Originally created 07/30/01

Club aims to mold character



An 8-year-old and a 7-year-old duke it out, dipping and swooping at each other, throwing skilled punches.

They're being taught to box and to keep sight of their goals.

"That's it! There you go!" the coach yells. "Move your right foot!"

Tom Moraetes, the director of the Augusta Boxing Club, encourages young Patrick Mobley and Roman Pulley to use strategy. It's not just an athletic program, but a program of discipline aimed to keep children active and away from drugs and crime, he said. The club's motto is "It's better to sweat in the gym than to bleed in the streets."

"We embrace every aspect of a child's life," he said. "The biggest myth is that we're all boxing. That's the tiniest element of what we are."

Mr. Moraetes, 49, was born and raised in Augusta. He graduated from Butler High School and got a degree from Augusta State University.

It was in college that he focused on boxing. In 1974, he was state novice champion and qualified for the finals in the state Golden Gloves in 1975. He was a member of the 165-pound class Georgia Amateur Boxing Association from 1972 through 1975.

He was an investigator in Richmond County's juvenile court when a one-year federal grant came through earmarked for programs preventing juvenile crime. That money - and his passion for pugilism - grew into the Augusta Boxing Club.

He started the boxing club in his garage. The club moved from his garage to other venues, some of them abandoned buildings.

"We were really like nomads," he said. "I'm glad it was a hard journey. It added character."

He kept his job as an investigator and spent his free time at the boxing club. By 1993, his work had caught the attention of Sen. Don Cheeks, who helped him find the building the club is in now, at 1929 Walton Way.

In 1998, Mr. Moraetes was named USA Boxing Coach of the Year. He's coached an Olympian and the Evander Holyfield Amateur Team and was recently named the head coach for the USA Boxing Team participating in the upcoming Pan-American games in Puerto Rico.

But his focus is still the children in the ring.

"We're grass-roots," he said.

The gym is far from quiet as buzzers sound off rounds. Determined-looking children jump rope to get conditioned for the next level. Others punch bags with hands wrapped in athletic tape.

"There are no bench warmers," Mr. Moraetes said. "Everybody gets in the game."

To join the club, applicants must be 4 to 16 years old, although they can continue to be members after they are 16. The club's strict conduct rules require that participants don't smoke, don't use drugs or drink, and be regular in attendance at work and school. Performance in school is also important.

"We ambush them with elements of character," Mr. Moraetes said.

Mr. Moraetes yelled more words of encouragement to Patrick and Roman, encouraging water breaks between rounds.

Mr. Moraetes requires that participants work out and train before they start boxing, which takes a few months. It prevents injuries and keeps focus, he said.

"It's a sport you can't rush into," he stressed.

The club has no registration fee. Corporate and individual sponsors take care of the bulk of the cost for equipment, clothing and tournament trips.

"We've never had to tell a child (he or she) can't go to the tournament in Kansas because we don't have funds," Mr. Moraetes said.

In 1996, Augusta's Department of Parks and Recreation took over the club and starting paying his salary. He became a full-time coach, and membership has grown from 50 before 1996 to 200 today.

Although many successes have been produced from the Augusta Boxing Club, such as Olympic boxer Vernon Forrest (1992) and alternates Brandon Mitchem and Jacob Hudson, Mr. Moraetes stressed that it's not an Olympic program.

"Our mission is not producing Olympic champions in the ring; it's producing Olympic champions outside of the ring," he said.

The facility is used by many boxers , including ones from other countries such as Russia and England.

The gym is decorated with those countries' flags. It is equipped with three regulation-sized rings. Mr. Moraetes said those are necessary to train athletes for different competitions, which use different ring sizes. Two locker rooms and a weight room are off to the side, and eight treadmills are available.

Christy Slone traveled from Athens, Ga., to use the club's equipment. She will box in the Women's Golden Gloves competition at the Warren Road Gym on August 8-11.

"It's the best gym I've ever trained in," she said.

Reach Rebecca Whitehead at (706) 823-3340.