Elementary punch: Youngsters get into ring
Harley Nielsen’s freckles put you down for the count, and Noah Eldridge’s thick red hair buckles your knees.
They don’t strike you as boxers, but each loves to step into the ring. Armstrong, 11, is a fifth-grader at Jefferson School; Nielsen, 11, and Eldridge, 12, are Marshall Middle School sixth and seventh graders, respectively.
The threesome is scheduled to box on Saturday’s 5:30 p.m. card at the Countryside Inn near Milton. The show that will feature up to 20 bouts, including ranked adult amateurs. Cover is $5.
The young boxers wear 14-ounce gloves, head and body gear. The bouts are three one-minute rounds.
Armstrong has been boxing since he was 9. He has won three state championships and is the reigning 9/10-year-old novice 95-pound Ringside World Champion.
“I was the person that didn’t stop punching,” Armstrong said of his title bout in Kansas City, Mo., last August. “It was kind of hard, and one of (my) fights I had to fight in the most.’’
The secret to Armstrong’s success is simple.
“I just do everything Frank tells me to do,” Armstrong said.
Frank is Armstrong’s trainer, Janesville’s Frank Labuguen, a former boxer with 80 amateur bouts on his resume. He sees promise in Armstrong, Nielsen and Eldridge.
“It’s been fun, and they seem to enjoy it,” said Labuguen, who trains a group of fledgling boxers in Gary Pliner’s garage/gym on Janesville’s south side. “It’s a good experience, and they meet a lot of people.’’
Labuguen said the young fighters not only learn the fundamentals of boxing, they learn about themselves.
“We teach them how to throw jabs,” Labuguen said. “They get confidence in themselves.’’
Labuguen said the youngsters can’t be pretenders.
“You pretty much can’t force them to be a boxer,” Labuguen said. “They have to come in and like it.’’
Armstrong was 7 when he told his dad, Dwayne, he wanted to box.
“I had no idea where that came from,” Dwayne said.
Armstrong found Pliner’s gym on the Internet, but he was told Dylan would have to wait until he was 8 before he could box.
“Dylan turned 8, and he didn’t ask about boxing,” Armstrong said. “But when he turned 9 and went out for football, he asked, ‘Hey, dad, what happened to boxing?’ ’’
Dylan checked into Pliner’s gym, and the result was a victory in his first career bout.
“My main thing is his grades stay up,” Dwayne said. “We raise our children, as long as grades are A and B, they can have sports. But if the grades fall, the sports go away.’’
While Dwayne wants success for Dylan, watching him in the ring isn’t easy.
I’m a worry wart,” Armstrong said. “Sometimes I wish I wasn’t there.
“My wife (Carrie) goes to more (matches) than I do. She started doing the judging. I like him to be safe, but hate to keep him from something.”
Like Dylan’s father, Bill Nielsen wants his daughter, Harley, to box as long as it is what she wants to do.
“She loves doing it,” Nielsen said. “I just go along with what she wants, and even if she’s taken a pounding, she’s still smiling.’’
Harley takes a lot from boxing.
“It helps me out for different sports for mental toughness,” Harley said.
Harley’s sports interests include basketball, baseball, volleyball and football.
“Pretty much any sport she gets her hands on, she’ll play,” her father said.
So far, Harley is a 2009 regional Silver Gloves runner-up.
Eldridge’s father, Dan, is a former boxer who has been friends with Labuguen since high school. He thought boxing would be good for Noah.
“He seems to have some natural ability,” Eldridge said of his son. “Some guys are boxers, and some are just sluggers. I think the kid has got something.’’
Noah has won three state titles and a pair of regional Silver Gloves titles since he started boxing two years ago.
“He likes winning better than losing,” Dan said. “But it’s a sport where you’re not going to win all the time.’’
Like any thing in life, boxing success is gained through hard work, Labuguen said.
“It’s kind of life lessons,” Labuguen said. “You work on success, and the harder you work, the better you get.’’
Armstrong, Nielsen and Eldridge are intent on answering that bell.