By Jim McElhatton (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
The national and international medals and championship belts keep piling up in the corner of the Alexandria boxing gym along North Patrick Street.
Four boxers of varying weights and ages took home major titles in recent weeks. The fighters range from a ninth-grade amateur to a rising pro, whose nationally televised win on Showtime last month caught fire on social media after an unexpected turn midway through the bout.
But for sheer perseverance, Dara Shen’s story was the talk of the gym Friday night.
Shen, 27, has claimed silver and bronze medals at the U.S. national championships. She narrowly missed making the U.S. Olympic team a few years ago. When she traveled to Spokane, Wash., recently — hoping for a long elusive gold medal after months of hard training — she unfortunately came down with the flu.
“I feel like I could’ve done a lot better if I had my lungs and stamina,” she said.
When the fight began, her Minnesota-based opponent came out aggressive, but Shen opted for patience and relied on her skill. By the end, she’d claimed gold with a unanimous decision — even while feeling under the weather.
“It was a big achievement for me,” Shen said.
This isn’t an Olympic-qualifying year, but Shen, like most of the sport’s top amateurs, has her sights set on representing her country in Brazil in 2016 — though which country remains to be seen. Since Shen holds a dual citizenship, she can fight for the United States or Taiwan.
“Right now both options are on the table, though obviously I couldn’t go both routes,” she said. “We’ll just cross that bridge when we come to it.”
Two other amateur boxers added to their growing collection of international and national belts. Like Shen, Troy Isley and Iesha Kenney train at the gym under coaches Kay Koroma and Dennis Porter.
Isley, who goes to the Minnie Howard campus of T.C. Williams, recently claimed the championship in the USA Boxing 2014 Junior and Youth Open, though he was unopposed.
But a few months earlier, among other wins, he claimed the title at the Belfast-Beltway Boxing Classic in Ireland, where he won in a second-round technical knockout.
“It was a pretty quick fight; I just went out there and threw a lot of body shots and he couldn’t take it,” Isley said of his bout.
Despite the quick match, Isley was happy to get the chance to visit Ireland, a place he knew little about other than its association — if only by name — with the retired American boxer Micky “Irish” Ward. While there, he visited a lot of museums, old castles and even got to meet the mayor of Belfast.
Kenney, a 10th-grader at T.C. Williams who plans on studying chemical engineering in college, also won at the USA Boxing Junior and Youth Open in Reno last month. She claimed the top spot in the 141-pound youth female division.
Isley and Kenney are waiting to see if USA Boxing selects them for extended training in Colorado.
While Shen, Isley and Kenney climb the amateur ranks, Antoine Douglas remains undefeated as a pro after a dozen fights. The 21-year-old middleweight boxer received a bit of unexpected attention during a fight televised on Showtime a little more than a week ago in which he won a regional title.
Midway through the contest, his opponent, Marquis Davis, lost his tooth. Davis looked down at his tooth, kicked it out of the ring and then resumed fighting. Douglas won anyway.
“After that it was on Twitter, Facebook, everywhere,” Douglas said.
Douglas said he didn’t know what happened at first or which punch connected. He was just happy to come away with the win, though he felt underestimated entering the fight.
“I’m not too aggressive of a guy outside the ring, and they see that and see me like I’m some young teenager who barely graduated high school,” he said.
In fact, Douglas, who was shuttled in and out of foster care and between relatives growing up in Washington, was an honors student at Anacostia High School. He started training in Alexandria after learning about the gym from his uncle, Koroma.
As his profile grows, Douglas finds himself not just weighing in and then fighting, but getting peppered with questions by the media — an indication of his rising status within boxing.
Douglas is polite and has a dry sense of humor outside the ring. He said he’s not letting success change anything about him.
“In a way, it works to my advantage,” he said of his laid back persona. “It gets the opponents underestimating me, then when they get in the ring in front of me, it blows their mind. They can’t really adjust.”