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World Wide Webb

A 13-year-old pounds the heavy bag in a gym at 26th and Master and dreams of scoring Olympic gold.


From the September 10, 2008 Philadelphia Weekly.

Hanif Webb bounces around the bag, his red-laced black and white Jordans barely touching the ground. His chin points down and his wide-open eyes stare straight ahead. He jabs quickly with his left a few times and then throws a flurry of combination punches.

"Faster," snaps Hanif's father, Charles Webb.

Hanif, 13, glares at his father for a fraction of a second, his upper lip curled in a sneer. He begins to whine but his father - who's also his trainer - cuts him off.

"Keep working," Charles Webb barks. "Stop talking to me."

Hanif, just 5 feet tall and 90 pounds, hammers the bag steadily until the bell sounds. He takes off his boxing gloves, walks toward the wall and steps tentatively on a metal folding chair so he can reach the speed bag. When the bell sounds, he begins popping the speed bag, creating a rapid, rhythmic drumbeat.

"I'd rather be in the gym than on the streets," he says at the end of his two-hour workout. "There's nothing out there but death and guns."

It all sounds rehearsed - a little too earnest, the maturity level unreal, like a Philly version of an after-school special. But Hanif knows about violence in the city. His father put him in the boxing program at the Athletic Rec Center at 26th and Master because he was on the receiving end of beatdowns at school nearly every day.

That was four years ago. He was 9.

Then, on Jan. 19 this year, Hanif's 23-year-old sister was murdered in South Philly because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Octavia was hanging out with a friend, Chante Wright, who was scheduled to testify against a murder suspect. Wright was supposed to be in Florida, part of the federal witness protection program. The two were gunned down only hours after Wright flew into town.

One week after his sister's death, Hanif was set to fight in a tournament at the Front Street Gym in Port Richmond.

"I tried to pull him out because of the tragedy," Charles Webb says.

Hanif refused.

Instead, he harnessed his emotions and slugged a kid from Delaware so hard in the second round that he scored the first knockout of his nascent amateur career.

"I wanted to fight for my sister," Hanif recalls. "I wasn't going to be denied that night."


The city's boxing program began in 1970 as a way of curbing gang violence, says Fred Jenkins, director of Athletic Rec's boxing program. Ten centers across the city opened boxing facilities that year, with the hope that kids would fight in the ring rather than on the streets.

The mission of the program has evolved.

"Now it's about building personalities, trying to teach them to do right," says Jenkins, a former gang member who had a 27-3 amateur boxing record and was 3-1 as a pro. "It ain't about boxing anymore."

Jenkins and his fellow trainers teach kids to counterpunch and fight peek-a-boo style, but they also provide life skills - conflict resolution, relationship mending, manners and respect.

Between 200 and 500 young people work out at the city's boxing clubs every year. David Reid trained here en route to an Olympic gold medal, and Olympian Zahir Raheem began working with Jenkins when he was 11.

About 150 fighters from the tri-state area, ages 9 through 32, are participating in the Rec Department's Sixth Annual Lucien Blackwell Amateur Boxing Tournament which began last weekend. This weekend's contests will be at Gustine Lake Rec Center on Ridge Ave. On Sept. 20, bouts will take place at the Carousel House on Belmont Ave. Admission is free.

Hanif will be fighting this weekend. He's 6-0 and dreams of the Olympics.

"I'm trying to get that gold in my hands," he mumbles.

Among other entries is Damon Allen, a local 15-year-old who's 52-6 and ranked No. 2 in the world in the 125-pound weight class.

Making his last amateur fight will be 19-year-old Jesse Hart, son of legendary Philly fighter Eugene "Cyclone" Hart. Jesse made it to the national Golden Glove tournament this year, and is going pro after the Blackwell tournament. He trains with Hanif some days.

"This is one of my prospects," Hart says, patting Hanif on the back. "He's going to be an Olympic champion."


Shortly after Hanif started boxing, the school beatings ended.

Now he hits the gym two hours a day, six days per week with his father, a security guard who ends his shift at 6 in the morning. Hanif stretches, does jumping jacks and push-ups, shadowboxes, hits the bags, spars and runs five miles.

By the time he gets home, he's exhausted. He usually just relaxes with his 3-year-old niece and 5-year-old nephew, the children of his deceased sister.

"She was silly," Hanif says of his Octavia. "I see a lot of that in my niece. She'll laugh at anything. I could tell her that her shoes are untied and she'll start laughing."

As he speaks, he drops his head and slumps his shoulders. The pain is fresh. So I tell him we're done.

He looks me in the eye, shakes my hand and politely offers a thank you.

Then I watch him run outside to the basketball court where he fearlessly jumps into a game with kids older and more than a foot taller.