STERLING — Steve Mazzarisi has taken a few blows to the body over his 60 years, but the local boxing enthusiast always gets back up on his feet again.
Even when it seemed like his boxing training days were over, Mazzarisi found his jabs again, and now he's teaching a new generation of boxers the sport he loves.
Mazzarisi, 60, started the Gladiator Boxing Club out of his garage in Sterling a year ago. It's a return to the ring after once having his own boxing club in Dixon just a few years ago. He started the club not only to offer lessons to local youths, but help his son, Alex Mazzarisi, 19, continue his path in boxing.
Steve had been training his son at Westwood, but decided he wanted a place of his own to teach kids how to put up their dukes. He didn't have look far to find the right spot; after all, there's no place like home. He began converting his garage into a training area and Gladiator was born.
"I hung up a bag, and then I hung up another bag and I started getting kids in here," Steve said. "I thought, 'What a way to go!' I can get kids in here and I'll work with all of the kids."
The garage has two rows of punching bags, and a square ring with four ropes on each side and grids in the center. The grids, marked by red tape, are meant to help students with their footwork: a perpendicular cross helps students work on their pivots, and a mix of triangles on rectangles teach a two-step move.
The garage-turned-boxing club can keep boxers on their feet year round in its climate-controlled confines. Safety is a priority, too, especially during the pandemic. Every piece of equipment is disinfected nightly.
During some recent sparring sessions during one of his 2-hour classes, boxers sparred with one another to enhance their skills while rest of the boxers took notes.
"It helps the kids build some some confidence," Steve said. "It keeps your mind motivated and always focused to do the right thing."
Boxing has been part of father-and-son combo for most of their lives. Steve, a native of Sicily, moved to America when he was 5 years old and fought bouts as a teenager in his hometown of Rockford, training at the Lincoln Park Boys Club on West State Street. Steve "didn't go too far," he said, as work life took over, but his love affair with the sport continued as he watched big fights on ABC's "Wide World of Sports" and the occasional pay-per-view special.
"I love the sport of boxing," Steve said. "Growing up watching Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and all of those good fighters and fights. (ABC's) Howard Cosell, I remember him. Sugar Ray Leonard. Watching all of those older fights as much as I could."
Steve's gym picks up a boxing mantle that was carried in years past by clubs operated by Jack Russell and Al Silva, who have trained several locals to state and regional successes over the past 50 years. One of Steve's first matches in Rockford was against a fellow teenager trained by Silva.
Alex is making a name for himself in the local boxing scene, too. Perhaps Steve's biggest boxing accomplishment is teaching his son to learn and love the sport to a degree that far eclipsed his father. One wall of the Gladiator gym is dedicated to Alex's numerous state and national accomplishments over the past decade.
Alex grew up living near and training at boxing gyms throughout northern Illinois. The 2020 Rock Falls High School graduate keeps busy competing on cards on a regular basis, all while balancing that with his studies as a student at Sauk Valley Community College.
Boxing, Alex said, is a great way to stay active.
"It gives you something to do," he said. "You get to meet new people and actually work out so you won't be out of shape. I'm not going to get fat because I have a pretty good digestive system, but I do like to work out because it's something to do. You go to school, then go home and have nothing to do, but I can get in a gym and do stuff, and then come home and be happy."
Alex began fighting in December 2010 and found success early, having won a 60-pound division at an event in Coal Valley in less than a year's time in the ring. Within a couple of years, Alex began to compete in silver gloves and junior Olympic competitions, all while he racked up more medals and trophies from smaller regional tournaments. In December 2014, competing at 85 pounds, Alex won the Illinois State Silver Gloves Tournament in Rockford, followed by a regional win in the Quad Cities. He didn't lose until the national tournament in Independence, Missouri.
After taking a couple of years off from the sport, the gloves are back on for Alex. He stepped outside the ring for a few years to concentrate on school, but when he got better grades and came back to the sport, it didn't take him too long to renew his goals: Alex has hopes of turning professional, and wants to compete in the amateur Golden Gloves, or maybe even qualify for the Olympics.
Helping his family is another reason Alex returned to the ring; he wants to help his mother recover from health issues, and the money that can be made in the boxing scene can do just that if he continues to succeed.
"I want to do boxing to help my mom out to get surgery, and to help us get a better life to have a nice, great time," Alex said.
Alex also helps train some of the club members, most of them young children who find the sport fascinating and enjoy the physical challenge.
Cousins April Avalos, 9, and Jade Ruiz, 10, both of Sterling, enjoy throwing punches at the bags. By the end of February, the cousins were working on perfecting their footwork in Steve's ring.
The punching bags, though, are the most fun, the cousins said.
"It's fun to do," April said. "If someone punches with you (on the other end), you can punch it back. It's really fun."
"It makes you feel more confident about yourself, and that's what I like most about it," Jade said, adding that's it's also a great way to work out any frustrations and anger one might have.
Steve enjoys seeing the local youth get outside of the house more often and engaged in physical activities, something he hopes his club will be able to help them do for a long time to come – and to continue a long tradition of boxing.
"Our goal is to be a world champion and come back here to help out the community," Steve said. "We want to be an influence. I think we can do it. We just have to keep on working."