Friday, February 27, 2015

Gym draws boxers from all walks of life

By James Palmer
Marisol Díaz/The Riverdale Press
George ‘Primetime’ Vrettos, 25, above, centers himself before sparring at the Astral Fitness Boxing Club on Feb. 10.
Marisol Díaz/The Riverdale Press
Andrew Luu, 7, works on his ring skills with trainer Joe Brender.
Marisol Díaz/The Riverdale Press
Garett Ebanks, a Kingsbridge resident, throws a right-hand punch at the Astral Fitness Boxing Club.

Corrections appended.

At first glance, Joe Brender’s boxing gym in Kingsbridge appears to resemble most others, with a ring in one corner and bags hanging from the ceiling, mirrors on the walls and mats and benches on the floor.

But speak to a handful of the roughly 40 members who regularly come here, and it’s soon clear that this is no ordinary boxing gym.

A former professional fighter who once held two world titles and now finds himself destitute trains up-and-coming fighters for combat in the ring — and tough life lessons that he has learned firsthand.

One hopeful amateur fighter is training here to compete in the annual Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament, while another is working to join the U.S. Olympic team.

A septuagenarian retired attorney works out here three times a week as a form of physical therapy following heart, back and neck surgeries.

A father brings his young son to help the child learn to defend himself while developing coordination and strength.  

A teenager who previously played no sports has seen his grades rise since he started training here last year.

A 22-year-old man works out here in preparation for military service. 

And a young woman prefers to exercise here to improve her fitness because of the gym’s serious work ethic.

Despite their different motives and goals, all agree that Mr. Brender’s gym provides something more than a good workout. They view the center as a place with a family atmosphere where everyone is welcome. All who step inside are trying to improve their health as well as their lives outside of the gym.

Community ties

Mr. Brender, 61, has lived in Riverdale for more than 30 years. He says he learned to fight while growing up on the streets of Washington Heights. 

It was not until 2003, after establishing and then running a successful copy machine sales business for 14 years, that he decided to use boxing workouts to improve his health.

“I was getting lazy,” Mr. Brender said. “I needed to lose weight and get fit.” 

Though he found the exercise personally fulfilling and physically rewarding, he was not always pleased with the atmosphere of other gyms where he trained.  

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