‘A place to get everything out’ : In Lawrence boxing sessions, participants are learning much more than a sport

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Boxing instructor Daniel Barajas, right, demonstrates an offensive technique with Billy Mills eighth-grader Jace LaRue, on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

Inside a dimly lit gym in southeast Lawrence, former amateur boxer Daniel Barajas teaches aspiring boxers the techniques of the ring.

During a training session at “Animal Kingdom Boxing” last week, Barajas told around a dozen participants that it’s imperative to “create opportunity” in the ring. He then demonstrated various moves and punching angles to gain an advantage on the opponent, adding that such lessons “also translate to the outside world.”

“Looking for opportunity is one thing, but you actually have to do something to create it,” Barajas told the Journal-World. “And when you can figure out how to create your own opportunities — all of the sudden, it’s a whole different world.”

And that’s something that Emma Waters can attest to. Under Barajas’ tutelage, Waters can now throw combination punches, and has also become adept with her headwork and footwork skills.

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Emma Waters poses with her gloves up at Animal Kingdom Boxing on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

“The boxing lessons can be confusing at first, so just having those breakthrough moments feels really amazing,” Waters said. “I also had no idea about the importance of footwork when I first started, and how that correlates with everything in boxing.”

Waters’ “mitt-work,” or punching partner, Shaza Al-Kassim, said that she has competed in other hand-to-hand combat sports like taekwondo and wrestling, but nothing measures up to the satisfaction she feels inside the boxing gym.

“It’s taught me discipline and helped me find inner strength that I didn’t know I had,” said Al-Kassim, a junior at the University of Kansas.

Shaza Al-Kassim, poses during a training session at Animal Kingdom Boxing on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

Al-Kassim added that she also enjoys camaraderie that’s built during training sessions, pointing to a diverse set of individuals of varying backgrounds and ages that occupy the gym. Barajas echoed those sentiments, saying that his crew comprises students, lawyers, construction workers, and many others.

“It’s really interesting to see people who wouldn’t be in the same room otherwise, backing each other up,” he said.

For Billy Mills Middle School eighth-grader Jace LaRue, his daily routine for the past two years has consisted of “going to school, boxing, eating, and sleeping.”

“Boxing is pretty much my world,” LaRue said, adding that he has competed in several exhibition bouts.

LaRue said that he’s dropped 70 pounds through daily conditioning since taking up the sport as a sixth-grader, and that boxing training has sharpened his mental focus, which has carried over to the classroom.

“It’s taught me patience, good sportsmanship, and has helped me become a better person,” LaRue said. “It’s been very fulfilling in a sense.”

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photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Aspiring local boxer Noe Gauna.

After his father was stricken with a serious illness a year ago, 22-year-old Noe Gauna found solace in the gym.

“It felt like I had been knocked down,” Gauna said. “But this is a place to get everything out. It’s like a therapy session between you and the punching bag, or opponent. I just come here and take it one day at a time.”

Gauna now has two amateur fights under his belt, crystallizing his belief that boxing has “gone from a hobby to a lifestyle.” He added that his first career loss in November taught him a number of valuable lessons.

“Boxing is one of those sports that translates to life the most,” he said. “The great Rocky Balboa said that ‘It’s not about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.'”

But not all of Barajas’ pupils have entered the ring, or even plan on doing so, as he offers a separate program to help members round into shape. And as he likes to tell his students, boxing “is not all glitz and glam.”

“When people come in and tell me that they want to do fighting as a career, I’ll first always try to scare them away from that,” Barajas said. “Because boxing as a career is not an easy path. In the beginning, you’re going to spend a lot of money before you make any. You’re risking your health for a couple hundred bucks.”

That advice has not dissuaded Jaelyn Ray from pursuing a boxing career. In fact, Ray completely skipped over the amateur circuit en route to the professional ranks. Ray, a Jefferson County native, was victorious in her debut fight last year at a charity event in Tampa, Florida. Barajas said that Ray’s journey from boxing novice to a professional victory felt rewarding as her trainer.

photo by: Matt Resnick/Journal-World

Jaelyn Ray readies for a workout on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2024.

“I remember when Jaelyn first started training, she was out of breath after 15 jumping jacks,” Barajas said. “And to go from that to a professional fight gives me a really big sense of accomplishment.”

At the moment, Ray doesn’t have plans for a future fight, but said that she is still committed to honing her boxing skills.

“Boxing is just one of those skills that is so fun to learn,” she said. “If I’m having a bad day or something, I can hit the bag and it’s like ‘OK, everything is fine.'”

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