In Eugene “Thunder” Hughes’ world,there are “jokers,” “dingbats,” and “nitwits.” The first two categories cover a wide variety of folks, but they’re mostly terms of endearment. It’s the last group that’s trouble.

Most of the jokers who have trained at Hughes’ Midtown Youth Academy boxing club over the years are good kids who come from difficult home situations and just need a little straightening out. So were the neighborhood children he used to round up and take to Baptist services on Sundays. Before Hughes fell in love with the “sweet science” as a boy, he says he was a “dingbat” who ran around with local gangs near Capitol Hill and got himself kicked out of Armstrong High School.

Passersby during winter would be forgiven for assuming that the Midtown Youth Academy has already gone the way of an abandoned storefront two doors down and the rotting skeleton of the old Republic Gardens building not far away on U Street. The structure’s peeling black and yellow paint has seen better days. Faded campaign posters for Ward 1’s Jim Graham and E. Gail Anderson Holness may be from last year’s elections, but they look like remnants of a bygone era posted behind a metal gate adorning the building’s front windows. The only way to tell if the gym is open for business on cold, dark evenings is to check if the curtain has been drawn back at the front door or see if Hughes’s red hatchback is parked across the street.

That’s nothing new, according to Lisa “Too Fierce” Foster Cohen, who was a ripe 28 years old when she took up boxing under Hughes’ tutelage in 1996. Foster Cohen went on to win a world junior featherweight championship just a few years later.

Hughes’ own boxing career began in the neighborhood where he grew up, a slice of Capitol Hill that was razed to make room for the Rayburn House Office Building in the early 1960s. He trained at Southeast House, a nonprofit community center that, like the Midtown Youth Academy, offered a wide rage of after school programs for kids.

“Well, myself, I was a fighter,” Hughes says one early January evening, as he perches himself on an old couch at the front of the gym and eats out of a McDonald’s bag. It’s downright frigid outside and not much warmer indoors, where gospel music rises slightly over the din of a space heater. “I started out wanting to be a preacher, but then I turned around and said I want to be a fighter.”

Hughes says he was mentored in his early days by Alfred “Sonny Boy” West, a lightweight who went 48-8 over his career before dying from a brain hemorrhage he suffered in the ring in 1950. While his father—a jazz musician who played trumpet and flute—grappled with heroin and cocaine, it was two women who helped steer Hughes away from trouble.

“Back in that time there was nothing but gangs,” Hughes says. “I was in one of the gangs, and I was told, ‘Boy, you better get your behind in there and do something positive,’” Hughes says. “My mother and my aunt, they were the ones that encouraged me to go to church and stay in church, rather than keep on walking out in the street.”

The sites of Hughes’s current and former gyms straddle the intersection of 14 and U streets, the area that served as ground zero during the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. Hughes wasn’t around when the looting and fires broke out in the District, but he was present for the race-related riots in Los Angeles that served as a precursor to the outbursts in the District and elsewhere.

After he was discharged from the Marines in 1964, Hughes caught on as a community organizer with the Black Panthers. He says he landed in prison for 27 months after the Watts neighborhood in L.A. burned during the 1965 riots. The trouble started with an incident between white police officers and a black family, according to historical accounts, but many folks blamed poor living conditions, unemployment, and substandard education opportunities in the city’s black neighborhoods. Others say it was a result of decades of housing discrimination and segregation combined with police bigotry. Hughes says the riots stemmed in part from a “territorial” battle among various factions in the neighborhood and across the city.

“You got some nitwits who wanna twist things out of order,” Hughes says. “We started going through a whole lot of crap out there in California. Then we got hooked in with the police and all them folks out there, and that’s when we got involved with the burning in Watts. So I did 27 months.”

In February 1968, just a few days before the King assassination, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders issued a 426-page report finding that the riots in L.A., Newark, N.J., and Chicago were driven by a lack of economic opportunity for African Americans. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the commission concluded.

Nearly 24 years later, Sharon Pratt Dixon was sworn in as D.C.’s mayor following a campaign in which she pledged to help close socio-economic and other divides. The theme of her inauguration address was “a season where the international city, the federal city, the many neighborhoods, the many constituents, become one.” Invoking her “Yes We Will!” campaign slogan, the new mayor urged the city’s residents to work together to find community solutions to the rampant murder and widespread drug abuse that she said had already cost the District a generation of young people. She also acknowledged community leaders who had already laid the groundwork for that fight.

“Every neighborhood in this city is rich with Ph.D.s in survival,” Pratt Dixon said. “Men and women who are architects of hope and promise, such as Eugene Hughes at the Midtown Youth Academy.”

In the early 1990s, the MYA was equal parts gym and community center, offering after-school and weekend activities like tutoring, basic computer training sessions, and sewing and music lessons, and hosting church services on Sundays. Despite its role in the local boxing scene, the academy played perhaps a greater role as a haven for kids from the poverty, drugs, and crime raging outside. In September 1989, the Washington Post called the neighborhood surrounding the gym “one of the District’s most notorious drug markets where heroin and crack are sold openly.” The MYA and the nearby Martha’s Table children’s center served as sanctuaries for neighborhood kids otherwise left largely to fend for themselves.

Darden Lee says she still remembers the first time that she walked by the gym, surprised to find a large group of children boxing and playing in that part of town. “On 14th Street at that time, the drug dealers ran the neighborhood,” Darden Lee says. “The Midtown Youth Academy was sort of an oasis in the block at the time.”

It still hums with activity in the summer, but the pace slows to a few young boxers during the winter. Hughes says the gym has gotten by over the years on a mix of grants, charity event proceeds, and donations. The nonprofit organization that owns the gym had its tax-exempt status revoked in May 2010 for failure to file a return, an oversight that Hughes says he’s working on clearing up. When the Midtown Youth Academy was abruptly closed in 1989 after a 6-year-old died in an accidental electrocution, neighbors performed the necessary work to get the place up to code for free, and others sent in condolence cards with small contributions to help cover some of the costs of refurbishing the gym. Hughes also hasn’t been shy about opening up his own wallet to keep the place afloat, according to Foster Cohen.

“I would see him cash his paychecks and bring that money to the gym and spend it,” she says. “Gene used to buy my boxing equipment when I didn’t have the money. I couldn’t afford to do some of the stuff that we needed to do and he would take care of it. He’s done that for people in the community forever.”

Hughes is adamant about keeping the gym where it is, no matter what the property is worth. “I don’t care how much it is. What do I need that money for?” His friends and fans say that while the surrounding neighborhood has changed, the need to serve at-risk kids hasn’t. “I think that the developers and those that are buying the expensive condos in that neighborhood should recognize that there should be a commitment to kids who need exposure and need support,” Darden Lee says.

These days, the gym gets kids from across the District and Maryland who come in to train, according to Hughes. It’s one of a handful of youth training facilities scattered around the city, including Headbangers Boxing Gym near Barracks Row on L Street SE and Lime Light Boxing & Fitness at the north end of Columbia Heights.

Hughes, who gets around with the help of a wheelchair and walker, is a bit vague about what will happen when he’s no longer able to run the place. The gym went dark for a few weeks in January when he landed in the hospital with a medical condition he declined to disclose. “When I’m gone, my family knows what to do with this place,” Hughes says.

In the meantime, he has at least one good cut woman in his corner. “We’re like family now: We fight like cats and dogs, but I love that man,” Foster Cohen says. “I’ll tell him off, he’ll tell me off, but you let somebody tell either one of us off and they’re gonna hear it from the other person.”

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