The World Title Boxing Club doesn't have any world titles.

It doesn't have a ring, or even a roof. Most of the action in this South Park gym takes place outdoors, under blue and silver tarps suspended by a network of six-by-six-inch posts over what used to be Nico Ramirez's garden. Teenagers—there are about 20 regulars—start arriving at around 3:30 p.m., after school gets out, gathering in a makeshift basement locker room to wrap their hands and change their clothes. Almost all the fighters at this pasted-together gym on South Rose Street are Latinos.

Sponsored
We’re going to need a bigger boat, Seattle Rep presents Bruce.
A world premiere musical that you can really sink your teeth into Get your tickets HERE!

The boys arrive in ones and twos. First are Esequiel Sandoval, 11, and Christian Gonzalez, 13. Esequiel wears a red, white, and blue Iverson jersey that skims his knees. He plops down in a seat against the wall and takes a pull off a bottle of grape soda. Trainer Albert Barrientes says humorously, "You see how much sugar's in that?" Esequiel turns the bottle in his hand to look at the label.

"Dang," he says.

Everyone calls Esequiel "Puppy." Still under five feet, he gets picked on and fights back. On October 26, he got kicked out of Denny Middle School for pushing "some kid." His mom, who is unemployed, has him reading Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

Smitty arrives next, welcomed lovingly with calls of "Shitty Smitty!" It seems an oddly old-timey nickname for a 14-year-old ninth grader with two sparkling studs in his ears. Like Esequiel and Christian, he's spent time out of school for fighting. "Yeah, I got suspended," he says. "I got suspended and I don't know why! The guy was chasing me."

The three boys' discipline problems highlight a central difference between World Title and other boxing clubs for underprivileged youth: You won't get kicked out of this gym for fighting at school. Most after-school programs—from football to show choir—leverage good behavior with threats of cutting kids loose if they screw up. While there's an argument to be made for holding student athletes to high standards, World Title's founders, Nico and his uncle Albert, have another philosophy: The kids who get in trouble need their attention the most.

Not everyone approves of the formula. World Title's biggest critic is Juan Garcia, the head coach and director of the boxing program at Sea Mar Community Health Centers, a large nonprofit on the other end of South Park. In recent months, Juan has made several very public efforts to discredit World Title, calling attention to the club's loose standards and its founders' proximity to the criminal worlds they've vowed to help their kids avoid.

Both Sea Mar and World Title promise to deliver a piece of the solution to the risks faced by Latino youth in South Park—skyrocketing dropout rates and the temptations of crime. But the gyms have radically different interpretations of boxing as social intervention.

Sea Mar attempts to cleanse the gritty sport of its natural dirt. Boxers get the boot if they don't behave, and they have to sign contracts promising to toe the line. World Title doesn't encourage misbehavior, but it does let a little of the dirt slide in under the door.

Nico and Albert think their brushes with the underworld just make them more qualified to help.

"I see myself a lot in these kids," Nico says. "I've been in trouble and I used to hang around gangs and stuff. When you see someone bad, I know there's good in them. I know how to meet them halfway, 'cause I lived it."

Nico and Albert were both born in South Texas, and moved to Washington in the 1960s to work on farms. When Nico dropped out of school at 16, he had trouble settling down. "I was back and forth, hopping, skipping, jumping," he says. "I wasn't doing too much of anything. I wasn't trying to do no career thing."

Even after he moved to Seattle with his wife, Carol DeLeon, in 1979, Nico would slip back into heavy drinking and partying. But, he says, "I got lucky." While his friends got locked up for drugs and violent crime, he was able to raise three children and hold down a job.

Albert struggled, too. After returning from Vietnam in 1971, he became an activist, organizing for the United Farm Workers and helping to found El Centro de la Raza in Seattle. But he also battled with alcohol abuse and anger control. In 1987, he was convicted of second-degree assault for hitting his wife with a gun. Albert is now twice divorced and has lost two sons to the street—one was shot to death, the other is likely headed to prison on federal drug charges. He quit drinking in 2002 after he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Through it all, for both Nico and Albert, there was boxing. The sport was a family tradition. "Everybody always had a little speed ball hanging in the living room," Nico says. "And grandma didn't mind." Albert was Nico's first trainer. As a teenager, Nico earned extra cash in tough-man fights on farms in Eastern Washington. "We'd just invite everyone over and we'd put money in the bucket and whoever won could take it," he says. "I always took it."

Nico and Albert went on to train boxers in several Seattle gyms during the '80s and '90s. The World Title Boxing Club was their first attempt to make it on their own, and they have a raft of trophies to show for their work.

The rivalry between World Title and Sea Mar has all the markings of a classic feud, including a trivial beginning.

Back in the spring of 2002, Nico and Albert started training boxers at Sea Mar. The pair already did some informal training at Nico's house, but it made more sense to take fighters to Sea Mar, which had an Olympic-level ring for sparring. Even though Juan tended to rub them the wrong way, it seemed like a good deal.

Sea Mar's ring was a big asset for the small gym. Juan rented it out to raise money for the team. But the taking down and setting up process was a hated chore among the volunteer staff.

One afternoon later that year, Juan called Nico to get some help moving the ring to the South Park Community Center. Nico begged off; he had babysitting duty for his grandchildren. Juan gave him a hard time. "He told me I didn't care about the kids," says Nico, who is a full-bellied 50 and has one flash of gray on the right side of his head. Later, when Nico went down to the gym to pick up Albert, Juan asked him to leave his keys.

"So that's how it started," Nico says. "Over a stupid ring."

Nico never returned to Sea Mar. Albert left as well and soon kids started showing up at the little house on Rose Street. They registered their gym with USA Boxing and started scraping together equipment. Over the next three years, Nico and Albert spent $10,000 of their own money on bags, gloves, and gas for hauling around boxers. Sea Mar, meanwhile, won a $19,000 grant from the city.

A few months ago, the rivalry between the South Park gyms ratcheted up a notch. Juan sent e-mails to several adults involved with amateur boxing in Washington State—coaches, parents, organizers—directing them to a small item in the Des Moines, Washington, newspaper. Federal agents had arrested Albert Barrientes Jr. for weapons and drug possession. Juan spread the word that Albert Sr., also a former felon, had allowed his son to train boxers at the Rose Street gym.

Albert Sr. has two felonies on his record: the 1987 assault and, from 2002, a gun charge he caught because police going after his son found a gun on his property. Albert Sr. says police pinned him with the weapons charge because they couldn't tie it to his son. Friends believe he took the rap to save Al Jr. Albert Sr. received a 10-month sentence in King County detention.

But Juan got one thing wrong: Al Jr. never trained at World Title. Albert's second son, Joe, started training at the gym last year.

Juan denies having sent out the e-mail—even though several sources confirm that he did. He casts his problems with Albert's record as "concerns, not complaints."

"My opinion was, if we wanna be role models to kids, we gotta do criminal-background checks," he says. "We gotta have some kind of standards."

Albert and Nico both submit to yearly background and drug tests to renew their licenses with USA Boxing. Besides, both say they're too busy with the kids to get into trouble of their own.

"I've been in this business too long to listen to people like Juan," says Albert, 59—still imposing with slicked-back hair, a Fu Manchu mustache, and cheerful eyes behind bifocal glasses. "I'm a threat to him, that's why he's trying to get me out of the way. But he ain't getting me out. I've been here for too long."

When I mention the Barrientes family's legal troubles to Dana Chapman, who runs the Seattle Police Athletic League, she lets out an anguished sigh. "You don't have to tell me about it," she says. "I've heard it for months." Dana says she told Juan to solve his own problems when he called to complain about Albert. She gets along well with Nico and Albert, who also train boxers at a PAL gym in White Center—always under police supervision.

The rivalry—between two men who both seem dedicated to helping the kids—she just doesn't get it. "They both get hot under the collar," she says. "But I don't wanna hear about it."

Nico and Albert level another charge against Sea Mar: Juan Garcia has tried to steal their boxers.

In early October 2006, Juan and Jonathan Maslan, an AmeriCorps volunteer, cruised over to Denny Middle School in a white van from Sea Mar. A Seattle school police officer named Adrian Diaz met them in the office and handed over two of the latest troublemakers, Christian and Esequiel. Juan loaded everyone back into the van and drove to McDonald's, making his pitch over hamburgers and fries. There are rules at Sea Mar, he told the boys. They would have to meet with a tutor and sign a contract promising to stay out of trouble. But he offered incentives—trips to Sonics games and out-of-state tournaments. As well as two glinting necklaces strung with little silver boxing gloves; theirs to keep if they joined the gym at Sea Mar.

Esequiel considered the gift, then handed it back. He didn't need a gym, he said. He trains at World Title—and Juan knew it.

Albert says Juan was trying to steal his best fighters. Esequiel, a 2006 Golden Gloves champ, is a local boxing star. "Puppy's the main event," Nico says.

Juan knew the two boys already trained with Albert and Nico. But he says he went after the two young fighters because he thought he could help them in a way World Title could not.

"We have more expectations," Juan says. "We take an interest in them and what they're doing. I believe we just have a more structured program."

The Sea Mar boxing club is housed in a long, low building behind a residential drug-treatment center south of the strip of Mexican restaurants and divey bars on 14th Avenue South. In a cluttered office in the back, Juan keeps the contracts every boxer must sign promising to behave and get passing grades. The grammar is far from perfect, but the message is clear.

I ________, will try to controlling myself at school, I will not get upset at my peers, say inappropriate comments. If this is a problem I cannot go through life saying these statements that make me angry.

In the event I neither makes inappropriate comments nor hit someone. In the event such positive behavior extends for six months, I will be given an incentive gift from Sea Mar Youth Boxing Club. If I give into anger I fail by not following the rules at school or at the Boxing Club I will temporarily be removed from the boxing gym or the boxing team. If I hit another student in school or have a fight, I will be suspended and may possibly be kick out of Sea Mar Boxing Gym.

... My signature below indicates my willingness to overcome my problem, adhere to all school/classroom rules and procedures, and become a better student as a result.

While Juan, 41, says he believes in second chances, he doesn't let boxers fight in competition if they're in violation of the contract. Out of about two dozen regular members, fewer than 10 are usually eligible for the ring.

Juan says the high expectations of organized sports gave him a chance to succeed. He grew up in Quincy, Washington, and even though he got into a little trouble as a juvenile, he made it through high school and went to Eastern Washington University on a baseball scholarship. He got a master's in public administration and now works as a customer-service administrator for Medicare.

In addition to the lights, the roof, the dry floor, the ring, and all those rules, I noticed one other difference between Sea Mar and World Title: fathers. On the night I visited, at least four men came in to watch their sons for most of practice. They stood cross-armed against the walls or paced the room, occasionally helping their sons tighten their gloves and backing off to let the coaches do their work. Dads occasionally watch practice at World Title—but mostly they just pick their sons up. And mostly, mom does the picking up.

Juan says he doesn't ask that much of his kids. "Attendance in school and meeting with my man here," he says, patting a tutor on the shoulder.

I visited Sea Mar a few days after the end of winter break. The kids claimed there was no homework yet and the restless boxers were excited for the day's agenda.

"Oh yeah, today's sparring day!" Juan beamed to me and one of his trainers. "You come on a good day, isn't that right, brother?"

As kids started warming up on bags, Juan made the rounds. He leaned on Martha Garcia, who hadn't been training, to hurry up and get in shape for an upcoming fight, playfully threatening to talk to her dad. Martha, meanwhile, seemed focused on another boxer, Johnny Gutierrez. The two sat ear to ear on the edge of the ring, whispering.

Juan says Johnny, 15, is his best boxer and his worst pupil. Johnny struggles to keep his grades up and has problems with attendance. Both of Johnny's brothers, Chucky and Jorge, train over at World Title.

Juan worried early on that Johnny would go from hanging out on the corner to full-fledged gang membership. But Johnny cleaned up. Juan says there are no longer any gang members at his club.

Juan started training boxers in the late 1990s (at the South Park Gym, which he helped move to Sea Mar in 2002) because he liked the sport. But the academic needs of his charges soon came to dominate his mission.

"The kids we deal with are that high risk level," he says. "They're 'pass-throughs.' They're passed through the 4th grade, they're passed through the 6th. When they get to high school, they're not prepared for 9th or 10th grade. Definitely not prepared for the WASL. So what happens? They lose all type of hope and drop out of school. But we're gonna change that."

That's an ambitious goal. South Park drew the city's attention in 2004 when two teens were shot and killed on South Cloverdale Street, just blocks from the Rose Street gym. Another man was fatally shot that October and two more teens were killed in drive-bys in the spring of 2005.

Shoved up against the western bank of the Duwamish River, the neighborhood's quiet streets and modest wooden homes are isolated by a ring of light industry: low-lying corrugated iron warehouses and lots filled with boxcars and giant spools. The neighborhood has one of the highest crime rates in the city and certainly some of the deepest poverty. The median family income is about $30,000 a year—which doesn't factor in the wages of undocumented workers. Nor does the census count, which puts the Hispanic population at 37 percent.

At Denny Middle School, 66 percent of the students receive free or reduced-price lunches. The school, with a majority minority population, has higher rates of disciplinary action and lower test scores than the district as a whole.

Back at the Rose Street gym, there's catching up to do. Talk of the new girl boxer gets everyone's attention. Nico and Albert debate about who's ready for the next fight.

Soon everyone is under the tarp out back. The buzzer growls every three minutes—work time—and again after a 30-minute rest. Snoop is on radio.

In the garage, a girl shrouded under the hood of a giant white sweatshirt works the speed bag, her fists rotating in effortless ovals. LaToya Carrazana, 17, trains five days a week, taking the bus in from Federal Way. There's a modest girlie calendar on the wall—Miss November in a wholesome white T-shirt—and several framed pictures of fighters posing with Albert and Nico.

Albert's son Joe, 24, works Christian with punching mitts. He calls out the choreography of hits, one-two-two-one, one-two-two-one. Christian repeats the set over and over. Every once in a while he loses concentration and misses. Joe—imposing, bald-headed—murmurs advice and encouragement.

Joe says working as a trainer is also a way out for him. In May 1998, he was shot in the chest and arm outside the Burien Park & Ride. His brother Tobin was killed in the same attack. A third brother, Al Jr., is most likely headed for the federal pen.

Joe isn't the only one at World Title with barely severed ties to the underworld. Chucky Gutierrez, who pushed Nico to open the gym, used to be a member of the South Side Locos, a local Sureño gang. He sold drugs in the South Park neighborhood he grew up in.

Chucky decided to start training with Nico and Albert because he felt more comfortable in their backyard than at Sea Mar, where his brother trained. "I still had that street mentality and somehow with boxing it changed my whole life. It shaped me a lot."

Like many endeavors at Nico's house, the boxing gym is a group effort. Carol, who has a well-paying job with Seattle City Light, worked her way through her Rolodex until she figured out how to apply for a grant from the city. She sent in the application a month ago and still hasn't heard back.

Albert worries about their prospects. "People don't want to give us money because we're in a house," he says.

Albert and Nico aren't without their supporters. King County Sheriff's Officer Steven Beets, who works with Nico and Albert at the PAL gym in White Center, says boxing appeals to youth in tough neighborhoods because it offers an element of danger. "Kids in South Park don't play tennis," he says. Beets says he trusts Nico and Albert to serve as good role models. "They really care," he says. "They put a lot of their own time and money and effort into training kids."

Paul Field, the treasurer of the Northwest Boxing Association, sent Nico a letter of support after hearing about Albert's son from Juan. "I hope these concerns will not have a negative impact on your dedication to amateur boxing," he wrote. "Our association needs solid people like yourselves to guide the youth of today away from the hazards of the inner city."

"I guess they didn't get along too well," Field said in a deadpan of the beef between the trainers. "Al is a really laid-back guy. So is Nico." Field agrees the gyms are different. "Sea Mar has certain rules. You deviate from those rules, and they may or may not want you to continue being in the club."

At the Tacoma Golden Gloves tournament last weekend, Nico says, Juan approached him with something like an apology. Juan said a reporter had been asking around, and said he was sorry if he'd ever said anything wrong.

While the trainers count markers of respect and disrespect, their pupils, who attend the same schools and live in the same neighborhoods, seem oblivious to the bad blood. Sea Mar and World Title didn't have any head-to-head competitions during the tournament, and the posses of supporters for each gym cheered for their fellow fighters from South Park. Johnny Gutierrez, the Sea Mar boxer whose brothers train at World Title, arrived early to watch Esequiel. Johnny's girlfriend, Martha, sat gossiping with Nico's youngest daughter.

Esequiel's fights—in one of the lightest, youngest classifications (age 11 to 12, 85 pounds)—attracted more attention than most of the junior matchups. I overheard two trainers from a gym in Puyallup remarking on his speed, aggression, and grace as he shook himself loose for his second bout, the championship confrontation with a Mexican boy from Portland. "He's gonna be a great fighter," one said. "But he's got a dirty mouth on him." Esequiel had called two of the boxers "pussies" at a previous match.

When the bell rang, Esequiel dominated. He charged forward, landing punches and driving his opponent around the ring. The packed gymnasium filled with the sounds of high-pitched cheers of "Go, Puppy!" and advice shouted to both fighters in English and Spanish. Johnny called out, "Let your fists go, Puppy." Spectators moved their shoulders in anticipation of each coming punch and feint. Midway through the second round, Esequiel's opponent found an extra tap of energy. But Esequiel defended himself and continued to make contact with the boy's head and guts. In the third round, Esequiel tripped, catching himself on the ropes.

The judges gave the match to the boy from Portland, earning scattered boos from the crowd.

It was Esequiel's second loss—ever. After losing his first fight—an early match at last year's Tacoma Golden Gloves—he'd vowed to never give up another. And he'd won each of his nine fights since. Esequiel later told me he'd been robbed, and everyone I talked to seemed to agree. Although he probably cried a little, he told me he wouldn't harbor bad feelings and would just try harder next time.

By the end of the two-day tournament, World Title left with one champion out of the four fighters it sent. Sea Mar left with two out of five. The next competition will find the two gyms facing off on home turf. Sea Mar is sponsoring the St. Valentine's Day Massacre on February 17 at the South Park Community Center.