For city fifth-grader, pride is in the punch

The Baltimore Sun

March 19, 2011

While Lorenzo Simpson's classmates at City Springs Elementary/Middle were taking the Maryland School Assessments this month, the fifth-grader was 1,000 miles away facing his own series of tests - in the boxing ring.

With the memory of a recently slain gym mate weighing on his mind, the 10-year-old plowed through the last of a dozen 95-pound opponents to take a championship title at the National Silver Gloves Tournament of Champions in Kansas City, Mo., one of the nation's largest amateur tournaments for young boxers.Lorenzo won his title just three days before his 11th birthday and less than a week after his friend and role model became the 29th homicide victim in Baltimore City this year. On March 6, Ronald T. Gibbs, a promising amateur boxer, was stabbed to death after the teen attempted to intervene in a fight involving his sister, police said.

Lorenzo trained with the 17-year-old boxer, also known as "Rock," at the Upton Boxing Center on Pennsylvania Avenue. According to Lorenzo, it was his gym mate's memory that helped him maintain his flawless two-year, 21-0 record.

"I knew I was going to win for Rock," Lorenzo said of the championship, which he won March 12. "I saw him win the Silver Gloves before, so I wanted to do it for him. I knew everyone was depending on me."

With the support of his school community at City Springs, the honor roll student made up his MSAs and has the opportunity to help fill a void in the local boxing world after the death of Gibbs, who at one time ranked 10th in the nation and had Olympic aspirations.

"He took this one real serious," said Mack Allison, one of Lorenzo's coaches at Upton Boxing Center. "The whole time he was training, he just put a lot into it. You could just tell - he knew he was going to be successful."

Under the guidance of mentors, including Baltimore native Sam Cassell, a former basketball star and current assistant coach for the Washington Wizards, Lorenzo has been able to cope with losing role models to city violence.

His father was killed in a daytime home invasion while Lorenzo, who was 4, and his siblings were at school.

As Lorenzo got older, said his mother, Danica Carroll, it became apparent that he needed an outlet for his anger, which was manifesting itself at home and at school. So she found a constructive way for him to take out his frustrations.

"I just had to find a way to make sure he didn't get out in the streets," Carroll said. "He went through a spell of being depressed and angry that his father wasn't around, so I found a way for him to relieve some energy."

When he was about 6, Lorenzo started hanging around the Upton Boxing Center - where he earned the nickname "Truck" for the shape of his head - watching his uncle train. Boxing seemed to be the natural choice for Lorenzo because if he was anything, his mother thought, he was a fighter.

When Lorenzo was 9, Carroll enrolled him in the Upton Boxing Center, where he began shedding his baby weight - and what his mother calls a "hot-headed temper" and "mouth that was something terrible."

Carroll said she worries about him getting hurt as much as she would in any other sport, but she puts her trust in coaches and referees. "I'm more afraid of him getting hurt in the streets than in the boxing ring," she said.

Lorenzo's transformation has unfolded in all aspects of his life, especially in school. His mother and stepfather have tied his success in the classroom to his ability to continue his boxing career. Lorenzo said he takes both seriously.

The only difference is, "I don't have to fight in school, I can do it in the ring," he said. "It helped me because sometimes I was bad, and now I'm good."

After a six-hour day at school, the 11-year-old trains five days a week, two hours a day - a grueling schedule, but one Lorenzo says he likes because it "helps me get sleep for school the next day."

On a recent day at the gym, Lorenzo's stamina was apparent, as he led teams of trainees through continuous drills, including jumping jacks, squats and push-ups.

"You going to let Truck do you like that?" his coach shouted every once in a while to encourage those who were twice his age but couldn't keep up.

The only time Lorenzo slowed down was to wipe sweat from his forehead with his drenched white tank and to check on his mom as she also trained. She and Lorenzo recently made a deal that she would join him at the gym, and she does leg lifts and attempts push-ups in the back of the room to show her support.

Lorenzo is training for his next fight, which may be held in April or May.

Upton Boxing, one of the few local centers to send young boxers to the nationals 12 years in a row, serves as a resource for the community.

The handful of boxers Lorenzo's age who train at the gym may have the same potential, Allison said, but not the drive - a testament to his recent success at the National Silver Gloves Tournament, where he competed alongside more than 200 state champions, ages 9 to 15.

In January, Lorenzo took the regional championship title in his weight class after winning the state championship in December.

"The time that we put into Truck, that's the time he gave back to us," Allison said.

His coach says his only aspiration for Lorenzo is that he follow his own dream. "He's so young, you can't see that far into the future as far as what he will do," Allison said.

"But right now, this is his passion, and he just did an awesome job."

Lorenzo has become a model student at City Springs, his principal and teacher said, where he has emerged as a leader, his grades have vastly improved in the past year, and his attitude has evolved from carelessness and arrogance to discipline and humility.

Lorenzo's teacher, Carol Yates-Johnson, said that his boxing epitomizes his work in school.

"He takes pride in what he does, and he sticks with it until the very end," Yates-Johnson said.

Lorenzo was honored at a recent assembly, where he shyly went on stage to don his championship belt for his classmates as they cheered.

"He's notably different this year," said City Springs Principal Rhonda Richetta. "I used to see Lorenzo in my office from time to time for unacceptable behavior, and this year, he's been in my office several times to share accomplishments - not just his boxing, but accomplishments in the classroom."

Lorenzo's determination to succeed is what captured the attention of Cassell, a close family friend, who has appeared in past years at City Springs both to celebrate

Lorenzo's accomplishments and to wait for him in the principal's office when the youngster was sent there for acting out in class.

Cassell, who graduated from Dunbar High School and later starred in the NBA, recognizes the passion in Lorenzo, who lives in East Baltimore.

"I just knew his love and passion for boxing," Cassell said. "A lot of inner-city kids out of Baltimore, they go for football and basketball, and I'm a product of that same environment, as a kid trying to get a way out. He knew that boxing was his thing."

Cassell is working to foster qualities in Lorenzo like sacrifice and discipline - including forgoing ice cream so that he can maintain his weight - that he will need to stay on the right path.

"Him going away to Kansas City and coming back a champ - I was just so proud of him," Cassell said. "If he stays on the right path and stays dedicated, he's going to be a world champion one day. I really believe that."

In addition to mirroring the career of his boxing hero, Manny Pacquiao, Lorenzo has another dream that hits close to home.

"He always said that he wanted to win a championship to get us away from the city," Carroll said. "And I just told him like always: I support him in anything he wants to do, as long as it's positive."

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