Contact sports

The camera wobbled as it zoomed in on two sets of hands rubbing Vaseline on a man’s cut eyelid. The man with the bloodied, swollen face was Mike Alvarado, and he was losing this boxing match.

The gore on screen did not seem as out of place as perhaps it should have, projected in a fourth-floor room of La Villita Community Church in Little Village. Its viewers ranged in age from five to fifty-plus. Except for one older woman who sighed and turned away from the screen as the blows intensified, no one seemed fazed by the fighting.

In this nondenominational church, boxing is associated not with violence but with peace. The basement is home to the Chicago Youth Boxing Center, a place known for promoting restraint, respect, and confidence in neighborhood youth, including those with troublesome pasts. Victor Rodriguez, the pastor of the church and a CYBC board member, later told the story of a neighborhood teenager who walked away mid-street fight with another adolescent. Rodriguez related the boy’s decision, “I just realized I could take him,” the boy said, since he knew how to box. “It wouldn’t be fun.”

The Alvarado fight was not the main attraction of the viewing party. Although it was nine o’clock when he came on, more than half of the chairs remained empty. Most of the people present were volunteers from the church who sold tickets, directed people to the viewing room, and set up the homemade nachos and gorditas. The highly anticipated fight between world champions Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Márquez did not start until eleven. As the hour approached, people gradually trickled in. By the time the boxers touched gloves, the energy was high and the whoops and cheers were unified as everyone in the room turned their attention to the screen.

Before the fight, board member Karen May went to the front of the room to thank people for coming, reminding them about the raffle. All proceeds went to supporting the center. May recognized the three CYBC members in the room, making it immediately clear that the volunteers, board members, and community allies at the viewing party outnumbered the kids they came to support. But in a neighborhood where violence too often spills off the screen and onto the streets, a program that teaches kids discipline and self-esteem is, as May said, “very fortunate to have a lot of support.”