Paul Koon was 13 and involved in another of his many street fights when a Philadelphia police officer broke up the scuffle and offered the pugnacious South Philly kid a piece of friendly advice.
"He told me that if I had to fight, it might as well be in the gym," recalled Koon, now 19 and USA Boxing's No. 1-ranked (201-pound limit) heavyweight. "I went to the gym and the officer - I'm sorry to say I've forgotten his name; it's been a long time - put me in the ring with this guy who got me pretty good. I was upset. But the officer said, 'You can be as good or better than he is if you put your mind to it and work hard.' "
Boxing quickly provided Koon with a sense of discipline and purpose he'd been lacking in his young life. The street fights stopped and a steady stream of sanctioned bouts commenced.
The 2009 USA Boxing National Championships begin a 6-day run at the Denver Coliseum today, and Koon is hoping to leave the amateur ranks on a high note. He said that, win or lose, he would turn professional after the event and not try to stick around and attempt to qualify for the U.S. squad for the 2012 London Olympics.
"My goal was never to be the No. 1-ranked amateur or to be an Olympian," said Koon, who made the field for the Nationals as an at-large entry. "My goal was always to be the pound-for-pound best as a pro, to win all the world titles and to hold them as long as I can. I have a better pro style than an amateur style anyway."
Koon believes he can become the next great American heavyweight, the guy to follow in the footsteps of Joe Frazier, Muhammad Ali, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and his personal role model, Evander Holyfield. He knows he's shooting for the stars, but then he's accustomed to setting his sights high.
"You have to dedicate your life to boxing if you want to be successful at it," said the 6-3 Koon, a member of the Last Lane Boxing Club who is coached by Zahir Justice and Blaine White. "I dedicated my life to it. It became my passion. I'm counting on being the guy to bring heavyweight boxing back in this country, and I'm going to do everything I can to make it happen."
The Philadelphia contingent at the Nationals, featuring a field of 450-plus, is deep.
In addition to Koon, the city is represented in the open division male competition by East Central region qualifiers Miguel Cartagena (Philly Rumblers) at 106 pounds, William Bentley (Upper Darby Boxing Club) at 112 and Julian Williams (the James Shuler Gym) at 152. Cartagena doesn't turn 17 until July 5 and is one of tournament's youngest boxers.
Philadelphian Jesse Hart, son of former middleweight contender Eugene "Cyclone" Hart, is competing at 165 pounds as a representative of the U.S. Olympic Education Center in Marquette, Mich., while super heavyweight (201-plus pounds) Bryant Jennings, of the Athletic Recreation Center in North Philly, was a late addition as a wild-card entry.
Rasheda Horne, a 132-pounder, is the sole Philadelphian in open- division women, while taking part in the junior division side of the tournament are city boxers Donald Smith (106 pounds), Tymir Floyd (110), Joshua Jones (119), Damon Allen (125) and Karran Richardson (154).
Teams from 14 geographical districts across the nation will participate, as well as boxers representing the armed forces and Police Athletic League.
North Philadelphia super bantamweight Teon Kennedy (13-0, 5 KOs) used a relentless body attack to wear down Reading's Lucian Gonzalez (9-6-1, 1 KO) en route to an eight-round unanimous decision in the main event of a seven-bout pro card Saturday night at Bally's Atlantic City.
In the eight-round co-feature, Patrick Majewski (11-0, 7 KOs), of Somers Point, N.J., by way of his native Poland, scored a third-round knockdown of previously undefeated North Philly middleweight Latif Mundy (8-1-1, 3 KOs) to help secure an eight-round unanimous decision.