Past champions relive Gloves' golden days
by Doug VanderLaan | The Grand Rapids Press
Sunday April 20, 2008, 12:17 AM
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GRAND RAPIDS -- Jesse Briseno still chuckles at the memory. As he stood on the
scales in Denver in 2002, weighing in before his National Golden Gloves championship,
passersby all had one question for him. "People kept asking me, 'Do you have a brother
who used to box, who won a championship in 1990?' " Briseno said, laughing. "And then
I saw my old boxing coach from Northern Michigan University who said, 'Briseno! What
are you doing here?' "I told him, 'Coach, I'm competing!' No one could believe it." Days
later, observers were equally stunned when Briseno held the winning the trophy in his
arms. He had accomplished what may be one of the National Golden Gloves
Tournament of Champions' greatest feats: winning a second national championship 12
years after the first. Briseno, 37, is one of four Grand Rapids men to win what is perhaps
amateur boxing's greatest prize. John Butler in 1953 was the Grand Rapids area's first
champion, followed by Kevin Childrey in 1988, Briseno in 1990 and 2002, and Floyd
Mayweather Jr., in 1993, 1994, and 1996. The four boxers combined to win seven
championships. And now the city will host the national tournament for the first time May
5-10. Though their titles came in different eras and under different circumstances, all
four boxers carry compelling stories that provide stirring examples of reaching goals
and then living with the life that came after the boxing lights dimmed.
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Butler talks about how he went from boxing beginner to national champion:
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For Butler, 73, and a retired school and city administrator who lives on Grand
Rapids' southeast side, boxing was an avenue of escape -- from poverty and
racism and out of Mississippi. "Back in those days, boxing was a quick way out
of desperate situations or neighborhoods," said Butler, whose mother worked
as a domestic and moved the family to Grand Rapids after her husband's death
when Butler was 7. Butler was fortunate to find his way to the gym of legendary
local boxer and trainer Wes Ramey. Ramey helped develop Butler's athletic
skills and encouraged him to take every opportunity that public education would
provide. Butler parlayed that advice and training into the first national
championship for a local boxer and a boxing scholarship to Michigan State.
"Two schools in the Big Ten had boxing teams at that time, Wisconsin and
Michigan State," said Butler, who captained the Spartans in his senior year of
1957. "So we did a lot of traveling, to places like Maryland, Syracuse, San Jose
State, and Idaho." It opened Butler's world. With all the attention that had come
from his boxing success, he said he didn't realize the depth of racism that still
existed, except when he was turned down for Officers Training School while
serving in the military. "No one should regret the time in which they grew up,"
Butler said, "because you made things better for the people who came later.
Maybe what I did made it easier for the people who came after me." In 1988,
Kevin Childrey broke Butler's 35-year reign as the Grand Rapids area's only
amateur national champion. Since then, Childrey, has been a recluse of sorts
who's seldom seen and is said by some family members to be living out of
contact in another part of the country. Some local boxing community members
report Childrey gained a great deal of weight and struggled with personal
problems after his championship. "When he came to us he had had only about
10 fights and then he lost in a novice tournament," said Bob Serulla, who was
Childrey's trainer and mentor. "But the kid had such a fire and I never, ever saw
a guy who listened in the corner and then went out and did what you told him to
do. "We put him in an Olympic Trial fight that year before he went to nationals
and he stopped (Pan American Games winner) Patrick Byrd in the third round.
We all looked at each other and kind of asked, 'What do we have here?' "
Childrey's game plan has always seemed to be built around the unexpected.
"He sort of surprised me when he walked into the gym because he didn't
appear to be anything spectacular," said Dave Packer, executive director of
Michigan Golden Gloves. "But then he started winning and all of a sudden was
showing he was a national-caliber boxer. "He had natural skills, and he just kept
getting better and gaining more confidence." That combination of skills and
growth, Packer said, is what makes a champion. Briseno brought back his first
title in 1990, but unfortunately, it was too late for his father. "When I was little,
my dad told me that I was the best boxer that ever lived," said Briseno, who is a
student at Kuyper College. "I thought that was something that every father tells
his kids, and I didn't take him up on his word. "When he was dying, I had an
opportunity to reflect with him in the hospital. He was in a coma but I can
remember saying to him, 'Dad, I believe you. I will start to do the things that will
make me a champion.' After I said those words, a tear came down his cheek."
Briseno's training in 1990 was relentless. He says he knew he would win the
national championship as soon as he reported to the gym. That same drive
persuaded him to make his startling comeback try 12 years later. This time, his
efforts were fueled by his faith. "When I put my best effort and trust in God for
his direction, I can succeed at anything I attempt," he said. "I do remember at
one point asking, 'What am I thinking?' I had to upgrade my training and my
approach to conditioning because I was coming back from a layoff." After his
first national championship in 1990, Briseno became a member of the U.S.
Olympic Education Center boxing team at Northern Michigan University. He won
a silver medal at the 1993 U.S. Olympic Festival and the gold a year later. He
fought in the Golden Gloves national finals four more times before beginning a
six-year layoff from the sport in 1996. "But I've always been a jogger and I like
to play basketball at the YMCA," he said. "It wasn't like I let myself get out of
shape." In fact, he's still so fit that he said another comeback -- at 37 years of
age -- may not be out of the question, although his wife, Darcy, and their new
baby, Josiah David, will have a say in the decision. "I've never been a big fan of
people who cry age as a reason to not compete or to not attempt to reach their
full potential," said Briseno, who views the lucrative payoff of a short stint in
professional boxing as part of his mission to help others. "I see it as a lot like
my Christian life: God calls me to place myself in places or risk at times; he
called his disciples to dangerous things. "I live by Philippians 4:13, that says, 'I
can do everything through him who gives me strength.' " Floyd Mayweather,
now considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, won National
Golden Gloves championships in 1993, 1994 and 1996. Briseno found what he
calls his mission in life on recent mission trips to Haiti and Kosovo. "Those trips
changed my perspective on how I should live my life," said Briseno, a junior
studying for a degree in cross cultural ministries. "In Haiti, I saw 10,000
homeless children who live in the streets and many who live by the dump,
scrounging for food. When I got home from that trip, all I could see were kids
playing video games. "I want to help people who are less fortunate. After Haiti,
I've become convinced that God wants me in kingdom work." Most sports fans
are well aware of Grand Rapids' fourth national boxing champion. After his three
Golden Gloves titles, Floyd Mayweather embarked on a professional career that
has brought him notoriety and wealth. Through his philanthropic work as part of
his foundation, Mayweather has returned substantial gifts to the local
community and beyond. His gift to underwrite the operational costs of this
year's national tournament will place the local Golden Gloves franchise in a
position to consider a meaningful addition to the local program.