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Aug 09th
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Home Boxing The Iceman Diaries…
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The Iceman Diaries…



Once in a while, I like to put down a story or two from the gym...the gym isn't always JUST about boxing...for a lot of people, it is a home away from home. It is a safe haven, it’s a SAFE HOUSE for a lot of kids...I can remember many days when I wasn't in training and had no reason to be in the gym at all, but I would still go there to hang out for three hours, just to see what would happen that day...lots of stories unfold in boxing gyms, they are OFTEN LIKE FAMILY,'s one (unedited)...

The Johnny Duke Story:

At Johnny Duke's Bellevue Square Boys Club, you had some of the toughest guys ever to grow up in Hartford coming through there on a regular basis. Boxing is one of those activities that, for some reason, just attracts people of all kinds. You have athletic guys, tough guys, gangsters, gang members, thugs, college kids, suburban kids, etc. All kinds. 

Mark Jennings was a kid from Bellevue Square who, like hundreds of his peers there, was in that gym in the late 80's and early 90's so often that he became an expected fixture there each day even though he wasn't actually an active boxer. 
It’s not that he didn't want to be one but the fact that he is permanently confined to a wheelchair made that impossible.
That's not to say he couldn't compete physically, though. Johnny Duke made sure of that. 
I am actually not even sure how this all started because I came around in the middle of Mark's run but I got used to Duke throwing up challenges on behalf of Mark to almost every guy that came to the gym, especially the bigger, tougher looking guys. One thing about a boxing gym, especially with new guys looking to check it out, everybody thinks they are tough and that they are strong. Bellevue Square was certainly no different. 

From his years and years of wheeling that chair around Mark had developed unusual arm strength and the proof was in the fact that we couldn't find anybody, no matter how big or tough, who could pin him to the wall using their arm strength against his. What would happen is that a couple of us would lift Mark out of his chair and steady him up with his back against the gym wall where he would wait for his designated challenger to come and take his turn. It went down like this: Mark would put up his arms, bent at the elbows, straight out in front of him so that his opponent could try to gain control of him by the wrists. When the person with the stopwatch would signal you to start you had thirty full seconds to try and pin Mark's arms against the wall behind him. 
Duke would be like Mark's agent or manager or something and when someone new walked into the gym, especially a big and tough looking guy, Duke would be all over them.
"Oh, so you think you're a bad motherf**ker, huh? Walking in here like you're Clint Eastwood or somebody…gonna take over the gym," Duke would say. 
Almost every single guy Duke approached like this ended up looking like a deer in the headlights with this much older gentleman (picture an Italian Santa Claus at that moment without the Christmas cheer) right up in their faces. 
"You're a tough guy? Well, I got a kid in a wheelchair that would kick your f**kin’ ass, okay? What do you think about that?"
And then Duke would call Mark over and everybody in the gym would stop what they were doing and come over too, so they could join the festivities. It was like a circus sometimes and if you didn't know what was going on you would think we were all crazy. And Mark's "opponents," sometimes all 230 pounds or more of them (see Lawrence Clay-Bey and "Terminator" Earl Anderson), would still be standing there with half a smile on their faces; thinking to themselves how they were going to flatten this kid up against the wall in no time flat. 
I have to admit, and I loved this, but sometimes it got pretty bizarre in that gym. 
Duke would explain the rules and get everything in order, sometimes previewing for everyone what was about to take place like he was a ring announcer. Then, on cue, the guy with the stop watch would yell "Go!" and after a few seconds of trying to casually push Mark's arms behind him against the wall you could practically see the big guy saying to himself, "Wow, this little dude is stronger than he looks." 
With increased effort and the decibel level rising by the second, all around him, it was soon apparent that the big man was in trouble. Almost as quickly as it started, it was over and the ensuing celebration, each and every time, was as joyous as just about any world championship celebration that you have ever witnessed. Mark's smile was so big and wide, a good 3,000 or so watts worth of teeth and happiness, that you didn't think he would be able to contain himself for much longer before he would collapse from sheer excitement. I promise you now that seeing and hearing all these guys, myself included, yelling Mark's name out loud as they cheered him on after one of his victories are some of the best memories I have from all my years in the boxing gyms. 
In all my years in the square, I never saw him get defeated either, no matter how big the opponent. Believe me when I tell you, these big dudes were trying as hard as they could to pin this kid. Mark just would stay so focused and determined and if he was going to fight for anything in this world it was going to be to stop them from pinning him. 
After it was all over Duke would go over to his note book and, in front of everybody, check off another victim biting the dust, keeping track of Mark's career record. I am telling you, and I am willing to bet cash money right now on it, that the feeling of joy and accomplishment Mark felt each and every time, from the beginning of the negotiation all the way to the recording in the book, was equal to that of any world champion that you ever saw capture his belt on pay-per-view. 
Johnny Duke gave Mark Jennings the amazing gift of feeling alive more times than I could remember or count. 
So today, (October 27, 2006), I am driving down Broad Street in Hartford with Mike-Mike (nine years after the gym closed and a good eighteen years after first seeing Mark in action) and we are literally on our way to the weigh-in at Foxwoods for his fight tomorrow with Adam Carrera for the USBA 122-pound title when we happened to see Mark (now about thirty years old) pushing himself along the sidewalk in his chair. So we pull over and stop to talk, telling him where we are headed, etc. Mark had been in the gym on hundreds of days with Mike-Mike all the way back to the 1980's and it is obviously a great source of pride for him to know that he comes from that gym with Duke and Mike-Mike and all the guys. Mark enthusiastically lets us know he is pulling for us and that he is going to let everybody know that he saw us on our way to the big battle. 
As we are driving away I suddenly recall the many battles he himself used to have on so many occasions at the old gym and I slow down the car and yell out the window back at him, just for fun, just to remind him of the old days one more time. 
"Mark, what was your final record at Duke's gym?" I loudly ask with a big smile on my face. I'm telling you now; I didn't even expect him to answer me. It was just a statement disguised as a question, asked so that I could bring him back, mentally, to what I am sure were some of the best times of his entire life.
And as we slowly continue driving, I, along with the rest of the block, can hear and see him happily and excitedly reply, with a huge smile on his face and his arm pumping up into the air…


"172 and 0!"

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