The Portland Boxing Club teaches teens self-control, confidence, integrity, and produces some knock-out champions, too.
Liz Leddy’s face drips with sweat as she pounds away at a punching bag. She moves around the mats quickly, darting from one foot to the other, a tight circle of movement. It’s early September and the night is humid, murky, and unpleasant. But even the unseasonable heat of this late summer evening can’t stop the three-time National Golden Gloves winner from training. Nothing can. Leddy comes to the Portland Boxing Club every day it’s open, putting her compact frame through the same tightly controlled movements, over and over, a rhythm driving fast toward perfection.
It isn’t easy to find this place, located behind Bruno’s Italian Restaurant down a long, weed- choked driveway off Allen Avenue. The white- painted bricks aren’t visible from the road, though if you look closely you may be able to spot the tall brick chimney, which proclaims the building’s purpose in white block letters: BOXING.
Founded by Bob Russo in 1992, the Portland Boxing Club is a hidden treasure in a city better known for more genteel sports: running, cycling, sailing. Within the boxing community, the club is respected for producing winners— three national champions so far—which is largely due to Russo himself. “Not to toot our own horn,” he says, “but I think we are one of the most successful boxing programs in the country. We’ve won 203 championships of all levels, including national championships.” And as Russo points out, he’s working with a much smaller recruiting field than his competitors in other states. “We’re doing this in a city of 65,000 people,” he adds. “We go up against cities like Chicago and New York and we beat them.”
Leddy is one of Russo’s star pupils, and although she’s been boxing for 20 years, she isn’t done soaking up her coach’s wisdom. He’s changed her life—or perhaps it was boxing itself that saved her. When she first walked into the Portland Boxing Club in 1996, Leddy was a strung-out, alcoholic teenager. She had a stick-and-poke tattoo that read “skinhead” across her chest and a thirst for destruction. “I had decided that I was going to be the best at being bad as I could be,” she says as she leans on the counter between workouts. She describes her teenage years with a frankness that is discomfiting at first, although within minutes I find myself sharing pieces of my own history, too. Like the rest of us, Leddy wasn’t born bad. She learned brutality at the hands of others, including two former felons who she says “possessed” her. In exchange for letting her live in their house, they raped Leddy repeatedly and abused her physically and emotionally. The situation came to a head when they decided to kick the 14-year-old out of the house. “They decided to swap me for someone else, and they shut my finger in the door,” Leddy explains, holding up her right hand. Her index finger is shorter than the rest; the assault crushed the bones from the joint up. “I would have fought to stay in that house,” she says. “But this guy here? He helped me get out of there.” She looks at Russo, who is working on some papers a few feet away. He doesn’t look up. He knows this story already, and he has long since accepted his role within it.
Although Leddy felt an immediate connection to the sport of boxing, it took nine months
of training before Russo suggested she step into the ring. “The first day Liz came in, I didn’t notice her,” he says. “But I started to see her here all the time. She was at the gym constantly—she still is. She’s obsessed.” While Russo trains many young boxers, he doesn’t typically begin working with anyone until after they have shown that they are serious about the sport. Leddy was serious from day one; she just needed to prove it. “I knew that I was being prepared here,” she says. “I didn’t win my first fight, but I knew I wasn’t going to. Fighting was something to work towards. I knew I needed to hang on, work hard, and get better.”
The Portland Boxing Club has transformed Leddy’s life in more ways than one. Russo helped her raise money to attend cosmetology school through fundraisers and boxing events, and now she makes a living styling hair (she also teaches aspiring boxers). Boxing has helped her stay sober. Although she recently won her third national title at the women’s National Golden Gloves Championships in Fort Lauderdale, Florida—a career-defining achievement for any athlete—she says staying clean has been “the most important work” of her life. “I was a smoker and a drinker, and I had to get to the point where my body was strong enough to fight,” she says. “All I want is clean air and water, man.” Boxing has also helped her come to terms with previous trauma. Leddy suffers from complex PTSD from her years of abuse. Boxing has helped her gain a “healthy disassociation from [her] body.” She says, “I can set my body to a task and my brain is free.” She likens this feeling to meditation. “Boxing is both physical and mental,” Leddy explains. “I think I have a good balance; where my mental training fails sometimes, my body picks up the slack. I have a good body for boxing. It’s been through some stuff, but it’s built to last.”
Russo calls Leddy the “poster child” for the positive impact boxing can have on a young person’s life. “I don’t want to generalize too much, but boxing is a poor man’s sport,” he says. “We get kids from all walks of life, but we do get a lot of kids who are struggling.” Like Leddy, Russo is disarmingly candid and casual in conversation (he has a tendency to answer my questions before I even ask them). He speaks of his desire to teach young people self-control, confidence, and integrity. He talks about the disappointments he’s seen, the kids who can’t stay clean, who squander their talents, and worst of all, those who give up too easily. “I’m not trying to be a savior of man,” he says with characteristic frankness. “But when you’re around so many young people, you have all these opportunities to teach them.” He adds, “We don’t win every battle in the ring or with these kids. But we win a lot, too.”