SOMERVILLE — The setting and sounds are the same as they’ve been for generations. A basement jammed with rings, punching bags, towels, and water bottles. Trainers calling out instructions to perspiring fighters. The bap-bap-bap of leather gloves. What’s different at the Somerville Boxing Club these days is the diversity of the clientele, with teenagers preparing for national championships training alongside professional women who turn up for vigorous fitness sessions.
“It’s one of the best cardio workouts you can get,” testified Arshiya Seth, a primary care physician who comes with friend Shweta Yadav, a business analyst for a marketing technology firm.
The upsurge in boxing gym memberships both in Somerville and elsewhere in the Boston area as well as the emergence of a fresh crop of talented local fighters is part of a renaissance of the “sweet science” that for years has been stuck with a sour image. The sport that once ranked alongside baseball and horse racing at the top of the American popularity list had been consigned to a corner, overshadowed not only by the Big Four professional sports but also by other combatives such as taekwondo, karate, and mixed martial arts. “We’ve been the little brother that nobody pays attention to,” said longtime promoter Al Valenti.
The little brother makes his return to the spotlight for a “Night at the Fights” at TD Garden on Saturday with a card that includes four pro bouts, highlighted by Framingham light welterweight Danny O’Connor vs. Salem’s Derek Silveira, plus five amateur contests. involving local hopefuls.
The area that produced world titlists Rocky Marciano, Tony DeMarco, Marvin Hagler, Micky Ward, and John Ruiz still is turning out promising talent. Rashidi and Rashida Ellis, the Lynn siblings who train in Somerville and won national Police Athletic League crowns in Ohio in October, were the first brother-sister duo to manage it. Ricky Pina, a heavyweight who trains out of the Grealish gym in Dorchester, fought in the junior world team open in Nevada this month.
Grass-roots activity has been on the rise in USA Boxing’s New England district, which does not include Connecticut. There are 77 registered clubs, up nine from 2011, with 980 fighters (up 13 percent in two years) who competed in 79 shows last year, seven more than in 2011. “There is opportunity if you want to compete,” said Jim Perella, president of the New England Association of USA Boxing.
The boxing gym remains what it has been for generations, a demanding but rewarding haven for those seeking discipline and direction. “I was having family issues at home so I was looking for a positive outlet instead of hanging out with my friends and doing stupid things,” said Luca Lo Conte Botis, a Winchester High sophomore who trains at the Somerville club and will be fighting at the Garden. “I discommunicated.”
The gym provides connection and camaraderie. “That’s what makes kids fall into gangs,” said Alex Rivera, who worked with Ruiz. “They’re looking for someone to put an arm around their shoulder and say, ‘I’ve got your back.’ If we can do that here . . . ”
Alector Tavares, who began training at the Grealish gym at 13, came back after serving in the Army in Germany and Iraq. “They took me in, never charged me a dime,” said Tavares, who’s now 28 and a Boston firefighter. “They don’t realize it, but they saved my life.”
Marty Grealish and wife Yvonne welcome an eclectic bunch to their second-floor facility on Freeport Street, which they share with a Curves club — whites, blacks, Latinos, teenage boys, middle-aged women, and firefighter-veterans like son Gerry. “This is a working gym,” said Yvonne. “We don’t have potted plants and smellies. What you see is what you get.”
That’s fine with the females, most of whom come for the community cardio. “I live in Easton, but this is the place to be,” said Wendy Korotzer, a 51-year-old nurse who works in the intensive care unit at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Until recently, boxing gyms were for men only. “When I was growing up there were never girls in the gym,” recalled Jason Kelly, who with father Dan opened the Dorchester Boxing Club in an old warehouse on Parkman Street two winters ago. “Now, it’s the cool thing in fitness.”
The Striking Beauties gym in North Attleborough caters exclusively to women, most of whom are in their 40s. “At our place it’s easier to get started,” said founder Dena Paolino. “The intimidation factor isn’t there as much.”
To attract more female members, gym owners have made a point of stressing the aerobic benefits of a boxing workout. “We call it fight conditioning but you don’t have to do any boxing,” said Peter Welch, a former Golden Gloves champion whose South Boston gym offers classes for more than 900 members from 5:30 a.m into the night. “We get everyone from housewives to young professionals. It’s the fitness routine that attracts them. You’re in and out the door in under an hour. It’s convenient, it’s efficient.”
The difference between a fighter conditioning class and a Zumba class is that gloves are on. Sometimes, after a few weeks of doing what boxers do to prepare themselves for bouts, the urge comes to sling leather for real. “I get tempted at times,” confessed Yadav.
Stepping into the ring with an opponent, even if it guarantees a punch in the face, gets the adrenaline pumping. “You get addicted to it,” said Maureen O’Brien, a 152-pounder who trains at Grealish and won the New England Golden Gloves title last year.
Marc Muniz, a 16-year-old who lives near Uphams Corner and goes to South Boston High, heard about the Dorchester Boxing Club from a friend. across the street “I always thought boxing was cool,” said Muniz, who’ll take on Botis in an amateur lightweight bout at the Garden. “A boxing club opening in Dorchester — why not?”
Clubs always are opening, closing, and re-opening somewhere else. The Somerville club was based in more than half a dozen previous venues before Mayor Joe Curtatone and alderman Bruce Desmond arranged in 2011 to turn over the basement of the Edgerly School, where the city’s holiday decorations were kept. “Everything you see on Broadway was stored here,” said Norman Stone, who used to train Ruiz at the Somerville club and still can be found there.
Rivera, who’d operated a gym in Lynn with his brothers until they lost the use of the space, arrived with equipment and boxers and happily set up shop with a dozen volunteers. “Like the rising of the phoenix,” he said.
The Somerville club now has more than 400 members, a quarter of them female, and the rising numbers help pay the bills. Most gyms operate on a shoestring and most of their owners have day jobs. “It’s definitely a labor of love,” said Kelly, who works at his father’s bar on West Broadway in South Boston and still boxes competitively. By giving fitness classes, they can subsidize the younger boxers, few of whom can afford the dues. “We’re not looking to be rich here,” said Rivera.
Fitness often is the first step toward fighting, gym managers say. “Ninety-nine percent of the women came into the gym and all said the same thing,” said Paolino. “I don’t want to fight. I don’t want to go into the ring. I don’t want to spar. I just want the workout. Next thing it’s, maybe I will spar. Maybe I will fight. It’s been incredible to see the progression.”