f it weren’t for boxing, Michael Christopher might be dead.
The sport transformed the life of this self-described punk teenager from suburban Buffalo who often settled disputes with his fists rather than words. Had that trend continued, he may well have ended up in prison, or worse. Instead, Christopher’s story is one of overcoming the obstacles of a tough childhood to become a champion. And it’s not yet finished.
Christopher is one of many athletes, past and present, whom UB Boxing Club trainer Dean Eoannou loves to talk about with anyone willing to listen. Like Christopher, the club itself has come a long way over the past decade. As it celebrates its 10th anniversary of official competition this year, it boasts several fighters, Christopher included, who are poised to thrust UB into the national spotlight with the force of a Sonny Liston jab. Their stories are remarkable, and, for the most part, they haven’t been told.
The UB Boxing Club is housed in Clark Hall on the South Campus. From the dingy basement of this nearly 80-year-old building, champions arise—more than 30 so far, and counting.
In 2002 Chris Colt (EdM ’06, BA ’04) contacted Ed Michael, the legendary wrestling coach who was then director of recreation and intramurals, about establishing a boxing club at UB. Someone suggested that Colt reach out to Eoannou, a well-known amateur trainer in the area, to coach. Eoannou was so intrigued by the proposition, he retired from his job as a production manager at Ford Motor Company’s Buffalo stamping plant to helm the new club.
Early on, the club had little equipment—a hodgepodge of punching bags, weights and medicine balls that Eoannou and club members bought or brought in. Fundraisers helped pay for additional materials, including a boxing ring they set up in an old racquetball court down the hall from the training room.
According to Eoannou, it takes 18 months to two years to get a new club going. You can’t just put two inexperienced boxers in the ring and let them swing away. “They’ll kill each other,” he says. During the club’s infancy, Eoannou worked to build up a system in which the more experienced fighters help train the less knowledgeable ones.
In 2005, Heanyi Bob-Nwachukwu (BS ’05), who had boxed previously, broke new ground for the club, traveling with Eoannou to Kentucky for a bout with a member of the U.S. Naval Academy, which had one of the best college programs at the time.
Thinking it would be an easy fight, Bob-Nwachukwu’s opponent didn’t bother warming up. “Heanyi beat the crap out of the kid—two eight counts in the first round,” Eoannou recalls. He laughs now, but the coach didn’t find the lack of respect funny then. “Nobody took us serious. Nobody thought we were going to stick around,” he says. “Well, 10 years later we’re still banging, and we’ve got 31 champions. It’s pretty impressive to see how far we’ve come.”
Eoannou learned the sport the hard way. As an 18-year-old in the early 1970s, he heard a radio ad promoting the Golden Gloves, a nationwide amateur tournament. It piqued his interest, so he headed to Singer’s Gym in Buffalo, whose owner, the late Johnny Sudac, trained some of the city’s finest fighters. There, Eoannou spotted Al Quinney sparring in the ring and demanded that Sudac let him take on the pro fighter from Lackawanna, N.Y. “I thought I was the toughest guy on the planet,” Eoannou recalls.
Sudac wouldn’t allow it, but Eoannou persisted. He got his chance, and Quinney walloped him. “I missed two punches by a mile. Finally, Al looks at me and says, ‘This one’s on your nose, tiger.’ BAM! He breaks my nose,” Eoannou says, laughing. “My face was a mess. And that’s when I decided I wanted to learn how to box.”
Eoannou learned several different styles at Singer’s, which he says helped him later on when he began training other fighters. Eoannou himself never had any official bouts. He went on to earn a teaching degree from Cornell University, then worked at the Ford plant and continued to train boxers in his spare time.
Then came the call from Colt. “I retired at 53 just to do this,” says Eoannou, now 61, who also teaches a one-credit course in boxing at UB and co-authored an e-book (“Boxing: Essential Skills”) with Eugene Kern, a world-renowned otolaryngologist who taught at UB. “This is the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done. This is my passion, to watch these kids go through this program and come out as different people.”
Christopher, the former street fighter, is one such kid. “It was a mixture of anger, fun and the people surrounding me,” he explains, pointing out that most times, he was not the instigator. “I still have scars from fights that started with throwing rocks as a kid. I remember knocking a kid out cold with a left hook once when he tried pulling a knife on me.”
Christopher grew up in Kenmore, a suburb of Buffalo. When he was 13, he watched the “Rocky” films, which sparked an interest in boxing. His parents signed him up to train with Eoannou, but he quit after about a year and a half. When he was 16 his family moved farther out to Wheatfield, and that’s when the trouble really began. He was still getting into fights. He crashed a friend’s car while driving without a license. He dropped out of high school. “I just never liked getting up in the morning because I would be up too late the night before,” he says.
By chance, he reconnected with Eoannou at 18 when he moved into an apartment with his girlfriend at the time; the place happened to be owned by Eoannou’s sister. “Once I got back into boxing, everything just fell into place,” Christopher says. “Boxing made me a more disciplined person.”
At 19, he obtained his GED so he could attend Erie Community College. After receiving his associate degree, he enrolled in ECC’s School of Dental Hygiene, where he was awarded a scholarship for students who “beat the odds.” He graduated with a second associate degree last May—as class president and a recipient of a prestigious SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Student Excellence. He gave the commencement speech. Eoannou was there. “Dean’s like a father to me. Nobody, including my own parents, believes in me more than he does.”
Now 24, Christopher works full time with the Western New York Dental Group. In the fall, he’ll enroll at UB for a bachelor’s degree in science. Before that, he’s hoping to add a third New York State Golden Gloves title to his resume.
And when he’s done with his own boxing career, he hopes to develop a program to expose other troubled kids to the sport that saved his life.
Oluwatimilehin “Timi” Akeredolu’s parents moved to Brooklyn from Nigeria when he was a young boy. Once they had settled into their new life in the States, Akeredolu (BS ’14) made the journey himself, at the age of 12. Six years later, in 2010, he chose UB for college, specifically for its business and economics program. “My plan was to work for a Fortune 500 company as a financial analyst.”
Then, as a sophomore, Akeredolu heard some friends talking about the UB Boxing Club. He decided to check it out, and ended up discovering his true passion. “To this day, I feel like it was fate that I came to Buffalo, to train with Dean and this club,” says Akeredolu, who became a Golden Gloves champion in 2014. “Boxing changed my long-term plans from wanting to work 9 to 5 to becoming a professional boxer.”
Given his meteoric rise, it’s tempting to call Akeredolu a natural—tempting, but wrong. “What we’re teaching is totally unnatural,” Eoannou explains. “If two people were fighting naturally, they’d square up. That’s the kiss of death in a real fight, because you’ve got no base. You can’t transfer weight. There are boxers that are naturally tough or fast, but I’ve never seen a natural boxer.”
Boxing demands hard work and commitment. That’s why the sport so often transforms nearly every facet of a person’s life. As Akeredolu says, “My lifestyle changed. I changed my eating habits to maintain my weight. I don’t drink anymore. I can balance my time better.”
At press time, Akeredolu was training with Christopher for the national Golden Gloves in Las Vegas. If he wins, he hopes to qualify for the U.S. Olympic team for the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro. And then he wants to turn pro.
Of course, he’ll need a lot of help along the way. Most people think of boxing as an individual sport, but all fighters have a whole team in their corner. Coaches and club mates become more like surrogate dads and siblings. That’s definitely how it is with the UB Boxing Club.
“Everybody supports each other here,” says Akeredolu, who looks up to both Eoannou and assistant trainer Billy Copeland as father figures. In fact Copeland, who had his own successful amateur career in the 1950s and ’60s, used to drive Akeredolu to practice each day.
As far as Wendy Casey (BA ’08) was concerned, her boxing career was over. Her last fight was May 17, 2008, when she defeated Ashley Barnett, a former national champion. Afterward, Casey decided to hang up the gloves and focus on her teaching career. But early last year she got a call from Eoannou asking her to help him train a promising young fighter named Hannah Krueger. She agreed—and soon found herself back in the ring.
After working with Krueger one night last spring, Casey, at Eoannou’s urging, sparred with Akeredolu. Despite the 30-plus-pound weight difference, she nearly broke his nose. “She lit Timi up, and I said, ‘That’s it, you’re fighting again!’” Eoannou recalls.
Casey began training hard last summer and says she’s ready to take another shot at boxing’s best. “I’m back to where I was. My style’s a little different, but I still have the same general mauling-bear fight that I used to,” she says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a bear: I like to eat, sleep and fight.”
Casey, who teaches math in the Buffalo Public Schools, is still working with Krueger, a junior political science major at UB, and also with Kristen McMurtree, a club member who attends D’Youville College. But she’s laser focused on her own career. She aims to win a title at the Women’s National Golden Gloves tournament in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., in July, and to earn a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic roster.
Not many amateur fighters can say they’ve sparred with one of the world’s best boxers. Michael Christopher can. He stepped into the ring with Puerto Rico’s Orlando Cruz in the summer of 2013 when Cruz was training in Buffalo for his HBO-televised world title fight in October of that year (he lost). UB coach Dean Eoannou is friends with Cruz’s longtime trainer, Juan DeLeon, who at the time was based out of the Northwest Buffalo Community Health Care Center. “[DeLeon] brought him here to spar with one of our guys, which says a lot about our club,” Eoannou says proudly.
David J. Hill is a section editor for At Buffalo.
My neighbor, Ron Aurit, one of the founders of the NCBA, will be delighted to hear that the sweet science has an academic home at Buffalo. Go team!
I trained under Dean Eoannou as I was earning my graduate degree. He taught me a different style that really helped me progress in the sport. Dean is the reason I was able to get my first win on my amateur record. I have been boxing for close to ten years now and Dean's teaching has had the biggest influence on me as a boxer.
This is a great story about a great program and I am happy to hear about its continued success.