This is not your typical boxing story. It’s not a story about a kid lifting himself from the streets or recovering from tragedy and making his way into the gym, where his fists now toil for good.
On a leafy street in Tenafly, you’d have a hard time imagining boxing even existed here. But you veer into a breezeway, through a door still marked for a fitness center that once occupied the space and descend the stairs, under a CVS pharmacy, and through another unmarked door. You find cement walls, a ring, a handful of speed bags and exercise equipment and you are in Ace’s Boxing.
And this is where Shahbaz “Ali” Choudhry, a 2014 graduate of Bergenfield High School and trainer Steve Bratter meet. The “Ali” has no connection to the boxing legend, Muhammad Ali, simply a middle name the 18-year-old Muslim from Pakistan goes by while he works with the 72-year-old retired Jewish New York City bus driver.
An odd place. An odd couple.
“We really don’t discuss it. We just work,” Choudhry said. “My family, they accepted it. We all accepted it. My parents accept everybody. We like everybody no matter who they are. My family and friends wonder why I box, but nobody discriminates against anybody.”
“Maybe this should be an example,” Bratter said as he taped up Choudhry for a training session. “We don’t think about the politics or the religion. He’s a great kid. I never looked at him as a Muslim, never looked at him as a terrorist. I looked at him as a good kid. Look at what he accomplished.”
The accomplishments are not yet in the boxing ring, where he fought his first novice class bout last week and advanced to the final of the New York Boxing Competition at Gleason’s Gym, where he lost a 2-1 decision Saturday night. He will start college at New Jersey Institute of Technology in September, majoring in bio-medical engineering and hoping to be a doctor.
But for now, the slender Choudhry is pounding at Bratter’s padded hands as the trainer leads him through an orchestrated series of combinations. Bratter has been training fighters for about 20 years at a series of locations — the realities of the economy and the hard sell for boxing sending him from one spot to another, trying to make it work.
For Choudhry, it has been eight months of training in a sport he took up after starting simply as a fan.
“I’ve always watched boxing since I was a little kid,” he said. “I started to try it because I saw Floyd Mayweather Jr. fight and just wanted to try. When I first started, my parents really didn’t like it. They’re afraid I might get hurt, but I like doing it.
“This is what I really picked up. I tried some other sports. I didn’t really like them. I tried football, but I was skinny for that. I tried track. I was OK. But boxing is what I really like doing. And I like training with Steve.”
“He’s not a typical kid,” Bratter said. “He’s a pleasure to train. He’s a hard trainer. He puts his heart into it. He comes into the gym, gets himself dressed. You never have to say anything … to [get him to] work from the beginning to the end. Some fighters, you have to push – ‘Come on, let’s get going.’ Not him, it’s a pleasure.”
Even if Choudhry is not your typical boxer, Bratter is glad to have him. Despite their differences as they discuss their relationship, Bratter openly speaks of his love for Israel, while the fighter is quiet, focused on his task at hand. While Choudhry’s disciplined approach applies to the ring and to the classroom, he shrugs off any talk of what would seem to be a source of differences between the two.
Bratter avoids the notion, too, just happy to be doing what he loves with a fighter who makes it easy.
“I used to have a gym in Rockland County,” he said, of the New York area where he still lives. “We couldn’t afford to keep it. We had a gym together in Mount Vernon and couldn’t afford that one. We were in Yonkers for a year and that gym went kaput. My partner in the gyms and I split up — he went to Ace’s, a gym in Bergenfield. I started training in here in Tenafly.
“I worked in [New York] City as a bus driver, but I’ve been training guys for over 20 years. I boxed when I was young. Like everybody says, I wish I would have stayed with it. My uncle trained me when I was growing up in the Bronx. I wasn’t anything to go crazy about. My father used to call me, ‘Kid Canvas.’
“I think kids really want to box,” Bratter added. “Unfortunately there’s not that many gyms around. It takes money to run a gym and some kids ain’t got two nickels to rub together. We charge $50 a month membership. They come in and they train. Kids really want to box. It’s the stereotype where a kid has to come out of jail or off the streets. I train kids, and you see someone like Ali, he’s going to NJIT. And kids can come out of college. We have doctors. So I mean, it’s something that people like, a disciplined sport.”
And that’s the connection between these two now, the 18-year-old Pakistani fighter and the 72-year-old Jewish trainer. Discipline, a love of the game, and a mutual respect from the heart of the sport. Nothing else matters as much.
“He knows how I feel,” Bratter said. “I don’t go into the politics. But everybody knows how I feel. I’m a strong believer in Israel. I don’t believe in people putting kids up as a shield.
“I just look at [Ali] as a good kid. I knew what he was. I knew him as a good kid. I’ve had some kids that come in the door and I’m like, ‘Don’t let it hit you on the way out.’ They have attitudes. With him, none of these things ever really entered my mind. If I would have seen some arrogance I would have thrown him out, too. He’s just a pleasure to work with — he comes in the gym, gets himself ready to work. He’s a great kid. That’s all.”
Source: Steve Popper, NorthJersey.com