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The Ballad of
Ed “Bad Boy” Brown

He was an undefeated boxer, a title contender. But he couldn’t escape the violence of the West Side.

By Bryan Smith

Illustration by Wayne Brezinka

The Ballad of
Ed “Bad Boy” Brown

He was an undefeated boxer, a title contender.
But he couldn’t escape the violence of the West Side.

Published March 13, 2017


Leave. Please, Ed. Pack your shit, say your goodbyes, and get outta here. Your family, your girlfriend, your fellow boxers, your managers—especially your managers: We’re scared for you. Too much craziness in these streets. You’ve already been shot three times. What, you think you’re bulletproof?

Well, he kinda was, wasn’t he? He’d taken gunshots to his neck, his knee, his ankle—body looking like a connect-the-dots game. Bulletproof. If he didn’t already have a nickname, he might have copped that one, stitched it right on his boxing trunks instead of the one everybody knew him by. Ed “Bad Boy” Brown. Pride of Garfield Park, future champ, silly, joke-crackin’, handsome as Ali, with a right-left combo that hit so hard your whole family would need a standing eight.

“Bulletproof” was sorta funny, when you thought about it. But Brown knew as well as anyone that death doesn’t play. And definitely doesn’t heed a nickname. He knew at just 11 years old, the evening his mother kissed him good night and went to E2, the club on Michigan Avenue, to celebrate her boyfriend’s birthday and never came home—killed with 20 others in a stampede after a security guard tried to break up a fight with pepper spray. “She was a good mama,” Ed would tell the papers the next day, his younger brother crying beside him.

He knew from last October, when his girlfriend’s brother, a guy he’d come to regard as his own sibling, got clipped sitting in a car, not doing anything. He sure knew from his mornings at the boxing gym, when he’d hear other boxers talking—“Did you hear … ?”—or see them pull their shirts up to show their own bullet wounds. He knew from the gym wall, papered with memorial announcements and photos of young men just like him: fists up, hard looks. Bulletproof. Dead.

His comanager and his promoter, one of the biggest in the sport, were offering to stake him to a new life in Vegas, California, anywhere but here. If he’d just say the word.

All right, he vowed. At 25, he had a record of 20–0, with maybe one more fight to get his ranking up and earn some big paydays. Enough to take along his 3-year-old daughter and his girlfriend and maybe even his father, who was back from prison. One more fight and he’d get them all outta here. He’d do what everyone asked. Leave.

But now here he was. Just after 1 a.m. on a Saturday. The streets of Garfield Park spooling past his back-seat window like a documentary, a grainy indictment of all that was wrong with the city, his city. Leave.

The car slowed. His female cousin driving, his friend next to her up front. She eased into a parking spot under the pale cone of a streetlight. Damn. It was getting late. He had to be up early to work out. No half stepping. Too much riding on this next fight.

Then the silver sedan rolled up, slowing just as it reached his cousin’s car. The windows glided down, the gun barrels emerged like snake heads. Aw, no. No.

 

“Work, work, work. Trabajo! Trabajo. Fuerza, fuerza!” says the short, bald middle-aged man with the salt-and-pepper broom mustache. “The fuck you doin’? You standing there! You ain’t gonna win no fights on the ropes.”

Two young boxers, red-faced and glistening under foam headgear, shirts soaked, stalk each other around the ring, lunging, lurching, jabbing, feinting, parrying, punching, then dancing away. One, in a “Team Shorty” T-shirt, stood up by a hard right, unleashes a barrage that sends the other boomeranging off the ropes.

“That’s a freight train,” the man says approvingly from the skirt of the ring. As if looking for confirmation, he turns his head to a smattering of other boxers below the ring in various stages of their workouts: shadow punching, skipping rope, pumping crunches.

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At first glance, the Chicago Park District boxing gym in East Garfield Park seems little more than a modest-size, high-ceilinged room marooned at the end of a dim hallway, the ghost of some long-ago administrative headquarters. But a few steps in, the sepia richness of its storied past begins to reveal itself. The space is dominated by the ring, a 24-by-24-foot square of sky-blue canvas bearing the words “Corona Extra” and set about four feet off the floor, the corner poles resting on dingy, barf-beige industrial tile littered with boxing gear. From an adjacent room comes the da-da-ta-da-da-ta-da-da-ta of a speed bag being worked. From another, the thuds of a heavy bag.

Roaring above all, though, is the ringside commentary—a mix of drill sergeant commands, professorial patter, and standup routine—of the middle-aged man, George Hernandez. Dressed in striped Adidas track pants and a Chicago Park District polo, this West Side Mussolini looks every bit the part of the bellicose trainer–slash–father figure that has made him an icon in local boxing circles. The City of Chicago might technically run the place, but this is his gym, just ask.

“This ain’t no goddamn democracy,” he bellows to no one in particular. “What I say goes up in this motherfucker!”

One of the boxers launches a sharp flurry that recaptures his attention.

“More of that, more of that, there you go!”

And then: “You tired, aren’t you? Took the week off. All you do is fuck and eat. All that pussy got your legs fucked up. You better get your shit together. Donald Trump might deport your ass.”

“I got my papers,” the boxer shoots back.

It was at this same gym, nearly 20 years ago, that a skinny 6-year-old named Ed Brown appeared with his two cousins, arriving like so many boys who find their way here: uncertain, wide-eyed, intimidated, self-conscious—and desperate to hide any hint of that.

The trio were from the neighborhood, long considered one of the city’s poorest and most gang ridden. With rare exception, its appearance matches the statistical gloom: a wrecked landscape of vacant lots and boarded-up houses and caved-in graystones, unrelieved stretches of blasted wasteland studded with gardens of broken glass and clusters of young men on street corners.

From the heart of the desolation rises what at first seems a glittering mirage, a dome gilded with 23-karat gold tiles crowning a splendidly carved Spanish baroque edifice. Flanked by lagoons and blessed with a panoramic view of the downtown skyline, some seven miles off, the structure was originally built in 1928 as the headquarters for the West Park Commission. Like much of the neighborhood, it succumbed to blight and neglect, crumbling brick and falling plaster, but was rescued from demolition at the last moment in the early ’90s. Today, situated next to the Garfield Park Conservatory, it houses a gymnasium, an auditorium, a dance studio, a fitness center, a grand ballroom, and—calling out to kids in need of positive, not to mention safe­, places to hang out—a boxing gym.

Of the three boys who walked in that day in 1997, only Brown stuck. Hernandez is fuzzy on his first encounter with him (“So many come in here,” he says), but it isn’t hard to imagine the moment. “These are tough boys from tough neighborhoods,” he says. “Some are coming from prison, some are dope fiends, gangbangers. I’ve taken guns away from kids. I can’t come off like, ‘Hi, how are you?’ When they come through that door, I have to let them know I’m nobody to play with. I’m the only bully here. You bring that gangbangin’ shit in here and out you go. You don’t do what I say, out you go. You think you know better, out you go.”

Hernandez’s approach derived from his own adversity, which included growing up without parents. After separating from Hernandez’s mother, his father dropped him and his three brothers off at a police station, declaring that he didn’t want them anymore. Hernandez became a ward of the state, joined the army, then studied criminal justice and fine arts at Loyola. He learned to fight by fending for himself growing up in group homes.

The blunt-force welcome he unloads on newcomers is intentional—a first chance to take a kid’s measure. “You don’t got no heart, no balls, we run you out of here,” he says. The payoff for those who don’t get scared off or pissed off is acceptance into a sort of surrogate family. “What you can’t find at home, I try to give them here,” Hernandez says.

Ed Brown ingratiated himself from the get-go: “He was really funny and goofy, already cussing up a storm at 6 years old,” Hernandez recalls. He was also eager to learn. “He was like a sponge. He would pick up everything.”

Even as a boy, Brown was fierce, “always getting into fights at the park—and winning,” says boxing writer Bill Hillmann, a former Golden Gloves champion who began tracking Brown’s career early on. That’s why Brown’s family steered him toward Hernandez and the gym. “They thought they could turn that anger into something positive.”

And they did. At age 8, Brown, weighing 60 pounds, won a Silver Gloves title, the under-16 equivalent of the Golden Gloves. He also claimed an Illinois Junior Olympic championship. For him boxing was, at first, just something to do. It was only when he saw he had a gift for it, he told a television interviewer years later, that he fully committed: “It gave me confidence.”

The shattering news of his mother’s death, however, upended everything. Hernandez dropped any pretense of tough love. “We just started becoming close,” he says. “He started hanging out more. I was feeding him every day.” With Brown’s father in and out of prison, the boy’s grandmother took custody. But Brown also sometimes stayed with Hernandez and his wife. “I wanted to be the parents he didn’t have,” the trainer says.

At the gym, Hernandez sought to refine Brown’s boxing skills, which were becoming more evident by the month. “He was skinny and tall, but, man, he could hit,” remembers DeShawn “Hurricane” Boyd, who was 11 when he began sparring with a 14-year-old Brown. “It felt like he had bricks in his gloves.”

Brown’s leanness wasn’t the only thing at odds with his toughness in the ring. “A lot of people would say, ‘If I didn’t know who Ed was and I just saw him on the street, I’d be like, Is this the goof you all been talking about?’ ” Boyd recalls. “But when it was time to get serious and he put on them gloves and he hit you, you would be like, That boy can hit.”

Left:Above: at age 16; celebrating a first-round knockout in August 2015. Below: in a November 2015 bout at the Horseshoe Casino. Brown ran up a record of 20–0. Photos: Tom Barnes/Tomba-Images

“He was skinny and tall, but, man, he could hit,” recalls a boxer friend. “It felt like he had bricks in his gloves.”

Over the years, Boyd developed a tight bond with Brown. “We grew this big-brother, little-brother relationship,” he says. “He was always in the gym, pushing me to be better. If I was slacking off, he’d always be on me.”

The contrasts within Brown—caring, charismatic kid one minute, ferocious fighter the next—drew Hillmann to him. “I was always fascinated because there was this bad-boy thing he had, but also he was a kind, nice person and everybody just fell in love with him,” he says. “They cared about him almost instantly, and the same thing happened to me.”

Brown and his clique of boxers began calling themselves the Broke Team—a play on Floyd Mayweather Jr.’s the Money Team—because of their raggedy equipment and Hernandez’s beater van, which hauled them to fights and sometimes doubled as parking-lot sleeping quarters. They reveled in their underdog status, in how people underestimated them. Brown might have had to fight in borrowed headgear and a donated mouth guard, but he was proving himself in the ring, pummeling opponents in local matches. Neighborhood folks, family, friends, and fellow boxers would pack his fights.

He loved it. But he was also drawn to another kind of rush: the streets. Trouble surfaced just as his boxing reputation was growing. He slid into what would become his favorite vice: gambling. He smoked weed. He began to slack off on his training.

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Hernandez noticed the changes. “I was beside myself,” he says. “I’d worry about him every time he left the gym. Where is this guy?” He remembers driving the streets one time looking for Brown and finding him huddled with a group slinging dice. At one point, when Brown was 16, Hernandez had had enough: “I told him to get the fuck out of the gym.”

The banishment didn’t last long, and Brown’s behavior improved enough for Hernandez to take him back. But Brown had by no means turned his life around. He was, by his own admission, a “gangbanger.” Hernandez and others close to Brown have refuted this. But in a recorded interview with Hillmann, a copy of which he shared with Chicago, Brown used that word to describe himself. Criminal records detailing charges ranging from marijuana possession and gambling to gun possession—eight in all—list Brown as a member of the Black Souls, a West Side gang.

He dropped out of Al Raby High School, a few blocks from the gym, in 2009—just half a credit short of graduating. Then, not long after turning 19, he came into a hefty chunk of money. The owners of the E2 nightclub had agreed to a settlement that, according to Brown, brought him $140,000.

It was, needless to say, more money than he had ever seen. But within nine months, it was gone. In interviews with Hillmann years later, Brown said he squandered it on guns and cars. “I was young,” Brown told him. “I was living the lifestyle. It was stupid, but I did it.”

Despite the distractions, Brown flourished in the ring. He won the Chicago Golden Gloves title in 2010 and 2011. Brutal punches became his trademark. “He knocked one guy’s mouthpiece out,” Hillmann recalls. “He ripped another guy’s headgear off. I had never seen that in all my life in boxing. Right then, I was like, ‘This is for real.’ ”

The flip side of being a success in the ring, of being handsome, well dressed, liked by the ladies, and looked up to by young boys is that it made him a potential target for neighborhood rivals. “They find any little thing to pick on people that got something going for themselves,” says Boyd. That Brown could fight only put him more at risk. “Boxers have to watch out,” says Boyd, “because if someone tries to start something with us, they know we will whoop their ass, so they will come back on us with a gun.”

Truth is, in Garfield Park, you don’t have to be targeted to catch a bullet. In 2011, while training for the Olympic trials, Brown was shot in a drive-by on his block. “I got caught in the crossfire,” he would later tell Hillmann. “It hit me in the neck. The doctors said I would have died if I wasn’t in such good shape from boxing.” He survived. His Olympic dream did not.

Story continues after break.

 

 


Above: George Hernandez, here at the gym in East Garfield Park, trained Brown from the time Brown was 6. Below: one wall of the gym serves as a memorial to boxers who’ve died. Brown’s robe hangs not far away. Photos by Marcus Smith



Still, Brown pushed on, and in December 2012, he made his professional debut. The fight took place at Cicero Stadium, a 1,500-seat arena that has long been home to the local Golden Gloves tournament, where boxers like Joe Louis, Sonny Liston, and Cassius Clay made names for themselves.

The night was a festive coming-out party for the 6-foot-1 Brown, who fought as a 147-pound welterweight. He danced into the ring with an eight-piece marching band and to the roar of fans waiting to see what he could do in the pro ranks—against a far more experienced fighter by the name of Dontre King.

Within the first minute, Brown landed a left hook to the body that was so hard, Hillmann recalls, “I swear I could hear King’s ribs breaking from where I was sitting.” Brown knocked King out in the first round.

The joy vanished less than two weeks later. Out at a club, Brown got into an altercation and was shot—again in the neck and also in the knee. Talking about the incident later to Hillmann, he shrugged it off, even though he’d nearly died: “It didn’t hit any major organs, but I was out for a minute.”

Actually, he was out of boxing for the better part of four months. But when he stepped back into the ring in April 2013, he showed little rust, winning his next two fights by TKO.

Then, more bullets. In November 2013, he and some friends had just stepped off a “party bus”—a tricked-out rented shuttle bus with a dance floor and bar—in North Lawndale around 4 a.m. That’s when two men approached and began shooting. Brown was hit twice in the ankle.

Nine months later, just as he was ready to resume his career, he faced yet another major setback: He was arrested on charges serious enough to put him in prison. He had been convicted of a felony before—in 2012 for possession of Ecstacy—but had managed to avoid serving time. In this case, he wasn’t so lucky. In August 2014, police caught him on an East Garfield Park corner with a .22-caliber gun, and he was charged with six felony counts. One of Chicago’s most promising boxers was now in jail awaiting trial, his career in jeopardy. All that, coupled with the reality of life behind bars, hit Brown hard, say Hernandez and Boyd, who visited him in Cook County Jail. “Man, I hate it up in here,” Boyd recalls Brown saying. “People tell you when to eat, sleep, what you can and can’t do. This is not what I want.”

In February 2015, after six months in jail, Brown pleaded guilty to a felony gun possession charge. He was sentenced to a year but given credit for time served and released on parole.

Now back at home, Brown had added motivation to straighten up: a year-old daughter, Kayla. The relationship with her mother hadn’t lasted, but by all accounts, Brown doted on his baby girl, lavishing her with gifts and as much time as he could spare.

He also began to take his boxing career more seriously. At 24, he was still young enough to make a legitimate run at the big time. But he had to push. He needed a proper manager, someone who could get him fights—good fights—against increasingly accomplished opponents to build his résumé.

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Mike Cericola, a fight promoter and manager out of Bridgeport who had taken an interest in Brown since the boxer was about 19, made a case for himself. The clincher was when he was able to persuade Cameron Dunkin, one of the sport’s top promoters, to manage Brown as well. Over three decades, the Las Vegas–based Dunkin has worked with 34 world champions, and he currently reps three titleholders—junior welterweight Terence Crawford, junior featherweight Nonito Donaire, and welterweight Jessie Vargas. Having Dunkin aboard would mean instant credibility.

“I told him there’s a kid in Chicago that’s really doing well in the gym. He’s down on his luck, but he’s 3–0,” Cericola recalls of his conversation with Dunkin. “And when I said it was Ed Brown, Cameron paused for a minute, like, ‘Where do I know that name?’ Then it came to him: He knew Ed from a tournament years back, and he remembered how impressed he was. He said, ‘Wow, I forgot about that kid! I gotta get him.’ ”

He did, and over the next 18 months—from May 2015 to November 2016—the promoter arranged a staggering 17 bouts for Brown. The newest addition to Dunkin’s stable didn’t disappoint. Brown not only won every one of those fights but dominated them, taking 14 by knockout or TKO and the other three by unanimous decision. “I pride myself on accurately judging talent, and I think my track record proves that,” Dunkin said at the time. “So believe me when I say Ed Brown is the goods. He is on the road to become boxing’s next big thing.”

Brown’s run caught the eye of executives at premium cable networks like Showtime and had him on the cusp of a world ranking. Nate Jones, a former Olympic and professional boxer and an assistant trainer to Mayweather, agreed with Dunkin. “He was three fights away from fighting for the world championship. Three fights away,” Jones would later tell the Chicago Sun-Times. Big purses, the kind that could dwarf Brown’s E2 settlement, seemed within reach.

Brown’s rapid ascent, his team believes, largely grew out of the positive changes in his life. He’d made a concerted effort to surround himself with better influences. “He would tell me, ‘You can’t survive with negative people around you or bad things are going to happen,’ ” Hillmann recalls. One benefit of fighting so many bouts in such a compressed time was that he was always training. “When you’re a hundred percent committed to being a boxer, you don’t have time to be in the street,” Hillmann says.

Outside of the gym, Brown kept to himself more. “He was staying in the house,” says Boyd. “But the problem is, when you are popular, sometimes trouble follows you.”

That reality was stark enough that when Cericola started giving Brown rides back and forth to the gym, he learned that the direct route was not always best—not when Brown was trying to stay clear of rival gangs. “He would tell me, ‘Don’t drive down this street, don’t drive down that street,’ ” says Cericola. “Every morning when I’d pick him up, he was looking over his shoulder, worried who was watching. I could see the stress on him.”

The ring remained Brown’s haven. “To him, it was the safest place, the one place he couldn’t be hurt,” says Cericola. “When he got in the ring, he knew he was OK.”

As 2015 bled into 2016, Brown found himself mentoring other boxers, helping them avoid the pitfalls that nearly sank his career. Boyd, for one, was on the verge of abandoning his dream of fighting professionally, but Brown talked him out of it. “I wasn’t really feeling boxing like that no more,” Boyd recalls. “I had a lot going on. Two of my friends got killed, and I lost some cousins. Ed was there through it all. He kept pushing me, especially when he found out I had a daughter on the way. He was like, ‘Man, you got to step it up now and do what you got to do.’ That’s why our relationship was so tight. He knew how life is out here in Chicago, how hard it is to stay out of trouble. He made me feel that I could do something because he was. He gave me hope.”

By this time, two major developments reinforced Brown’s new outlook. The first was that he’d formed a deeper bond with his father, Ed Brown Sr., who had been in and out of prison for much of his son’s life, mostly on drug-dealing convictions. The father had become a fixture at the boxing gym and at bouts. He hounded his son to leave the streets behind, not make the same mistakes he had. “He’d get so angry,” says Tamika Rainey, the elder Brown’s sister. “He had a fear, like a clock was ticking” (a “death doom,” she calls it) for his son. “Little Ed would always laugh and say, ‘What’s the matter with you, Daddy?’ ”

The second was Brown’s ongoing relationship with Tiana Phillips, a young woman he met at a Burger King drive-through. Brown was “so goofy,” she recalls. “He would order all this food he wouldn’t even eat just to talk to me. I finally gave him my phone number.” She started going to most of his fights, even to ones in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, and he moved in with her and her mother. Immediately, he was “the life of the house,” Phillips says.

Even with Brown turning things around, Cericola and Dunkin fretted. The streets were still the streets. Bullets could still find him.

In October 2015, they nearly did again. Brown and some friends had rented another party bus, this time to celebrate his 25th birthday. “Him and I agreed that he shouldn’t be out clubbing,” recalls Cericola. The bus was a compromise. The group parked on Jefferson Street in the South Loop, near the Roosevelt Road corridor of big-box stores. At some point, according to the police, an argument broke out and gunfire erupted. Three men were shot. Brown escaped without injury, but the incident was another reminder of the threats Chicago presented.

To Cericola and Dunkin, the solution seemed simple: leave. “You know we can send you somewhere,” Cericola told Brown at one point. “We could put you in the mountains, training with other fighters. We could put you in California. We could put you almost anywhere, with Cameron’s connections.”

Remaining in Chicago—in Garfield Park—was begging for trouble. Who knew that better than Brown? He wore the scars. How many friends had he lost?

“I tried every way to get him to leave,” Dunkin says. “He wasn’t doing anything bad, didn’t break the law. But I had told him, ‘You can be walking down the street there [and be in danger]. You’re living in a war zone. Why do you want to stay?’ ”

It’s easy to ask that from the outside. But shedding everything you know, what you’ve grown up around all your life, is not so simple. “A lot of these kids have never even left their neighborhood, let alone gotten on a plane,” says Cericola. Adds Hillmann: “Leaving would have been such a monstrous step for Ed. Leaving Chicago is essentially leaving George as a trainer and a father figure. That’s really hard. George really, really loves his fighters, and those fighters love him.”

Brown would flirt with the idea of moving, but then … what about his daughter? She was the most important thing in his life. How could he leave her? And what about Tiana? This wasn’t a casual thing. He loved her, her family. And he was only now getting to know his own father.

“If it was me—and this is the honest truth—I wouldn’t leave either,” says Boyd. “Not a chance until I knew I got enough money to take my mama and my brothers and my sisters with me, my daughter and the mother of my child with me. In Chicago, you wouldn’t just want to leave your people behind. That’s like somebody in a scary movie leaving their family in the woods with the killer.”

Brown’s wavering sparked tension between his manager and his trainer. “George and I would fight every day about it,” Cericola says. For his part, Hernandez insists that he wasn’t holding Brown back and that he actually encouraged him to leave—but only if the promises Dunkin was making, about a place to live and training support, were put on paper.

Brown continued to vacillate until an October night in 2016. That evening, Phillips’s brother—who had become one of Brown’s best friends—was shot and killed in an apparent drive-by.

Friends say that his death fundamentally changed Brown. Boyd recalls a conversation he had with the boxer not long afterward. Gone for good, it seemed, was the goofy Ed Brown, the man-child with the bulletproof swagger. “Li’l bro,” Brown told Boyd, “I’m just trying to better my life so me and my family and all of us can get up out of here. That street shit ain’t where it’s at no more.”

And then Brown said something Boyd will never forget: “The next time I get shot, I might not make it.”

One more fight, maybe two, and he’d be out of Chicago.

 

Friday, December 2, 2016, began for Brown the way most all of his recent days had. He woke up at 8 a.m. and headed out to the gym for a few hours, Tiana giving him the goodbye she always did: “Be careful. I love you.”

That night, he met up with Boyd for a second workout. Brown seemed unusually reflective, Boyd recalls. As they were leaving the gym around 7:30, Brown hugged Boyd and put his hands affectionately on the back of his friend’s head.

“I ain’t the best fighter you know?” Brown asked.

“Yeah, you know you the best fighter I know.”

Brown then declared that Boyd was going to win a Golden Gloves title.

“All right, li’l bro, I’ll see you in the morning,” Brown added.

But what Boyd remembers most about that conversation is what didn’t get said. “It’s something we always say in Chicago before we leave somebody: ‘Love. Keep your head up.’ I said, ‘Keep your head up, big bro.’ I was going to say ‘love,’ but then George started talking to us. When I walked away, I was like, Dang, I didn’t get to tell bro ‘love.’ Then he was already in the car, gone.”

 

Somebody knows why Ed Brown was out that night, on the street at that hour. Somebody knows why he was in the back seat of a sedan with his cousin at the wheel and beside her a friend who’d been with Brown at least two times he was shot.

And somebody knows why death couldn’t wait for him to get out of the city, as so many people had begged him to do. Go before it’s too late. Leave.

The police report put the time of the incident at 1:10 a.m., the location as the 3200 block of West Warren Boulevard in East Garfield Park, a few blocks from the gym. The cousin told police she had just pulled up to the curb on Warren when a silver sedan crept up and its occupants started shooting. Brown was hit in the head, left hand, and butt. His cousin took a bullet to the leg, but nothing lifethreatening.

Brown was rushed to nearby Mount Sinai Hospital, where doctors operated to reduce the swelling in his brain. He was placed on life support, on which he would remain throughout the night, the next day, and into the day after.

Cericola found out that Brown had been shot shortly after noticing two missed calls. “As soon as I saw that his dad called me two minutes after his girlfriend, I knew something was up,” he says. “The first call I made was to George. He answered the phone and said, ‘Is he dead?’ That’s how he answered, ‘Is he dead?’ I’ll never forget it.”

Boyd received his own call from a friend. “I just had that feeling, especially when they told me he got shot in the head, like, ‘Dang, bro, you just going to leave me like this?’ ”

Cericola rushed to the hospital. “There was a big crowd outside,” he says. “The police let family and people close to him sit in the emergency room. It wasn’t until the next day that we were able to actually go up, two by two, and see him.”

When he entered, Cericola recalls, Brown was hooked up to machines and tubes. The manager approached his boxer’s bed and whispered, “Fight. Just fight. We love you.” But it was clear to Cericola: “He was already, you know, he was already gone.”

At 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 4—39 hours after the shooting—Brown was declared dead.

Brown’s friends still have questions: Was it a random drive-by? Did a rival gang recognize the car Brown was in and move on him? Was he set up somehow? No arrests have been made, and police have refused to comment on a possible motive.

“You never know why a person might be trying to kill you out here,” says Boyd. “The hate and the envy, that is a big thing out of Chicago. Somebody see you doing good, and they not doing good—they ain’t got nothing or ain’t doing nothing. That’s just how Chicago is.”

Hernandez was so distraught about Brown’s death that he considered retiring—but was talked out of it by his Park District bosses. “I’ve got too much work to do,” he says. Hillmann, too, has thought about Brown’s death a lot and found no solace, no easy answers. “He was conflicted like all of us,” Hillmann says. “The darkness and the light inside of him were at war. All of it might be why he was such a great fighter. Because his whole life was a war, even when he was alone looking at himself in the mirror.”

 

 

 

Family and friends gather for Brown’s vigil in December near the Garfield Park Golden Dome Fieldhouse. Photo: Armando L. Sanchez/Chicago Tribune

 

 

In January, a little over a month after Brown’s death and nearly 20 years after he first stepped into the boxing gym in East Garfield Park, a tall young man of about 19 wandered through the door of that same building and took in the ring. He was here to see Hernandez, he said. But as hard as he worked to put on a brave face, he was clearly nervous, especially after Hernandez’s welcome, a version of which he’s given to hundreds of young men over the years:

“What the fuck? Who are you?” Hernandez briefly regarded the lanky newcomer, who had a scratchy goatee, baggy sweats, and scuffed high-tops. “This ain’t no amateur hour. These are professionals up in here.”

“I know.”

“You know. What you know? Sheeeeiiit.”

“I can take a punch.”

“Take a punch? You want to give a punch, not take a punch, motherfucker. Can you hang is my real question.”

“I can hang.”

Hernandez put a smirk in his voice. “I got a feeling you can’t. Get dressed. Que paso! I ain’t got time to wait!”

A short while later, after a horn blast, the young man pounded his gloves together and walked toward his opponent, one of the gym pros trained by Hernandez. He parried the first few blows and even landed a couple, but a straight right popped his mouthpiece out. He fought on, even as some of the other fighters yelled at Hernandez to stop the contest. Hernandez waved his hand. Let him go. A few seconds later, the newcomer was on his butt.

He scrambled to his feet and threw a few more punches, then clinched for dear life as blows continued to rain down. When the horn blasted again, a second fighter replaced the first and began pummeling the newcomer, whose white T-shirt was now speckled with blood. Hernandez pretended not to pay attention, chatting with another boxer just outside the ring about a fight from the weekend. When the horn sounded a third time, the newcomer lurched toward the corner, his nose a crimson blossom. “I’m good,” he said as a corner man cleaned him up. After a few minutes, the horn sounded again, and he was back in the ring. Overhead, a pair of black shorts with “Bad Boy” stitched across the waistband hung from a wire.

Hernandez watched out of the corner of his eye for a bit. Then he went into his office and lit a cigar next to that wall filled with photos—photos of bulletproof boys.

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