In an empty corner of the crowded Lynwood Crime Prevention Center last week, amateur boxer Ernie Contreras tried to concentrate on the upheld hands of his coach and brother, Anthony.
"Come on, that's it," Anthony coaxed, as Ernie, 19, threw a few sharp, calculated punches. "Jab, jab."
Ernie's slender body weaved and bobbed in jerky movements as his brother tried to block the force of his red-gloved fists.
"That's it, go for it," Anthony said.
Beneath his safety helmet, Ernie's face began to glisten with sweat. His concentration was briefly broken by the shouts of several hundred spectators watching a fight nearby in one of two rings set up in the center's auditorium.
"Loosen up," Anthony commanded.
3 in Fights
In another hour Anthony, 20, would be lacing up his own gloves with the help of his other brother, David, 23. Before the day was through, all three would face competitors in the ring as part of the Los Angeles regional round of the California Golden Gloves Tournament.
For two generations, boxing has been a Contreras family avocation. Their father, David Contreras Sr., tried out for the 1964 Olympic boxing team before turning professional for a year and fighting as a featherweight. On this day, the elder Contreras--a clerk at an area Sears--was serving as a tournament referee. And the boys' mother, sisters, cousins and friends were seated in the audience, cheering for Ernie, Anthony, David Jr. and five other boxers representing the Lynwood Sheriff's Youth Athletic League.
The athletic league, formed last year by the Lynwood station of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, provides activities from softball to boxing for youths in an area where gangs are commonplace.
Sheriff's Deputy Arturo Guerra, who previously helped form a similar athletic league at the department's Firestone-Florence station, said boxing not only keeps tough teen-agers off the street, it gives them goals to work for and a way to measure their success.
"I have seen kids make a complete about-face after getting involved in a boxing league," Guerra said. "They learn sportsmanship; it builds up their confidence. All this kind of changes their attitude and way of life."
'An Alternative Place'
The league is open to both boys and girls. But boxing program participants must meet certain requirements, said Sgt. Melvin Caradine, league director. They must be at least 16, have at least a C average in school and "can't be involved in a gang," Caradine said. "The purpose of the league is to combat juvenile delinquency. We want to let this center serve as an alternative place for kids to go after school."
Anthony Contreras agreed that the athletic league has been an oasis for many of his peers. "I talk to some of the guys and stuff," he said. One friend "didn't commit no crimes or anything, but he was always in the streets" before joining the league.
Lynwood is one of four sheriff's stations in the county to have a youth athletic league, Caradine said. Others are in Lennox, East Los Angeles and the unincorporated Firestone-Florence area.
Many of the young boxers who work out at the center hope to become professionals. Others, such as the Contreras brothers, are satisfied just to dream of making it to the 1988 summer Olympics in Korea.
"We have about 150 kids who box here every day," Caradine said. "You can't believe how intense they are about their workouts. Some of these kids really want to make it."
Ernie Contreras tried to strike a confident look as he prepared for his tournament bout, the first in the 119-pound division. He took a deep breath and silently said a prayer before heading for the ring.
"Go, Ernie!" shouted his family and friends as he walked past. His father, refereeing another match, looked over and smiled as Ernie climbed between the ropes and received a few final words of advice from Anthony. Ernie nodded nervously, but his gaze was fixed on his opponent, Steve Quinonez, who appeared serious.
The referee brought the competitors to center ring, where they touched gloves and wished each other luck.
"You're too tense, Ernie, loosen up," Anthony said. "Remember, you're going to win!"
With that, the bell sounded and the fight began. Ernie seemed to hold his own in the first two rounds. But when the third and final round ended, it was clear that Quinonez was the stronger boxer. Quinonez won in a decision.
"I don't know what happened up there," Ernie said after a few minutes. "I guess I just got really tired. I fought that guy before and won. I just don't know what happened."
Anthony fared only slightly better, winning one bout in the 132-pound division before losing in the semifinals.
But David Jr. made it through four bouts and won the regional Golden Gloves title. He and the other winners will face a similar group of boxers from San Diego, and the winners there will go to the state championship.