Al Moreland Boxing Club takes its amateur night to Turner Hall
The organization, one of the city's oldest boxing clubs, will throw its members, some as young as 9, into the ring tonight at 7 p.m.
In the dimly lit basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center at 1531 W. Vliet Street, it’s easy to miss the worn nameplate hanging on one of the doors. The gray, metal door looks as if it leads to a janitor’s closet.
“That’s the one,” a volunteer assures.
The door opens to a bustling scene. In the small room, a boxing ring strung with tattered red and blue ropes is center stage. Under fluorescent lights, young boxers glisten with sweat, shuffling in unison: bounce, bounce, bounce. On the back wall, a row of athletes swing left, swing right, and upper cut. A coach barks: Repeat. Again. One more time. Swing left, swing right, upper cut. Back in the ring, two teens face each other gloves up, preparing to spar. The smell of sweat and determination hangs heavily in the stale air.
This is the Al Moreland Boxing Club, one of the oldest boxing clubs in the city. The organization has churned out young athletes for some five decades. Some have gone on to become boxing champions, while others have used the skills gained here to light a path to a successful life, away from the streets.
On Friday, Aug. 30, the Al Moreland Boxing Club returns to Turner Hall Ballroom, at 1040 N. Fourth Street, for its popular amateur boxing show. The show will feature 12 bouts, with boxers going head-to-head, some as young as nine years old. Tickets are $15 in advance, or can be purchased at the door starting at 6 p.m. The bell rings at 7 p.m.
Thomas Moreland has been running the club from the King Center’s basement, since his big brother, Al, died three years ago. A boxer in the Air Force in the 1950s, Moreland says Al went on to fight professionally, but was better known for being a top-notch trainer in boxing circles nationwide. Even today, boxers trek to the small club, from as far away as Gary, Indiana, to be trained by Al’s protégés and peers.
“[Al] fought Bob Foster, who fought Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali. After he beat my brother, and whooped him down, Al started training,” Moreland laughs. “But he threw out many boxing world champions. [They won] the Nationals, Golden Gloves, all the way up to the pros.”
The two brothers were raised in Arkansas. After Al got out of the military, he relocated to Milwaukee. Al ran his club while also pulling shifts at A.O. Smith, where he retired after more than 30 years. Moreland, who moved to the city at 16, says he always worked for his brother selling tickets, putting up posters, and working the door at events.
The two brothers were extremely close. “Ever since I was five years old, I always followed him around,” he jokes. Still, Moreland never imagined he’d take the reins from Al.
Despite Al’s notoriety — from here to London, and beyond — there were times Al wanted to give up training, Moreland says.
“There was so much shooting, and robberies,” Moreland says. “When he would pick up that newspaper, it always brought him back in. He was there for the kids.”
“Some of the children are from broken homes, have never traveled, ate a steak, or slept in a bed by themselves,” Moreland says. Boxing teaches children about discipline and perseverance, but more importantly, about family and support. All of that trickles down into the community, he says.
Recently, a bully who had been picking on two of the kids in the program was given the chance to prove himself in the boxing ring. He didn’t fare well.
“When he was done, we asked ‘You ready to learn about boxing?,’ and he [hung his head down] and said ‘Yeah.’” They learn a lot about discipline, and coping mechanisms.”
The boxers are dedicated. They come to the community center Monday through Friday, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Drill after drill is performed. They run, practice four and five-point fight combinations, do pushups, pull-ups, and spar. The boxers, who range from age seven to 25, are tried-and-true athletes in every sense of the word.
During one round of sparring, between Popeye and Junior (every boxer has a nickname), it’s hard to believe that some of the athletes are only nine and ten years old. There is an incredible amount of intensity in their eyes as they swing and dance around the ring. Moreland says that their look is pure determination.
Today, Moreland — a retired worker from Briggs & Stratton — is fighting to keep the club, as well as his brother’s legend, alive in Milwaukee. There are challenges, financial and otherwise, but hosting private shows and other fights in bigger venues, like Turner Hall, help keep the club and boxers relevant.
“I’ve got some pretty good guys,” Moreland says with a grin. “And we win. I don’t like to brag, of course…”
The private shows, held at local country and athletic clubs, harken back to boxing’s heydey — “It’s all tuxedos and cigars,” Moreland says. But it’s mostly about what boxing gives back to the community, and to the youth who are involved.
“We should all support live boxing because today’s youth are tomorrow,” he says. “It gives them a fresh start.”
It’s 7:30 p.m., and the boxers are squeezing water into their mouths and over their heads from plastic water bottles, and finishing up drills for the night. Coaches stand around the ring, watching the last two pairs of boxers spar. Several boxers stand around quietly, trying to catch their breath.
“Good work,” the coaches say. “Good work.”
Boxers from the Al Moreland Boxing Club will fight at Turner Hall Ballroom tonight (Friday, Aug. 30) at 7 p.m. Doors open at 6 p.m., and tickets are $15 at the door or in advance.