Two Lives in Boxing
Then & Now: Eric McGuire & Mike Johnson
In 1982 Eric McGuire was eleven years old and learning to fight at the Ann Arbor Boxing Club. In a photo in the Observer that February, McGuire is a couple of feet shorter than the club's older boxers. He's wearing a cutoff football jersey and his arms hang loosely by his sides, ending in a pair of gigantic boxing gloves that look far too large for him.
But McGuire had plans much bigger than his size. He told writer-photographer Peter Yates that he intended to turn pro at age eighteen. "I'm going to be good enough, no doubt about it," he boasted-and then backed it up by pummeling an opponent in an exhibition held at Huron High.
The boxing club was run by Stacy McKinley, a demanding but dedicated trainer who'd started it a few years earlier with $50,000 he'd won in a statewide "Tough Man" contest. A construction equipment operator, McKinley donated his time as well as his money to maintain the club. In his own wild youth, boxing had provided a focus, and he wanted to help other kids in similar straits. He also hoped someday to manage a professional.
By the time Yates took another look in 1989, the club was inactive, but McKinley was still working with several fighters who'd turned pro. Eric McGuire, however, was not among them. Then eighteen and a senior at Pioneer High, he was in a very different position than he'd hoped to be in. His older brother, Derrick, had gone pro, with mixed success-McKinley thought he'd tried to go too far, too fast-but Eric hadn't fought since suffering a broken neck in a street brawl.
Yates' 1989 article focused on Mike "Stinger" Johnson, who was gearing up for an International Boxing Federation title bout and was McKinley's last best chance for a champion. But even Johnson recognized there'd been a boxer with more promise at the club. "Out of all the guys in the program, Eric had the most ability,"
Johnson said in the article. "Now we'll probably never get to see how good he would have gotten."
Twenty years later, Eric McGuire and Mike Johnson are running the A-Squared Fight Club, training a new generation of boxers. Recently relocated from a warehouse near the Ann Arbor Airport to a cramped auto garage in Ypsilanti, the club is a flurry of activity.
On a Thursday evening Jasmine Hampton is in the ring working on her punches and footwork. Her cousin, James Taylor, ranked No. 2 in the country for his age and weight last year, is next to her. Raven Barnes works the speed bag, while Johnson holds up a rectangular pad across his forearms for a young man to hit. "Again, again," Johnson yells, moving the pad. Several stationary bikes line one side, and near the entrance is a homework table. McGuire is making the rounds, giving instructions and encouragement.
McGuire started the nonprofit gym in 2005 as a way to help keep area kids off the streets. "The best way that I know that I can help somebody is to teach them a skill that I know, which is boxing," he says. McGuire more or less grew up in the gym. He first remembers going to the Ann Arbor Boxing Club at age eight and faking his age to fight a year later-at the time the minimum age in Michigan was ten (today, it's eight).
"My memory is that Eric was even younger," his older brother Walter says. "I think he might have been six or seven when he started boxing."
The assault that ended his career happened in the summer of 1988, right before his senior year at Pioneer. He and some friends were jumped by a large group of kids in Willow Run.
"I was in the hospital for close to two months," McGuire says. "Initially it was about making it through the night, and then being able to move, and then being able to walk again. It was a long process."
He eventually returned to school wearing a metal "halo" that held his head motionless. When his neck healed, McGuire returned to the gym, but his injuries affected his right hand and ended his hopes of turning pro.
McGuire moved to Colorado and was trained as an electrician. He eventually returned to Ann Arbor and operated a maintenance company before taking a job ten years ago cleaning medical instruments at the U-M. He balances that full-time job with operating the Fight Club. The gym is open Monday through Thursday evenings, and on weekends McGuire often takes his boxers to tournaments in Michigan, neighboring states, and Canada.
Twenty to thirty kids show up regularly to train, including twenty-two-year-old Ryan Rawls, a national champion in the heavyweight class. Barnes, fifteen; Hampton, thirteen; and Taylor, fourteen, are regional champions. Taylor also won the inaugural International James "Lights Out" Toney Tournament, a tournament that McGuire and his longtime friend and former sparring partner Toney hosted at the Veterans Arena ice rink in Ann Arbor last August-and plan to repeat this August. The most successful boxer ever to come out of Ann Arbor, Toney has fought professionally for more than twenty years, winning titles in several weight classes. Now he's helping the Fight Club boxers get their turn in the spotlight.
"We've got kids in our gym who are recognized throughout the country right now," McGuire boasts. "We try to make sure we give each kid what they need. The importance of the basics and stuff like that, driving it home."
That includes schoolwork-hence the homework table.
"If you don't get your schoolwork done, then you've got to take a time-out from the gym," McGuire says. "Hey, if you can do three rounds in a boxing ring, you can do a sheet of homework . . . I try to get them to understand that, you know."
Mike Johnson fought professionally for fourteen years until retiring in 1998. At the high point of his career, he was ranked in the top ten in the world for the 140-pound junior welterweight class. Like McGuire, he volunteers his time to the club.
"It's good to see those guys when they start out from nothing-they don't know how to punch, nothing-and to see them catch on and start to feel more comfortable throwing punches," Johnson says. "The satisfaction that you start seeing on their faces, when they realize, 'I get this, I'm good at this,' it's just good to see that, to see them grow."
Rawls plans to soon become the first A-Squared Fight Club boxer to turn professional, and McGuire hopes to see Olympians eventually coming out of his program-especially since it looks like the next games will be the first in which females will be allowed to fight.
"We've got a few kids at the gym who are really, really dedicated," he says. "And I can sit there and look them in the face and tell them, 'You know what? You've got a shot at going to the Olympics in 2012.'. . . That's what we're working toward."
[Originally published in June, 2009.]