Mike Stafford’s son got in a fight. Plenty of kids do while responding to bullies or positioning themselves as the bully. Name-calling or punch-throwing, standing up or running away—getting in a schoolyard or neighborhood fight is remarkable in its ordinary-ness.
But this fight, when recalled through the lens of the journey it started, meant a little more. “I brought him down to the gym when he was 12, 13 years old because I didn’t want him to be fighting in the streets,” says Stafford, whose son is also named Mike.
That was more than 30 years ago, and Mike Jr. doesn’t box anymore. But the senior Stafford is another story. He’s the head coach at Cincinnati Golden Gloves in Over-the-Rhine and has worked with hundreds of boxers over the years. Most are like his son used to be, kids who wanted to learn how to defend themselves or to have somewhere to go after school. OTR isn’t exactly teeming with after-school activities to challenge young minds or keep young bodies from flailing at one another.
Some of the kids Stafford has worked with over the years took to boxing. Some really took to boxing. He’s coached athletes at national competitions maybe 100 times—three or so a year for more than 30 years. He’s coached at the Olympics twice, in 2004 and 2008. One of his Olympic boxers brought home silver and bronze medals; another won a bronze. “We did good,” he says, and grins. “We could have done better.”
When Stafford travels for professional bouts, which are often shown as pay-per-view events on Showtime, he’s famous, says Christina LaRosa, executive director at Cincinnati Golden Gloves. She says she sometimes acts as his handler, to ensure he’s not late to bouts or interviews. He can pause for a snapshot or selfie, but then she has to usher him along to the next appointment. “Mike’s handler” isn’t exactly in her official job description, but at such a lean organization everyone does everything they can to help out.
Stafford is so well-known in the boxing world that fans and boxers seek him out for a photo or a handshake, but he seems uncomfortable talking about himself. He’ll do it, but he doesn’t give the impression he enjoys sharing his thoughts.
Consider this: I’ve never swung at anything in my life, but when I ask Stafford to wrap my hands because I’m curious what it feels like, he opens a new package of 15-foot long purple boxing tape, not unlike the Ace bandage you’d use for a sprain. He explains how the wrap has to go over the knuckles and around the hand. Some boxers tape between each finger, but not all.… Oh, you have small hands, let’s get this tighter.… It’s all about the hands. These little bones are so fragile.… Adrien Broner started with us, got successful, bought that boxing ring for us, and he was boxing with a broken bone in his hand for how long?… They’re so easy to break, but the wraps are so protective.… Adrien boxed and didn’t even know anything was wrong. Hey, Adrien, come here! See his hands? Look at that…
And Stafford runs his fingers over the hills and valleys atop Broner’s hand. Adrien Broner, in case you don’t know, trained under Stafford as he boxed his way to world titles in four different professional weight classes between 2011 and 2015.
As soon as my tape recorder comes out, though, Stafford gets a little quieter. He answers questions, but the stream of conversation dams up just a little.
Cincinnati Golden Gloves, housed at the Over-the-Rhine Recreation Center on Republic Street, is a neighborhood gym. In addition to the amateur boxers who train—with goals of winning national competitions, going to the Olympics, or learning the soft skills that make success more likely—kids wander in and play tag up and down the track that surrounds a trio of boxing rings. There are the twenty- and thirtysomething-year-old professional boxers who started with Stafford well over a decade ago. And there’s Christina LaRosa, wondering why one kid doesn’t have shoes and making another give back the phone she snatched from her friend.
“He didn’t say please,” the young girl says, hopping from foot to foot. “He doesn’t have to,” LaRosa says. “It’s his phone.”
The Golden Gloves program opened its doors in 1988, thanks to Christina’s grandfather, Buddy LaRosa, who also managed to launch the LaRosa’s Family Pizzeria empire. There are two gyms at this site: the Newman Learning Center and the Cincinnati Golden Gloves gym, together known as the OTR Boxing Center. The Learning Center has a small workout gym, and it’s where the organization provides nightly dinners. Meals are currently pre-packaged, but pre-pandemic they used to serve hot meals to boxers and neighborhood kids.
“This is definitely a neighborhood where food insecurity is an issue with more kids than we would like,” says Christina, so Golden Gloves partners with Children’s Hunger Alliance, a statewide nonprofit focused on ending childhood hunger, to feed the young athletes.
Stafford doesn’t just work with boxers in the gym. He also travels with them to tournaments—and that’s all part of the program. “When you go out of town, they make sure you’re fed,” says Tyrese “Cornbread” Woodard, who has trained with Golden Gloves for more than a decade. “They make sure you’re safe.”
Golden Gloves is 100 percent donor-funded. It works with a board of directors that includes Buddy’s sons Michael and Mark, who run the restaurant business; Christina is Mark’s daughter. All money raised for the program goes right to the kids, she says, to purchase supplies, travel, food, and any equipment the boxers need.
In addition to a dining hall and workout space, the Learning Center is also an unofficial museum where Buddy LaRosa displays his love of boxing. Walls are covered with photos, autographs, framed newspaper stories, magazine covers, cartoon illustrations, boxing gloves in shadow boxes, posters, and trophies.
And, oh, those trophies. There are so many that the gym is running out of space. Most are tucked away in the Golden Gloves gym, set high above the boxing rings near the ceiling. They’re stacked and cluttered, leaning this way and that like fallen dominos. Christina, who took a full-time position at Cincinnati Golden Gloves in 2018 after working as an attorney in Chicago, guesses there are about 100 trophies dating back to the ’90s.
Boxing murals live outside on the Rec Center buildings themselves. The main doors of the Golden Gloves gym are flanked by black-and-white, full-body paintings of Rocky Marciano (“Because he’s Italian,” says Christina) and Ezzard Charles. Live any longer than a few months in Cincinnati, and you’ll hear of the city’s most famous boxer. You’ve likely driven on Ezzard Charles Drive between Music Hall and Union Terminal in the West End, but have you ever wondered, at least at some point, “What’s an ezzard?”
Known as “The Cincinnati Cobra,” Charles became the undisputed world heavyweight champion when he defeated Joe Louis in New York City on September 27, 1950. He kept the title until July 1951, when Jersey Joe Walcott knocked him out in seven rounds, and he went on to lose two close battles with Marciano in 1954.
His first name came from the doctor who delivered Charles in Lawrenceville, Georgia. From William Dettloff’s Ezzard Charles: A Boxing Life: “After [Dr. Webster Pierce Ezzard] eased the Charles boy into the dark squalor that July night, William and Alberta had no money to pay him, so they named their son ‘Ezzard’ in his honor. They weren’t the first. Several folks around Lawrenceville had done the same thing.” Which means that when Ezzard was a boy in the 1920s his first name—the 17,105th most popular of all time, according to names.org—might have been one of the most popular in his small hometown. Charles would be raised by his grandmother in Cincinnati’s West End.
Golden Gloves boxers learn about his legend early on, in large part because of the mural and the Ezzard Charles memorabilia displayed in the Learning Center. Boxers see his name sprinkled throughout the gym and ask about him, says Christina LaRosa.
Woodard looked him up four or five years ago, curious to learn more about Cincinnati’s most successful boxer, and he was struck by Charles’s stats. He fought 122 professional bouts—which isn’t even possible today based on changed safety regulations, he says—and won 96 of them. “If you’re from Cincinnati, you should know your history,” says Woodard.
Another history lesson can be found on Liberty Street, a few blocks south of the OTR Rec Center. The colorful Ezzard Charles mural was ArtWorks’s 100th mural when it debuted in 2015. Local artist Jason Snell designed the piece, and he’s involved with the Charles statue due to be unveiled this summer in Laurel Park along Ezzard Charles Drive. The project includes a partnership with Cincinnati Bell for free WiFi in the space, giving kids a digital connection so they can learn about the famous boxer.
It’s fitting for the statue to have these community elements, says Snell, because Charles was such a proponent of Cincinnati. After achieving success, he became a jazz musician and part-owner of the Cincinnati Cotton Club, bringing white and Black fans together for music. He was also a tailor and a fashion-lover. “To me, as an artist, I just always love that vibe of coming back, giving back to kids, showing them that there’s a different way to do things,” says Snell. “He really was a true renaissance man. And doing that while being a Black man in this place in the 1950s and ’60s couldn’t have been easy.”
A nickname for a boxer is a thing: Ezzard “The Cincinnati Cobra” Charles, “Smokin’ ” Joe Frazier, “The Greatest” Muhammad Ali, Adrien “The Problem” Broner. Sugar Ray Robinson was born Walker Smith Jr.
A nickname should be boastful or incite fear. It should be cool and slick and help an athlete move with swag.
Tyrese Woodard is only 22 years old, but he’s had his “Cornbread” nickname since age 15. It’s so solidified that when LaRosa shares his phone number, she shows me her phone; he’s saved under “Cornbread.” When he travels, others might not know who Tyrese Woodard is, she says, “But you say ‘Cornbread,’ and they go, ‘Oh, the kid with the glasses!’ ”
The origins of his nickname go back to one of his first experiences with a boxer’s ongoing nightmare of making weight. You see, boxers need to fight others in their weight class; putting someone who’s 135 pounds against someone who’s 161 is asking for trouble, and it’s not a fair fight. So if a boxer weighs in at 11 a.m., says Woodard, they’ll fight, they’ll eat, but then they’ll need to lose the weight they just gained from that meal before fighting again.
On the day Woodard earned his nickname, he was traveling for a bout with Stafford and some other boxers. “I drank two Gatorades,” he says. “I didn’t eat any food, just Gatorades. I went to Coach Mike’s room, and he’d left a plate out. I was supposed to be weighing myself because the scale was in his room, but I just snuck the cornbread [from his plate] and then I weighed myself. I went back in the room and went to sleep. We woke up the next morning so everybody could check their weight. I think I was like a pound and a half over.”
He didn’t have a sweat bag or sauna suit, which are made to help boxers sweat out water weight. So he used trash bags and Albolene, a cream boxers rub on their bodies to open their pores and make them sweat. “I lost the weight, but I was tired,” he says. “They asked, ‘What happened?’ And ever since then, I’ve just been called Cornbread.”
After taking a bit of a hiatus from boxing due in part to COVID, Woodard is back to the gym daily, as are a lot of the coaches he grew up with. When he started coming back, it was important to get the old crew back together. “If we’re getting ready to turn pro, we need people who know us,” he says. “It can’t be someone brand new that’s just come in the gym and tell us, ‘You should do this, do that.’ These people been watching us 10-plus years. They know how we act and react.”
Woodard calls Stafford “another father” or his “gym dad,” fitting because his father and Stafford are friends. It’s part of what made Woodard want to box in the first place—to follow in the footsteps of his dad, who used to box.
Having spent more than half of his life with Golden Gloves—he started participating at age 12—Woodard can pinpoint just how the program has impacted his life. He used to be a nervous fighter who let folks get in his head, he says. People would tell him about an upcoming opponent before Woodard ever met the guy, which exacerbated his nerves. Then to look in the audience and see everyone’s eyes on him? Lots of anxious energy.
The gym and Stafford have helped him grow up, says Woodard. He communicates better in general, too—he can now watch boxers spar and point out missteps or areas that can be improved. Golden Gloves taught him how to be calm and ensure his actions don’t get the best of him. It helped make him more serious. “I give them five stars,” he says. “Or six stars. Six stars out of five. They definitely get an extra one. They’re worth it.”
Stafford has seen plenty of changes in the boxing world during his 30 years in coaching, especially for children and teens. For example, young boxers used to be able to compete all day, match after match, he says. Now they can box in just two bouts a day. If an athlete gets a bad nosebleed, the referee will pause the match and a doctor will be on-hand to check it out. If one boxer is outclassing the other, they’ll stop the fight.
“Back in the day, they didn’t care,” Stafford says. “Like the Romans, they wanted to see blood. If they didn’t see no blood, they didn’t think it was a good fight.”
Safety comes first today—in the way of rule changes, yes, and also with equipment. Headgear is required at all times, and smaller kids use smaller gloves. Boxers need to always have their mouth pieces, their cups, their breast protection.
Over the years, Stafford and LaRosa have seen more girls in the gym and at tournaments, too. Depending on their ability, fights aren’t necessarily segregated by gender.
“When I started training girls, they were more advanced than the guys,” says Stafford. “They follow directions.” They included, for the short time she boxed, his granddaughter. “She ran a lot of little boys out of this gym, but she didn’t want to box no more.”
Other changes are on the horizon as part of a plan to help Over-the-Rhine organizations better serve their community. Physical updates are coming for the OTR Rec Center, the Golden Gloves program, and nearby Findlay Playground. Nothing is firm yet, says Joe Rudemiller, 3CDC’s marketing and communications vice president, but he estimates that within five years Cincinnati Golden Gloves will relocate from its current two buildings to a refurbished rec center. “The idea behind trying to revitalize a space like that would be to help the entity using it serve the broadest population in the best way possible,” he says. LaRosa already has a list of her must-have amenities in the new space: two boxing rings, space for all the heavy punching bags and treadmills, and classrooms.
In the meantime, it’s business as usual for Stafford and Golden Gloves. He’ll continue to travel for tournaments, both amateur and pro, though he admits, “I hate leaving my babies at the club.” There’s a lot more to his coaching job than teaching neighborhood kids a new sport.
“Not only do we teach boxing,” he says, “but we teach manners. We teach them how to eat, what to wear, hygiene. Sometimes we train on Saturday, and sometimes we may be gone 10 days or two weeks at a time.”
On one late-winter Thursday, like so many other weekdays, Stafford coaches the dozen or so kids in the gym through a set of drills, stretching their muscles, working the punching bags, and running. They follow the track looping the trio of boxing rings, then up a flight of stairs tucked against the north wall of the gym. “Pick your feet up, pick your feet up,” he chants to them.
Mid-practice, a woman drops off two brothers, one of whom can’t be older than 4 or 5. For a moment, the younger one watches the older kids running around the track, then stuffs his hands in his khakis and joins the pack.