Inside the Heart of Amateur Boxing
The Nonantum Boxing Club in Massachusetts is humble on the outside. But inside, an extended boxing family has built a thriving business, and begun an unlikely pursuit of Olympic glory—as trainers.
The Nonantum Boxing Club is in a plain white brick building that shares parking with a trucking company. The lot is surrounded by chain link fencing and scrub grass, and during the warmer months there’s a sandwich board displaying a phone number that’s nearly useless because nobody answers the phone at the club. The entrance—a short, dim hall—has chipped plaster walls with a drawing of a giant gorilla head above a wood-carved NONANTUM BOXING CLUB sign. A dark staircase leads up to the main gym. When you get to the top, the darkness opens into a giant space: windows shot through with light, a forest of heavy bags, jump ropes dangling from hooks, twin boxing rings, mirrors, and shelves of gloves and mitts. Fight posters paper the walls. There are two small changing rooms and two smaller bathrooms. Everything is clean the way surgical scrubs are clean: hard-washed, well-worn, as if the entire place is dipped in boiling water every night.
The front desk is a jumble of receipts, grip exercisers, medical tape, sign-in sheets, waiver forms, letters from the community ( Thank you Nonantum Boxing Club for sponsoring our cancer run; Thank you Nonantum Boxing Club for participating in the Nonantum Italian Festival) and business cards. Lots of business cards: mortgage brokers, massage therapists, accountants, tax attorneys, mechanics, florists, aestheticians. And there’s a smell, the smell shared by all boxing gyms. A moist sweetness, spiced with leather and Lysol, sweat and must, bleach and the occasional whiff of cologne mixing with the wet-penny odor of dumbbells. It’s an earned smell because in real boxing gyms everything must be earned. You earn your rounds and you earn your failures. You earn your trainer’s time. This is head trainer Marc Gargaro’s refrain: everything must be earned.
I’ve been training at the NBC for a few years. My amateur career was brief and lousy—I last fought in 1995, against a tall Irish kid who jabbed my left eye so many times it bubbled blood—but I’m always looking for a place to pretend that I’m still in the game. Marc Gargaro and his cousin Nathan Busa opened the NBC in 2008. They called it the Nonantum Boxing Club because it’s located in Nonantum, a small village in Newton, Massachusetts. Nonantum is an Italian town. The traffic lines running down the middle of its streets are painted il Tricolore: red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag. Marc and Nathan started in Nathan’s basement in late 2006, training Marc’s younger brother Nico, then Nathan’s older brother Eric got involved, then came more cousins—Nonantum seems entirely populated with Gargaro and Busa cousins—then the friends of the cousins, then the friends of the friends and the cousins of those friends. They soon moved into the corner of a karate studio until they found the white brick building. The focus was always on amateur boxing, on finding good kids who wanted to become good boxers.
They have found some good boxers. The NBC has produced Golden Gloves champs: Joey Meuse, Jesus Ablan, Ashleigh Moore, Francis Scata. There’s a shelf of trophies and belts, all sitting on the same shelf as a stereo receiver and some paperwork; it’s as though the accomplishments are an afterthought, not because Marc isn’t proud of his fighters, but because the accomplishments are ephemeral. The goal seems to be the process, not the result.
His track record has gotten him inside the Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, where he's been spending time as an assistant coach. This is why we’re sitting in the NBC’s back office on an old couch, next to a filing cabinet and an unopened growler of Marc’s homemade wine: because I’d like to know how this local guy went from training kids in his cousin’s basement, to working out of this white brick building, to helping the Olympic boxing team.
"You have to earn the right to be trained."
Marc is 38 years old, eleven years removed from his last amateur fight. He’s still alley-cat lean. He rarely looks at you head-on—always from the side—and he walks through the gym with a slight bounce, not the bounce of an excitable guy but a coiled, cautious bounce; a laconic watchfulness. Marc is always watching. He watches his fighters and he watches the members, he watches the front desk and he watches the stairs. I get the sense he doesn’t like being interviewed, that he’d rather be on the floor, watching.
I ask him if he’s always wanted to be a trainer. He shakes his head.
“We just fell into it,” he says. “I had no idea. When Nate and I started in my basement, the younger kids came in and we showed them what we were doing. We had focus mitts and some mirrors, a little mat area for sparring. I learned on the fly. I just used all the drills I’d been taught when I was fighting. My first pro fight I worked the corner for my cousin Mattie. I was twenty-six. I didn’t know how to work a corner. I remember looking into the crowd and a guy was saying Put Vaseline on your fighter because I wasn’t doing it.”
“Did you make many mistakes?” I ask.
He nods. “Back in the day I wanted to show everybody I had a bunch of fighters. You know, just to be able to say ' These are my guys.' So I threw people in there who shouldn’t have been in there. I had this one fighter—I don’t want to say his name but he was too green. Green as a vegetable. He had skills but not enough experience. I put him in a fight against a much more experienced guy because I wanted to see if he was ready. My fighter got knocked out in the first round. I thought: Why did I do this? I would never do that now.”
“Did it make you question your worth as a trainer?”
“No, not as a trainer. I knew I could teach people how to box, but it made me realize I didn’t know enough about managing my fighters. Part of training is managing, and part of managing is knowing how to bring your fighters along. That’s something I learned later. You have to know when your kid is ready for the ring.”
Nathan Busa walks into the office. Nathan is a Newton firefighter and a former Golden Gloves champ. He was also a Marine Corps sergeant. He looks the part: all jaw and skull, with arms thick as industrial cables. Watch clips of his amateur fights and his style is exactly what you’d expect: relentless, well-paced, chin down, arms tight to his ribs, a bit of the Catskills peek-a-boo. Nathan grabs a roll of medical tape off the desk, gives us a nod, and exits. I hear Nico’s voice coming from one of the rings, then the slap of focus mitts; Nico, like his older brother Marc and his cousins Nathan and Eric, is a trainer. He’s also a barber—he has a chair in the corner of the gym.
“So let’s suppose you have a kid who comes into the gym,” I say to Marc, “and he’s never boxed but he wants to start. What are some of the things you look for?”
“Number one: I tell him to do something and see if he does it. I’ll say Go jump rope for three rounds. Then, if he finishes, I’ll say Do a hundred pushups and a hundred sit-ups. And I’ll watch him, out of the corner of my eye. I’m looking to see if he actually does what I tell him—I don’t care how well he does it, I just care if he follows my instruction without questioning. A lot of kids, they wanna do mitts right away, they wanna get in the ring. They want my attention without having earned it. But you have to earn the right to be trained. That’s how we did it, back in the day. We waited, we watched, we worked hard, until someone took us aside and said ' I’ll show you a couple of things.'”
I ask Marc if he misses fighting. He tells me his misses the fights—what he calls, repeatedly, the glory—but not the training. He didn’t like the training. He partied too much. He’d take fights on short notice, trying to improvise his way to a win. The boxer-who-might-have-been is a classic refrain but there’s a different vibe with Marc. He uses the word regret but he doesn’t sound regretful; he seems amused with his past self. This is what keeps him preoccupied as a trainer: the difference between just doing something, and doing it with intent.
“I ran but I didn’t run hard,” he says. “I ran just to run. I trained just to train. That’s why I tell my fighters: You can be a mediocre fighter but why would you want to be? Why would you want to take punches to the head and not train hard? Why would you do any of this if you’re just going to be mediocre?”
“That’s an interesting question,” I say. It is an interesting question; it’s a huge question, applicable to things other than boxing.
Marc goes on: “I ask them: why do you show up every day and punch each other in the face, and when the fight comes around, you guys are nervous? This is the hard part—the fight is the easy part. The training is the shit work; the fight is the glory.”
“Was your father a boxer?”
The mood shifts. I know a little bit about Marc’s father. The details are hazy—trouble with the law, unsavory characters hanging around the house—and I ask because so much of boxing is defined by rough childhoods.
“He was too busy getting in trouble,” Marc says. “He never got into the sport.”
“And how did you avoid going the same route as your father?”
“My family,” Marc says. “They were my foundation.”
I ask him if he thinks boxing saved his life. His eyebrows raise.
“Not necessarily boxing but sports in general,” he says. “Team sports. Boxing was an individual thing. It’s not a great answer.” He smiles, like he knows the angle I’m trying to push. “I make this gym like a team. We all look out for each other.”
As if on cue, one of Marc’s fighters peeks in. His name is Troy. He’s a young black kid, a featherweight, thin and keen as a blade. Marc gives him a look that says I’ll be out there soon. Troy reminds me of my next question.
“Are you concerned about this place becoming more of a boxing workout gym than a real fight gym?”
“No,” Marc says. “The more people I can get in here, no matter what they do—businessmen or moms or college kids or whoever—it’s all good. I don’t need a lot of fighters to make a successful training career. I just need good fighters.”
“How do you define success?”
“I’d love to go with the national team to Tokyo in 2020.”
“And how did you get hooked up with the Olympic training center?”
“I applied online.”
His answer sounds too modest. I say: “You just applied online?”
He nods. “They asked for coaches and I applied. They liked my resume, they asked me to come coach.”
The full story is this: Marc has been working toward the Olympic team for years. His first coaching gig with the U.S. Elite Men’s Boxing team resulted in two bronze medals and a silver at the World Boxing Championships in Germany. U.S. boxing then asked him to help prep the U17/U18 Elite Girls for the World Boxing Championships held in India. One week after our interview, Marc will be with the U.S. team in Bulgaria.
“The way it’s run out there is how programs should be run,” Marc says. “Their facilities, their coaches, their therapists, their nutritionists—that’s how you do it. They have a program, and if you follow their program, you will get better. That’s what I’m trying to do here, with the limited resources we have.”
“Do you ever worry about brain damage?”
Again, the mood shifts. Marc tells me that amateur boxing—if you do it right—has less head trauma than girls soccer.
“That’s a bold statement,” I say.
“You’re not just brawling,” he says. “You learn proper defense. You should not be getting knocked out in the amateurs.”
But what about all the sub-concussive hits? All the sparring? All the mistakes? The science shows it isn’t about knockouts—it’s about thousands of punches and their collective impact on the brain. I don’t say any of this. I don’t want to push back against the idealism—necessary, perhaps—of the boxing trainer. I also don’t want to think about some of the punches that I took, back when I was young and foolish. Instead, I ask Marc if he has time to work on my jab.
We leave the office and move into one of the rings. Marc grabs his mitts. I throw my jab—I’ve always thought I had a solid jab—and then I experience what a great trainer Marc is because he tells me how terrible my jab is, only he doesn’t use the word terrible. He doesn’t say anything critical. He simply corrects.
Five minutes later my jab feels different: looser, quicker, more balanced. We work on my left hook. It’s a mess. Marc tells me to relax. I swing. He tells me again. I swing. He pushes my shoulder down. He pares down my movement. He makes my punch feel more like a gesture. The cycle repeats until, again, five minutes later, something changes.
“How does it feel?” he asks.
“Different,” I say.
“It’s smaller,” he says. “You’re not as open when you throw it. This is what I mean when I talk about proper defense.”
“But what about a lucky punch?”
“You ever see Floyd Mayweather get hit by a lucky punch?” He takes off his mitts. “Lucky punches happen but they mostly happen if you’re not prepared. That’s why I’m saying that in the amateur game, if you do it right, you shouldn’t have to worry about CTE. The pro game is different, of course. Amateur boxing, I wouldn’t call it fighting. It’s more of a martial art. Like I wouldn’t call Tae Kwon Do fighting, even though there’s elements of it that have to do with fighting.”
“So why does boxing change at the pro level?”
“Because pro is a hurt game; a lot of things can go wrong. Punches to the heart, a busted nose, broken ribs, a broken tooth—in the pro game you’re punching to hurt. In the amateurs you’re trying to get all your punches out in three rounds. You want the judges to see your punches landing. In the pros you might drive a punch into your opponent’s chest, for example, just to set him up for the knockout. Knockouts happen in amateurs but that’s not the goal.”
I ask him what the goal is. Marc doesn’t answer. He glances out into the gym, where Eric and Nathan are talking, where Troy is now jumping rope. Nico is in the other ring, holding mitts for an older man who might be a boxer but is more likely someone looking to get in shape. Dena Lawton, a 40-something woman who fights in the local circuit under Marc’s tutelage, pokes her head through the ropes and says something to Marc. Eric wanders over to the ring.
“What do you think about the amateur game?” I ask Eric.
Eric folds his arms across his chest. Eric is a big guy, with a profile that looks like it belongs on a Roman coin.
“What do you mean?” he says.
“I mean do you consider it fighting?”
He takes a long breath, as if inhaling his answer. “It’s all about combat,” he finally says. “Amateur or pro, you gotta hurt your opponent.”
Then Nathan joins us, talking as he unwraps his hands: “Amateur boxing isn’t street fighting but let me say this: when I was in the amateurs I was trying to knock my opponent out. I didn’t care about winning points.”
If Marc hears them, he doesn’t give any indication.
“If you don’t hurt your opponent,” Eric says, “I don’t care what the judges see or don’t see—your opponent won’t respect your punches, and they’ll keep coming at you.” Eric points at my heart. “It’s just you in there. My father-in-law Joe DeNucci would tell me: ‘in boxing, to be great, you must live alone.’ Not literally, but—” He thinks for a moment. “When you’re in the ring, the judges don’t matter, your trainer doesn’t matter, all the tricks don’t matter. It’s just you. That’s what I know.”
Marc returns. The Busa brothers walk back to the office. Marc finally seems at ease. Maybe because my last question, after all we’ve discussed, is a touch too neat, or maybe because it’s a question he’s already asked himself. What is the goal? Marc’s answer comes swiftly, with eye contact and a slight smile.
“The goal is to win,” Marc says. “The goal is glory.”
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports US.