Up two narrow staircases inside East Germantown’s Masjid Muhammad religious center, renowned boxing trainer Derek “Bozy” Ennis wails away at James Barnett with a pair of foam sticks.
Barnett ducks, weaves, protects and learns as pugilists both aspiring and established watch from across the room.
The audience includes a half dozen preteens from a Police Athletic League boxing program who look on admiringly.
They’re in an attic, yes, but they’re also in a dungeon.
Specifically, they’re at Bozy’s Dungeon, which moved to this hulking structure set back off Penn Street and Belfield Avenue from the shadows of Happy Hollow Rec Center several years back.
Young boxer, old-school training
This storied pugilism proving ground’s new site kept the gritty nature of the old dungeon.
Gaping holes in the ceiling lead boxers and trainers to pull out a makeshift trash-bag tarp to protect the rings and equipment in case of rain.
The place’s soundtrack is a mashup. Jump ropes whipping into the ground and whistling through the air. Fists pummeling heavy bags or bodies. Speed bags darting to and fro red-gloved hands. The exhortations of four demanding trainers. The grunts of hard labor. Walk-ins talking all big and tough before they spar. Walk-ins scurrying away without much to say after thorough defeats. And, a buzzer which serves as their traffic light.
On this Wednesday afternoon in June, the whooshing and cracking of foam sticks hitting Barnett’s head, shoulders and sides — and his reactions to the muscle-memory and reflex-enhancing drill — took over the front ring.
That’s where Bozy usually trains pros. He has a long track record of doing so. His time in the sport is even longer, back to the time when boxing helped keep him out of trouble when he was a Germantown High kid. He said his name is known to would-be boxers even in the prisons of Pennsylvania.
Among those fighters he’s training today are his sons Farah, a 168-pounder scheduled to fight in Las Vegas next Friday, and Derek “Pooh” Ennis, who’s working to regain focus after going 1-2 since July 2010, when he beat Philly’s Gabriel Rosado for the USBA light-middleweight title.
There’s talk in the gym that Pooh could be heading out west to serve as a sparring partner for Floyd Mayweather’s next foe, Canelo Alvarez. When you watch Pooh fight, you see traces of Mayweather’s style.
To hear Bozy tell it, James Barnett is a lot like Pooh in the ring.
The low center of gravity. The size which enables them to deflect opponents’ punches and get inside to do damage. The stellar defensive approach to the sport, a career-extending technique.
“You can see he’s got the skills. He’s a good listener. You’ve seen the moves he’s got. He’s hard to hit, and that’s what I teach. A defensive style, that’s my most important thing,” Ennis said of Barnett during a break. “He’s got everything.”
Everything except age.
James “Too Sharp” Barnett is a 13-year-old honor student with a penchant for competing in spelling bees and playing the flute, and an aversion to showing even a single sign of the rage which fuels the Mike Tysons of the world.
A mother’s pride and fear
One weekend day in May, James finished running his once-or-twice daily 16 laps on the Penn Charter track (target time: 45 minutes.)
He noticed equipment at a nearby playground could help with training and weight cutting. So there he was, doing sit ups and pull ups under his father Desmond’s watchful eye.
Across the playground, James’ mother Uvaunka watched 4-year-old Zora, a giddy little girl who impresses established fighters like Olivia Fonseca with her ability to spell “house.”
Uvaunka pulled out a cell phone to show another parent video of James’ most-recent conquest, that of an older, taller, stronger foe.
The pride — and fear — was palpable as she recounted how James developed from an 8-year-old known as “Meatball” who mimicked his older brother and others in the Happy Hollow boxing program, into the professionally-trained, slimmed-down “Too Sharp” who has already won seven bouts.
“He was just a fat little kid when he started,” the mother said. “Now look at him.”
James Barnett started out at Happy Hollow, but he’s moved onto the Dungeon now.
Coworkers at Germantown Pharmacy told his mother that the man who regularly came in for his mother’s medication ran a gym of great insider-boxing repute.
She showed Bozy the cell-phone videos of her southpaw son fighting in a Silver Gloves tournament in Indiana. It turned out that he’d already seen James fight, and had seen enough to bend his no-more-amateurs training rule.
That was about two years ago. Since, Too Sharp’s reputation has grown.
“He’s always fighting bigger boys, boys with cuts in their arms, at least three inches taller, a few years older,” his mother said, admitting she used to cover her face with a jacket when her son fought. She’d only look when the cheers told her that her son was winning.
“Each time I see him fight, I’m a little scared,” she said, mentioning another son with a heart condition and the ever-present fear of concussion. “The way he moves, he barely gets hit. His steps are so slick, he never really gets tagged.”
‘A carefree boy’
In an age when parents worry their kids spend too much time fiddling with keyboards and First Ladies undertake initiatives countering childhood obesity, James Barnett’s story resonates.
“I used to be really big, so I didn’t want to stay in the house all day and play video games,” he explained at ringside the other day. “I wanted to play sports. Every other kid was playing football or basketball but I wanted to try something else.
“I wanted to play soccer but I couldn’t find a soccer team, so I started playing tennis at [Henry H. Houston Elementary in Mt. Airy] but I stopped in the fourth grade. That’s when I started boxing.”
One of four children, James’ family has lived in Chestnut Hill, Mt. Airy and just off Cheltenham Avenue near Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, where the funeral for boxing idol Joe Frazier was held. (James’ favorite fight? “When Frazier put Ali on the floor.”)
That residential timeline speaks to “never really living in the ‘hood,” as his mother put it, which explains why James doesn’t have that ferocious edge of some kids they see at boxing competitions.
“He’s a carefree boy. … A lot of times, when you see the aggressive fighters, they’re trying to get those wins so when they get to 17, they can get to that level to get that money. He’s not from the hood. Never lived in the hood,” his mother said. “He doesn’t have that anger. He just found a sport he liked and he just went with it. It just so happens that the wins come naturally.”
James added a little depth to that “carefree” description.
“What I like about boxing is that it’s an independent sport,” he said. “Football, basketball, if you lose, you can blame it on the team. If you lose in boxing, you can’t blame it on nobody but yourself.”
‘It’s for the winning’
Bozy Ennis would concur.
Back in the day, he was a fighter who “was so good in the street that I couldn’t even use my left hand and was beating everybody. Sparring in the street, with just my right.”
He ended up going to a boxing gym and turning pro in 1976.
“Instead of gang warring, all that stuff that was going on, I just stayed in the gym,” said Bozy who, at 58, still spars double-digit rounds without head gear. “I think that saved my life. It was rough back then.”
When his trainer died, he got into grooming young boxers himself in Germantown.
When Uvaunka calls the Dungeon “grimy, ratchet, sweaty, dirty, not a prima-donna gym,” it’s a compliment that speaks to a “when one grinds, we all grind” ethos.
“It’s not for the show,” James said. “It’s for the training. It’s for the winning.”
When James fights, his cheering section wears T-shirts emblazoned with an image of a pitbull. It speaks to the tight-knit Bozy’s crew.
At 13, he has 10 fights on his record. While fight one went down as a loss, he shrugs that off: “I got robbed. I blatantly won, but I was fighting the son of the guy who was running the show. I didn’t even get touched.”
The second fight went similarly, but was overturned since the crowd was stomping and hooting that James really won. He then rattled off a 6-2 streak that brought him into an Elizabeth, N.J, event the last weekend in June.
“At the beginning, he just cracked James in the face, but that was it,” Uvaunka declared. “He couldn’t touch him after that.”
Hearing this, James retrieved a cell-phone on which video of the fight was recorded. It showed James, in full boxing regalia and giving up noticeable height and weight, take a jab flush to the nose and then burrow inside, punishing his foe.
Asked whether that shot hurt, he responded dismissively: “No.”
His confidence is clearly building, but the no-hood track record was recently diminished.
The family recently moved to a tougher nook of Northwest Philly than they’re used to. Neighbors checked out the new kid shadow-boxing out on the front porch and started inquiring about his fighting skills.
He said he knows he has to keep his head on a swivel now, aware that new kids often get challenged. He figured his easy-going, non-confrontational persona will help alleviate potential problems.
When it comes to his could-be boxing career, he’s slated to fight in Allentown later this month and at a state fair in Ohio next month.
As Farah Ennis sparred in the Bozy’s front ring with self-professed “No. 1 American heavyweight contender” Mike “The Beast” Hilton, James watched intently. He said he was picking up tips about how to fight a bigger foe.
Asked if he planned to be the best fighter to ever come out of Philly, James Barnett said yes.
Moments later, Coach Ice came rolling into Bozy’s. He’s the guy who saw “Meatball” play-boxing on the side of the ring at Happy Hollow way back five years ago.
James’ original coach was asked what he thought when he saw how far James has come.
“Oh man,” he beamed. “It’s so great. I’m so proud of him. Can’t wait to see what’s next.”