Syracuse, N.Y. – It occurred to Toni Klock one day as she drove past the boxing gym on her way home to Syracuse’s West Side. She had been driving her two kids, Amir and Nevaeh Anderson, to and from Sherman Park football and cheerleading, but for a single mom with a full-time job, the staggered practices and travel games had become a time-sucking chore.
Ray Rinaldi’s Geddes Street gym reminded Klock of her youthful days at the Kennedy Square Apartments boxing facility, which provided an outlet for her own athletic energy. Her shy son, Amir, ridiculed by other kids for his reluctant, mumbled speech, “was always sort of soft.” Her daughter, Nevaeh, two years younger but determined to vocally beat back the bullies who picked on her brother, needed a way to channel her aggression.
So Klock strolled into the gym and signed them up.
It proved to be a life-altering decision.
In the intervening years, both kids, now teenagers, have risen to national prominence in their sport. Amir, or “Cash” as he’s known around Rinaldi’s West Area Athletic and Education Center, is ranked 4th nationally among USA Boxing’s junior men (15-16 years old) at 145 pounds. Nevaeh, or “Peanut,” is ranked 5th nationally among USA Boxing’s intermediate women (13-14) at 110 pounds.
But something more important, more permanent than athletic emergence happened to the Andersons as they grew boxing reputations. Cash, now a clear and willing speaker, campaigned for student council in middle school, got elected, and has become a vocal and physical leader in a gym full of impressionable kids. And Peanut has learned how to “work through problems,” to save her frustrations for the punching bag and the physical labor of the gym.
Chris Burns, Rinaldi’s nephew who has assumed the daily gym operations for the long-time boxing trainer, coaches the Andersons. He sees them as success stories, as handfuls of hope from a city neighborhood challenged by poverty, crime and drug abuse.
“Early on, Ray told me it’s not the boxing. The boxing is the hook to draw the kids,” Burns said. “You’re not teaching boxing. You’re teaching time management, you’re teaching how to stay focused, how to persevere. How to not quit when things get tough. That’s real civic activism. You’re making better citizens.”
The Andersons are preparing these days for the 2019 USA Boxing Eastern Regional Open Championships, which start Oct. 5 in Columbus, Ohio. For Cash, it means a chance to accumulate points toward making Team USA and traveling overseas. For Peanut, it provides an opportunity to pick up points and gain valuable experience in the ring. (Team USA is open to athletes 15 and older.)
Here are their stories:
It’s a searing August afternoon and inside the Geddes St. gym, Cash sits beside his brother Kai, who is 7. Kai has autism and pica, a condition that compels him to eat things like dirt. He is a constant presence in the gym, where his siblings look after him while their mom works.
Today, Cash ties and zips Kai’s sneakers, which feature his beloved Toy Story characters. The rest of the day, Cash and Peanut take turns shepherding Kai out of the way of thundering sprinters, or instruct him to mimic them as they perform specific exercises. The siblings are gentle and patient and Kai quietly complies.
When his mom first suggested boxing as an alternative to football, Cash hated the idea. If football failed to inspire him, the idea of punching someone and/or getting punched seemed downright terrifying.
“But he liked it off the rip. It wasn’t as bad as he thought,” Klock said. “When I signed him up it was a Friday and he didn’t start until Monday. So the whole weekend he was like, ‘I don’t want to hurt people.’ I had a conversation with him and I told him ‘You’re not even gonna be fighting right away. You’re gonna be running. You’re gonna be working out.’ When he went on Monday, he just fell in love with it.”
He was eight when he joined the boxing program and probably 10 or 11 before he competed in the ring. That’s how it usually works at the Geddes Street gym. Most kids never advance to sparring or boxing. But Burns noticed Cash’s quickness, noted his height which could translate to advantageous reach. Cash is about 6 feet tall and naturally athletic, his graceful speed and fluidity evident at a recent State Fair exhibition match. But a lack of confidence hid his physical gifts. And he cried so much, he earned the nickname “Waterworks.”
“Kids do cry,” Burns said. “Usually it’s not because they’re in pain but because something scary’s happening. They’re losing the round. They think they’re letting themselves down or letting me down. And I have to talk them through it and say, ‘You’re doing great, you just need to do this and this. Do you want to keep boxing? Do you want to stop?’”
Cash did not want to stop. When he eventually started sparring, he said, he “felt like Muhammad Ali.” He recalls everything about his first match: May 9, 2015. His opponent, Marcus Godbold. It was an exhibition, right there in the Geddes Street gym.
“I was nervous,” Cash said. “Everybody was cheering me on. I felt confident. Even though I lost, it was a good experience. That’s why I kept coming back. I’d always ask Coach, ‘Is it the next fight? When am I gonna fight next?’”
He won his next bout, against a Canadian kid in Gouverneur. And slowly, he began emerging from his bashful shell. He took to rising at 5 a.m., walking to the Woodland Reservoir near his home and running the loop, often as darkness lifted to dawn. As he ran, he thought about his upcoming tournaments, dreamed about becoming the welterweight champion of the world. He campaigned for student council, won and took a trip to Harvard University with his fellow council members.
He showed up each day at the gym, kept advancing against better opponents. He devotes three hours a day, six days a week to his boxing craft. Earlier this year at the Junior Olympics in Wisconsin, he fought Jesse Aviles, a ranked opponent. Cash noticed his popularity as he climbed into the ring, saw the “name-brand stuff” he wore.
“I was nervous because I didn’t want to get knocked out in the first round,” he said.
He won the fight. And it fueled him. He is 15 now, a sophomore at PSLA at Fowler.
“I feel like I can be somebody,” he said. “I’m fighting national and international champions and if I could beat them, then I could beat anybody. I want to push myself to the limit.”
“When he was about 13, I started to see a change,” Burns said. “I started to see it click in his head that ‘I am good.’ It’s weird. Some kids you have to teach feelings of self-worth. Once they get it, they understand that if they put their minds to it, they can achieve it even if it takes longer, if it’s hard, if they have ups and downs. They don’t quit. And I think boxing helped him get that feeling.”
It’s Monday at the Geddes Street gym and Peanut Anderson is wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt with the words “Girls Just Wanna Have Funds” on the front. She has new hair extensions, purple and blue and white braids, styled before school started. She slides her hands, her fingernails a bright acrylic yellow, into her workout bag, spears her phone and calls her mom to learn when she’s coming to pick up her and Cash.
Everybody in the gym seems to have a nickname and Peanut, 13 and an eighth grader at Lincoln Middle School, was certain about one thing: She would not be called “Cashette,” as an ode to her brother and a way of distinguishing her as a girl.
“I couldn’t do it,” she said. “Because I was different.”
Burns suggested “Peanut.” Her brother’s name originated because his head seemed unusually large, “like a cashew,” Burns said. Nevaeh’s head, tiny by comparison, seemed suited to peanut dimensions.
She was probably 7 when she first came to the gym, eager even then to hit people. She had none of Cash’s timidity, none of his reluctance to engage or confront. She stuck up for her brother when kids ridiculed him.
“She has a big mouth,” Cash said, though none of that is evident in multiple conversations with a reporter. Peanut pauses after questions and offers measured, thoughtful responses. She knows what she wants.
She kept begging Burns to let her box. She had done the running, the sit-ups, the push-ups, the punch combinations. She believed she deserved a chance to climb into the ring. She believed she was ready.
“Since I was so young,” she said, “I was just sitting there just watching the people, watching their sparring and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s it.’ A lot of girls do cheerleading and dance. I tried it and I didn’t really like it. It just wasn’t my thing.”
Burns, after conferring with her mom, finally relented. He let her spar.
“She took right to it,” he said. “She was the opposite end as Cash. She had more anger issues where he was kind of drawn back. She had too much energy and too much going on in the classroom so she used boxing to channel the aggression. Learn how there’s a right place to let it all out and that’s the gym, not on the school bus or if you’ve got a teacher who’s yelling at you.”
For all her confidence, all her courage, Peanut lacked attention to technique. Burns would drill the details: how to hold her hands, her footwork, when to throw certain combinations. She was so determined, so fearless.
Peanut and Cash say taking a punch “doesn’t really hurt.” They wear headgear, a mouthpiece, puffy gloves. Peanut describes her first fight as “really fun.” She loves the boxing more than she loves the workouts, but she understands the necessity of it all.
“It gave me the confidence I needed to push through a lot of things,” she said. “If I was not getting along with somebody or if I was frustrated, this would be the place my day would be made. Or if I’m going through something with my family, this would be the place where I could just get my mind off it.”
The kids have a relationship with their dad, but “it’s complicated,” Cash said. Their mom wanted to make sure Peanut understood “there’s nothing a guy can do that you can’t do,” that she could determine her own destiny. She encouraged the boxing, saw how being one of the few girls in the gym helped Peanut develop a powerful identity.
Klock encouraged her kids to play sports, preaching that neither of them would be permitted to “watch TV and eat chips all the time,” as Cash puts it. That they have advanced to this stage in boxing sometimes amazes her.
The kids have traveled to West Virginia, Tennessee, Missouri, Wisconsin, Utah. They’re headed to Ohio in about a month. Klock describes the Geddes Street gym as “nothing but love,” because of the way coaches demand performance while enveloping each kid in a nurturing embrace.
She has seen how her own children’s dedication to boxing has enhanced them in completely different ways. She has seen how boxing has drawn her kids closer, has encouraged them to confer and joke with each other and shout encouragement when each other fights.
She has witnessed the invitations to USA Boxing events and marveled at how many friends across the country Cash had made when she accompanied him to a tournament in Utah.
“It’s just surreal,” she said. “The sky’s the limit.”
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