EAST PALO ALTO (KCBS) – A boxing club founded in East Palo Alto to give young people an alternative to getting involved in crime has its sights set on sending a former gang member to the 2012 Olympic Games.

Jesse Henderson, the star boxer the East Palo Alto Boxing Club, was born in prison 20 years ago.

“[My mom] got caught up with drugs and all of that, and I just happened to be in her stomach one of the times she was in prison,” said Henderson.

Henderson, who at 145 pounds is a welterweight, was raised by his aunt in Sacramento. At age 14 he ran away after getting deeply involved in gangs and selling drugs.

“I had little brothers who stayed at home, so my lifestyle was a danger to everybody around me, so I just ran away,” said Henderson.

KCBS’ Anna Duckworth Reports:

Henderson fought on the streets for years, but by 18 says he realized it would kill him. He started going to a gym, moved to East Palo Alto at his brother’s suggestion and started working with the boxing club’s founder Johnny Gray, who calls Henderson the real deal.

The 54-year-old Gray grew up in the city, which he said used to be the murder capital of the U.S.

“I’ve seen it all: alcohol, crack, smack, heroin, all of this crazy mess – I’ve seen all of it,” said Gray.

Gray said he knew kids needed a place to channel their negative energy into something positive, and after a short professional boxing career, he founded the East Palo Alto Boxing Club nearly 10 years ago.

“It’s not just about boxing, it’s about life,” said Gray. “Not everybody’s a boxer, but it’s about starting with boxing because it’s an individual sport. You’ve got to do it on your own.”

Gray’s club, which lies in an industrial area across from an open field, has a ring inside surrounded by weight machines, punching bags, treadmills, stationary bikes and a free snack area.

As for his star pupil Henderson, “You know who got it and who don’t,” said Gray. “It’s just like when you hear that good song on the radio- everybody just knows when they hear a hit!”

Henderson trains three hours a day, and studies fight videos at night. He must win the open class at this fall’s Golden Gloves, then regionals and nationals to make the Olympic team.

He said that he wants to do it to show kids it’s possible if you learn to discipline yourself.

“I used to think, ‘man, those guys must be some type of superhuman something, because they’re just so incredible.’ But they’re no one special, they are just people who work hard, and have the ability.”

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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