New York Daily News

In ring, and off streets

Bronx rooftop boxing program helps youths avoid problems


It’s no accident the teen boxers trading punches on a Bronx rooftop gather on Thursday and Friday nights.

Yes, the young local fighters are eager to learn their way around the ring. But those two evenings can be the borough’s most dangerous, with more violent incidents than any other day of the week, according to organizers.

“We’ve got them at this time right here, and when they come out of here they’re tired,” said former pro boxer Joel Castillo, who helps run BRAG Boxing in collaborat­ion with St. Barnabas Health.

“This is something that they enjoy doing, that we can keep them on track, that we can keep track of them, of their risk factors as well.”

The five youths, sparring as the sun sets, are part of BRAG Boxing — launched last fall to help at-risk Bronx youths redirect their energies into something positive. The lessons go beyond snapping off a stiff jab or stepping up their footwork.

“They focus on you,” explained Alejandro Guevarez, 18, a high school senior from Belmont. “They make sure I’m doing my schoolwork, so that’s why I’m here. If I wasn’t here, I wouldn’t finish school. This is keeping me from being outside.”

Castillo’s nephew Jio Mendoza, 19, is now in his second year with the Bronx Rising Against Gun Violence program. Mendoza credits the effort with helping him avoid the ever-present lure of the street.

“I just wanted a way out,” he explained. “I wanted to get away from that before I got stuck in the lifestyle. I try to avoid it.”

His uncle Joel, once known in the ring as “El Rey,” related entirely to his young relative’s take.

“It kept me off the streets,” said Castillo, 37, a Bronx resident whose last pro bout was at Newark’s Prudential Center in 2011. “It changed my whole life.”

Daniel Bonilla, 32, offered up the hospital’s space after he learned about the program at a community meeting. The young participan­ts are welcomed with open arms and an eye toward the future.

“I don’t know their history,” said Bonilla, the hospital clinical integratio­n director and a fighter himself. “I don’t ask about their history. We want to show them that there’s more to life than what is in the street.”

The program runs for 12 weeks, with most participan­ts coming through word of mouth recommenda­tions and BRAG outreach.

Castillo began working with the organizati­on at its inception seven years ago, working initially as a violence interrupte­r. The plan right now is to expand the boxing program to 12 slots for the next round of participan­ts in July, evenly divided between young men and young women.

He also hopes to get an actual ring and arrange for fights to keep the kids coming back once they leave the program. Each youth departs with a full set of equipment, including two pairs of gloves, boxing boots, headgear, mouthpiece­s and a gym bag.

“They’re really good kids,” said Bonilla. “They just happened to be looking for a specific space, and we happened to be able to provide that.”

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 ?? ?? Jio Mendoza (left) spars with boxing instructor Daniel Bonilla, Below, from left, Bonilla with Alejandro Guevarez, Joel Castillo and Mendoza.
Jio Mendoza (left) spars with boxing instructor Daniel Bonilla, Below, from left, Bonilla with Alejandro Guevarez, Joel Castillo and Mendoza.

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