A 13-year-old pounds the heavy bag in a gym at 26th and Master and dreams of scoring Olympic gold.
Hanif Webb, just 13, bounces around the bag, his red-laced black and white Jordans barely touching the ground. His chin points down and his wide-open eyes stare straight ahead. He jabs quickly with his left a few times and then throws a flurry of combination punches.
"Faster," snaps Hanif's father, Charles Webb.
Hanif glares at his father for a fraction of a second, his upper lip curled in a sneer. He begins to whine but his father--who's also his trainer--cuts him off.
"Keep working," Charles Webb barks. "Stop talking to me."
Hanif, just 5 feet tall and 90 pounds, hammers the bag steadily until the bell sounds. He takes off his boxing gloves, walks toward the wall and steps tentatively on a metal folding chair so he can reach the speed bag. When the bell sounds, he begins popping the speed bag, creating a rapid, rhythmic drumbeat.
"I'd rather be in the gym than on the streets," he says at the end of his two-hour workout. "There's nothing out there but death and guns."
It all sounds rehearsed--a little too earnest, the maturity level unreal, like a Philly version of an after-school special. But Hanif knows about violence in the city. His father put him in the boxing program at the Athletic Rec Center at 26th and Master because he was on the receiving end of beatdowns at school nearly every day.
That was four years ago. He was 9.
Then, on Jan. 19 this year, Hanif's 23-year-old sister was murdered in South Philly because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Octavia was hanging out with a friend, Chante Wright, who was scheduled to testify against a murder suspect. Wright was supposed to be in Florida, part of the federal witness protection program. The two were gunned down only hours after Wright flew into town.
One week after his sister's death, Hanif was set to fight in a tournament at the Front Street Gym in Port Richmond.
"I tried to pull him out because of the tragedy," Charles Webb says.
Instead, he harnessed his emotions and slugged a kid from Delaware so hard in the second round that he scored the first knockout of his nascent amateur career.
"I wanted to fight for my sister," Hanif recalls. "I wasn't going to be denied that night."
The city's boxing program began in 1970 as a way of curbing gang violence, says Fred Jenkins, director of Athletic Rec's boxing program. Ten centers across the city opened boxing facilities that year, with the hope that kids would fight in the ring rather than on the streets.
The mission of the program has evolved.
"Now it's about building personalities, trying to teach them to do right," says Jenkins, a former gang member who had a 27-3 amateur boxing record and was 3-1 as a pro. "It ain't about boxing anymore."
Jenkins and his fellow trainers teach kids to counterpunch and fight peek-a-boo style, but they also provide life skills--conflict resolution, relationship mending, manners and respect.