kirtz, 14, has been training at BadLandz for five months. “It keeps you off the streets,” he says with a shrug. “It’s dangerous walking around.” He doesn’t believe he has much of a future in boxing; he aspires to be a professional basketball player. In this neighborhood, though, you can’t show off on the basketball court, Chaulisant says. He knew a guy who was shot over a basketball game.
Now BadLandz is seeking its place in the storied landscape of Philadelphia boxing gyms, trying to make a name, to produce a champion.
That’s not an easy feat. Just ask Charlie Sgrillo, co-director of Harrowgate in Tioga. He’s been in the sport for 55 years, as an amateur, pro, referee, judge, cut man, manager, trainer and promoter, and still sweeps the ring himself before opening each afternoon at 4 p.m.
Sgrillo has learned that even if you train a champion, it doesn’t mean he’ll stay with you. He trained Garcia through age 13, before Garcia’s father took over and began training him in a separate gym on Harrowgate’s second floor. Sgrillo doesn’t really like to talk about Garcia these days. In April, the champ left the historic boxing club behind and opened his own gym half a mile away, complete with recording studio, barbershop, auto detailer and monogrammed boxing ring.
Other fighters drift away from the gym and back into the streets, selling drugs and getting into trouble. “I even gotta watch my trainers, to be honest with you,” Sgrillo says. One went to jail not too long ago on drug charges. “The main thing is to make these kids good kids.”
Sgrillo and Rosa share one deep-seated fear: that their boxers will take what they learn in the gym back out onto the streets.
It happened with Ray Hansburry, a kid Sgrillo trained. “He beat up on somebody, and a few weeks later that guy come over and shot him in the head.” Sgrillo gestures to the “Wall of Fame” lined with snapshots of Harrowgate’s current and former stars, like Olympic gold medalist David Reid and Philly pro Anthony Boyle. “A couple of these kids that are on the wall did drugs. [They’re] dead.”
Despite all that — despite boxing losing market share to mixed martial arts, despite the fact that no one is promoting major cards in Philly these days — trainers are optimistic. Harrowgate is so crowded with young talent that Chuck Diesel used to come in at 4 a.m. to train his fighters.
In July, Diesel opened his own gym upstairs, in Garcia’s old space. It’s spartan: Boxers train on stained carpet remnants held down with tape. But Diesel’s desk is covered with a dense, glittering forest of trophies. Professionals have begun jetting in from around the world to train here with Diesel and his team, which includes former world champ Tim Witherspoon. Venezuelan Miguel Acosta, a former lightweight world champion, showed up unannounced outside the building on Venango Street late one night and asked Diesel to help him reclaim his title.
Diesel says all of that is proof: Philly’s still the premier fight city. “We’re crumbling, but we are the capital of boxing, and we need people to step up.”
Over at Rock Ministries, the gym in Kensington where Pastor Buddy Osborn serves up rigorous boxing training and the word of Jesus, the gospel of North Philly boxing is alive and well. Osborn started this ministry a decade ago and moved it to this chaotic stretch of Kensington Avenue, under the El, a year and a half later. Lately, heavy police presence has moved drug activity off the block, but his fighters’ lives aren’t easy.
“Nine out of 10 kids are from a family where their father is missing. We’re introducing them to their heavenly father,” Osborn says.
Inside the gym, a space formerly used for heroin distribution, a dozen boys pray in a huddle before breaking off in smaller groups to do calisthenics or spar. At 14, Emmanuel Folly was an angry kid from Kensington with a hot temper. In April, at age 21, he became the ministry’s first boxer to turn pro.
Nine days before that fight, Folly’s oldest brother, Irving “Neak” Folly, was shot dead. “He was my number-one fan,” says Folly. “He didn’t get to come and see my first pro fight.”
Some of the guys at BadLandz came up at Rock Ministries, but couldn’t get right with God. Some of them boxed at Harrowgate, but couldn’t get a trainer to notice them. Some bounced from Front Street Gym to Costello’s to Shuler to Joe Hand, but never quite fit in.
Esquillin says that’s exactly what’s special about his gym. “If you don’t have nobody, we’re here for you.”
In a neighborhood where making it past 25 is a triumph for the average tough guy, Rosa is an elder statesman.
Brian Peterson, 33, a trainer at BadLandz, was 270 pounds when he got there. He dropped 27 pounds working out with the kids. “I was one of those guys out there who turned to drugs. I was out there trying to survive instead of boxing,” he says. He’d had potential as an amateur, “but I just got addicted to out there.”
Rosa gave him a second chance. “I changed it around and give to the kids. … This place has done a lot of justice for me.”
One BadLandz fighter, Basil Lester, says simply that Rosa “was like a second dad to me.”
Now, Rosa says, his biggest challenge is keeping his fighters on track. “The thing about Philly fighters is, they can fight; the hard thing is making weight,” he says. Poor nutrition is an ongoing challenge. Those guys who don’t get caught up with drugs and crime face other distractions: They have kids young and have to work to support their families.
“It’s hard to stay focused in this neighborhood,” Chaulisant says. “The issue is just trying to survive.”
Esquillin, too, has a girlfriend and a 7-year-old daughter. His job pays well, but it’s not his dream. It’s not boxing.
So, Rosa and Esquillin have a plan. Esquillin just needs maybe 10 consecutive wins. And then? “We can call somebody out for the title. And if we beat them and take that title, then instead of us calling them, they call us. And then the tables have turned,” Rosa says. Then, in one night, Esquillin could bring home $100,000, or $1 million, or $10 million — just like Danny Garcia.
“The thing is,” Rosa says, “with boxing, it only takes one night.”
Documentarian Madeleine Hunt-Ehrlich has been filming and photographing at BadLandz for a film about boxers from the area that will come out later this year.
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