A few days before Camden's Vidal Rivera is to take off for the Golden Gloves National Championship in Salt Lake City, youth boxing's premier event, he jumped out of a worn-down brown Plymouth minivan and ran into a Pennsauken gym.
It's his almost-daily routine since his hometown gym in Camden shut down two years ago.
The Pennsauken gym is on a quiet street in an industrial park next to Route 90 - a much different venue than his old gym in North Camden, surrounded by boarded-up houses and drug dealers.
"They call it Little Baghdad," like a war zone, Rivera's coach, Chris Williams, says of the area where he used to teach boxing to dozens of youngsters each year.
Since 2011, though, the North Camden Community Center that housed a boxing ring for more than a dozen years has been under repair, with a series of setbacks. Situated in the heart of Camden's illicit drug trade, at Sixth and Erie Streets, the center was a haven for Rivera, 21, and other Camden youth.
But without transportation to the closest boxing ring in the area - Pennsauken's R&B Gym, which welcomed Williams' Camden Boxing Academy - many youths were left to the streets.
"I can only drive two or three kids" at a time to Pennsauken, Williams, 51, said a few weeks ago as he watched Rivera, a 123-pound featherweight, practice one last time before heading to the Golden Gloves national. "Parents don't have cars or the money to drive them out here."
But the need is real, Williams says. North Camden is one of the roughest sections of town.
At 10 a.m. on a Tuesday, two teen boys sit aimlessly outside boarded-up houses. A few houses down, another group of young men hangs outside a house, and one of them leans in through the window of a car that pulls up.
"These Camden kids want to do something," Williams said. "It motivates them to stay in school."
Since Rivera started boxing in North Camden seven years ago, he has been to the Golden Gloves nationals twice, in 2011 and this month. Both times, he was eliminated after losing in the first round.
The soft-spoken youth with the string-bean body type has a mean jab, but his nerves tend to shatter in big matches.
"He defeats himself," Williams said.
A 2011 graduate of Camden County Technical School in Pennsauken, Rivera works at the Camden Children's Garden during the day and is looking to get into the local carpentry union. His big dream, though, is to become a professional boxer (his idol is retired pro Tommy Hearns), which is partly why he has stuck with the boxing academy despite the commute.
Another part is helping other scrawny kids like him, who could use boxing as a vehicle to stay disciplined and focused.
"I want to be part of [a positive] change in Camden," Rivera said.
Williams and his academy were moved out of the facilities in 2011 while the community center received a face-lift. The city has used some Community Development Block Grant money to complete the $1 million project, which includes a new boxing ring and new basketball court.
The basketball court opened last summer just as the boxing ring and its ancillary equipment were also ready to be assembled. Then "roofing issues" were discovered in the boxing gym, said Arthur Thompson, the city's director of parks and recreation.
Nearly a year later, new gloves, pads, and other equipment are still in their packaging and piled up in a locker room.
Williams has been frustrated with the delays and says the city is dragging its feet and should have discovered the roof problems earlier.
But Thompson said waiting two years for such repairs was normal for the city.
"Everything has to go through a certain process," he said about the time it could take to put out bids, select contractors, and do the work.
Thompson expects the boxing area to be completed at some point this summer. The ring is already assembled, with the city's crest imprinted at its center.
But until the roof work is complete, Rivera and a few of the older youths whom Williams is able to bring to the Pennsauken gym will continue to rely on their mentor to drive them to the other side of town.
On May 20, a day after returning from Salt Lake City, Williams and Rivera were back in the gym in Pennsauken, back to the grind.
"No breaks, especially if you lose, no breaks," Williams said, alluding to Rivera's defeat after three two-minute rounds in which he failed to throw as many punches as his opponent.
Rivera is the only boxer from Camden to go to nationals in several years. Williams blames the lack of boxing gyms in the city. His dream is to have four rings, one in each quadrant of the city, and annual tournaments among them. He already has a Camden champion belt designed for the June 29 Mid-Atlantic Association New Jersey vs. Pennsylvania amateur boxing tournament, which will be held outdoors in South Camden at Eighth and Division Streets. Last year's event attracted 300 fighters from North and South Jersey, including four from Camden. This year, there will be five from Camden.
Williams wishes there were more.
"A lot of guys who are good fighters have no transportation," he said. "I get calls every day from them asking, 'When's [the gym] opening up?' "
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