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Thursday, Aug. 29, 2013 04:41 am

A boxer gives back

Justin Moon continues the legacy of an east side legend

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Justin Moon (right) gives free boxing lessons to young kids in Springfield’s Lincoln Park.
PHOTO BY TREVOR MILLER

 On a muggy summer day in Springfield’s Lincoln Park, about 10 young kids jog a slow lap around the park’s perimeter, making their way to a raised concrete platform near the Nelson Center.

Every hand is wrapped in thin cloth to protect the knuckles, the sure sign of a boxer. They begin to jump rope beside the concrete platform, which serves as a makeshift ring. They’re learning how to box, but conditioning comes first.

Justin Moon, a trim man with a stern but gentle demeanor, watches and gives encouragement. Moon is a barber by day, but by night he becomes a ringleader of sorts, teaching a small group of kids how to handle themselves inside a boxing ring. It’s an impromptu gathering that changes every week, but the one constant is Moon’s desire to give back to his community in the same way that someone else gave to him.

Moon grew up in Springfield and started boxing after his senior year at Southeast High School because he missed the competition of playing football. He received much of his training from an east side boxing legend, Luther “Coach” Howell, who trained at least seven Golden Gloves winners and countless other people during his five decades as leader of the Springfield Housing Authority’s King Cobra Boxing Team. Howell did the job for free and often funded the group out of his own pocket. Howell died in 2010 at the age of 75.

“He’s basically my inspiration for all this,” Moon said of Howell. “If I would have had to pay (for boxing lessons) back then, I probably wouldn’t have had the means to. I guess I don’t feel like just kids who have money should be able to do it.”

The group, which doesn’t have a name yet, started about five years ago when Moon began teaching his nephew, Tyler, the basics of boxing. Moon recruited a couple of other kids for Tyler to train with, and more kids began to wander in on their own as word spread. The group now ranges from two kids to 15, depending on the week. Both boys and girls are welcome.

Moon doesn’t charge anything for the training, and the only costs are hand wraps and a mouth guard, which can be purchased for about $14 total. Moon provides the other protective gear. They don’t have any sponsors or belong to any other organization, and their only training space is outdoors in Lincoln Park. As long as the weather remains fair, Moon and his students will continue training there, but once winter hits, they’ll have to hang up the gloves – unless someone offers them space to practice.

Isaiah Thomas, 14, of Springfield, has trained with Moon for about three years. Isaiah wants to someday start his own boxing group. He says the training is fun, and he likes the exercise.

“It’s really hard, but you get the hang of it,” he said.

Moon says the training offers a bit of confidence in an uncertain and sometimes dangerous world.

“There’s a lot of violence out here now; kids are getting picked on in the neighborhoods,” he said. “I don’t want to train any bullies, but I want them to be able to defend themselves if it comes down to it. I try to teach them that we’re a team; we’ve got to look out for each other.”

Moon says he has learned a lot from teaching the kids, especially how to be a good example.

“A lot of these kids don’t have a male role model,” he said. “That’s taken some getting used to because I haven’t ever really seen myself as that. Even though I’ve been that for my nephews, I’ve really got to wake up and watch what I say and how I act. They’re watching me all the time, so I think about things that I might do and the consequences a lot more. It’s changed me a lot.”

Moon says he enjoys boxing because of the competition and discipline, and he wants to instill those values in his students.

“It’s a one-on-one sport, so you get out of it what you put into it,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of kids out here who you can tell were born with talent, but they’ve got to work hard to develop their skills. … I think you learn more from your losses than from your victories, as long as you’ve got the heart to keep going and don’t let it beat you.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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