In every community, there are people who talk about making a difference — and then there are people who just do it.
Hal Chernoff gets it done.
Coach Chernoff has been training boxers for 26 years. He has dedicated all of his time to working with competitive boxers on both the amateur and professional levels.
His most famous disciples are the Guerrero Brothers — Fernando and Alex — who have risen to national fame for the fundamentals, training and skills.
He is continually sought out by local athletes, and he has taught a collection of regular folks the benefits of the boxing workout.
Using his understanding of conditioning both the body and the mind, Chernoff has earned a reputation as a true training “guru” to young lacrosse, soccer and baseball athletes, middle-aged golfers, runners of all ages, and adults in search of better health and all around functional fitness.
Chernoff can be found daily at Main Street Boxing Gym in Salisbury, a facility he has helped to create with the local community leaders. Built from the ground up, the gym is a haven for kids of all races and nationalities.
In this training ground, Chernoff helps dreams come true — he works tirelessly to teach character and discipline, both of which are qualities that are essential to a boxer’s training and success.
Q. Where did you develop your love for boxing?
A. Boxing was a dominant sport when I grew up. ABC and NBC had a weekly fight series that went on for years. There was the Gillette Cavalcade of Sports and the Fight of the Week with the best fighters in the world on regular TV.
Then boxing telecast only came when there were big fights. There was the Wide World of sports, and then came Pay per view and Showtime. There was a history in boxing and my Dad talked about great fighters and admired their talent.
We lived on a farm in Upstate New York and we had our own boxing legend in Carmen Basilio. He came off a family farm in Canastota to become a world Champion back when there was only one in each weight division. He used to come and talk to the different organization in our area like the Rotary club or the American Legion.
We took pride I the fact that Basilio “Sugar Ray Robinson, who has been voted the greatest fighter of all time. I never thought back then that I would be involved in the sport like now, but this is what I do just.
Last week I was called to help work the corner of World Welterweight Champion Shawn Porter, when he defends his title in Los Angeles, as the main event on Showtime. You never know what’s next.
Q. Who is the best boxer you ever saw?
A. That is a hard question because there are so many great fighters and great fights that made great fighters.
I still think Ray Robinson was the best, but who can deny the feeling of watching Ali in the ring. When he fought Frasier or did the “Ropadope” against Foreman — it was pure genius and a huge gamble, but when the gamble pays off, that’s what makes it genius.
There was Joe Louis, who could knock a guy out with a 6-inch punch.
Never had there been a sports competition that was followed like second fight between Louis and Schmelling. The whole world watched as Louis represented the entire free world against Germany’s Champion.
Sometimes what makes you like a fighter is the back story, the little things: like when Ali grabbed Big George Foreman around the neck and pulled him in close to tell him, “It’s my turn now George” and then takes him out.
That sends chills up my spine.
Q. What was seeing him like?
A. I never saw Ali in person, but did of course watch him live against all the greats, Fraser, Foreman, Norton, all of them. For me, it was like watching your team the last inning of the last game of the World Series, with a 3-2 count, except you got to watch it for 15 three-minute rounds.
Q. Tell me about finding Fernando.
A. Fernando came to the gym because his older brothers had found us and started coming to train. Carmelo and Alex actually started before him.
I was either taking Carmelo home or picking him up and saw Fernando sitting on the steps, so I asked who he was. When I learned he was the little brother, I called him over to the truck and asked him why he wasn’t in the gym.
At that point he wasn’t interested in boxing, but he came in a week later, and I think seeing his older brother train motivated him to stay.
Q. What makes Fernando special?
A. He was very eager to learn and was willing to listen and work hard. Boxing is a real grind over the years and just finding someone that will stick with it is probably the biggest attribute you need for success.
You look at Alex and he is still grinding away and he is seeing success as well.
Q. What was it like helping Fernando get so far and essentially handing him off?
A. When I was working with Fernando, my only focus for him was to continue to learn and get better and take him as far as he could go. Your ego can get in the way when your fighter wants a different path, but then you’re fighting your fighter and that doesn’t work.
I have fought for my guys and along side them, but it makes no sense to fight against them.
So when a fighter believes he needs something different, whether he’s is correct or not, you have to let him go and let the chips fall where they will.
How I felt about it was irrelevant, you just have to accept that everything works out like it is suppose to in the end. It just wasn’t in the cards for me to take that fighter to a world title.
Q. Tell me about Alex.
A. Alex Guerrero is a sleeper, meaning he was always in his brother’s shadow, but he continued to improve and has a lot of good qualities that are respected by people that know boxing and know him.
He is strong, and possesses good technique in all of his punches. But he has a ton of heart and in the ring and can put tremendous pressure on you, so you can’t get a good rhythm going.
He can also box and move on you, so that give him options
We have been working with Champs Management Group out of Wilmington and they are working on a fight in September. Also we are also working hard to bring a fight back to Salisbury.
Today I got a call to see if Alex would have interest in going to Poland to fight for the WBO International Title. My job is to look closely at the offer and weigh everything out so we can make a good decision.
It proves Alex is on the radar for sure as he continues to get better. But unlike a 20-year-old, he does not have a 10 years ahead of him in the sport. We are looking at three or four.
Alex is completely content to spend his career and life here on the Shore. Alex has no desire to relocate and basically wants to see what we can accomplish together from here.
If that’s what he wants, them I am here for him.
Q. Who is the better boxer? Who has the greater potential.
A. They are two different weight classes and two different styles and they have different qualities. Back when Fernando was training here he was slicker than Alex, but I don’t know if that would be the case now. Maybe someday Alex’s brother will want to go up to cruiserweight and then we would all find out the answer to that question.
After Fernando left, it seemed like there were things lacking in his style. Boxing can be a very unforgiving sport and the losses to Quillen and Lemieux will either motivate or undermine a climb back to the top, I have seen it do both.
My focus is on Alex improving so we can make our push up the ladder. The most important thing is that you get the opportunity to go for it.
Who wants to look back in 15 years and wonder what you could have done, given the chance.
Losing is not the worst thing, not knowing: That’s the worst thing.
Q. You work each day with kids who live in Salisbury. What do you see?
A. Working with kids everyday I see trends that have changed through the years and it bothers me a lot. There are a large number of kids that are getting farther and farther away from those basic core values.
What scares me is when I try to imagine if it can ever turn back. Someday the kids that you see just hanging out or in gangs and on the street will get old and the question is what comes behind them.
I am not seeing a change in the value system, so it is hard to expect a change in our culture. I have no idea how to fix the big picture so I focus on only what I can control.
Too many kids are not taught the basics values early enough and consistently enough so it is ingrained in them.
All kids can drift off course, but at least the one that were taught core values early on have something to gravitate back to when they start to mature.
Some kids have nothing solid to go back to when the time comes for a change.
Q. How deep are the problems with Salisbury’s youth?
A. The problems are deep, Too deep for the schools to fix, too deep for the police to fix and too deep for the court system to fix. We have some people in all those areas that try, good people, but the numbers of kids that need help are growing while the numbers of people trying to help is getting smaller.
You just do what you can do, knowing you can’t change the world but you might change a few people in it.
People will either be part of the problem or part of the solution and you decide which part you want to be, then go with it.
Q. Do you see a gang problem? Are the young men you deal with torn by their various alliances?
A. I have had kids come in that were affected by the gang involvement, but I have not heard of any gang forcing someone to get out of the gym.
I am usually that one tries to talk to them in a way that doesn’t say, “you have to do this or that, because that approach will probably drive a kid away and in order to help a kid, you first have to get him in the program.
You have to make them understand reason and listen to common sense at least for a few minutes. I try to let them know what Main Street Gym is about and I explain that it’s cool if you come in and become part of it. Then I just explain that it’s all about making choices.
You can’t take both forks in the road and I don’t force them which way to go. I just lay it out so they understand and hope they are ready to make a change. But I want to leave the door open if they get it in the future.
I have seen it all, so when these kids come in and see this old white guy, they don’t understand what I have seen and dealt with over the years. But the longer they are in the gym the more they realize that. I understand more than they know.
Q. What are the solutions to some of our youth problems?
A. Well, I can say there is no quick fixes. No program, no school and no government can come up with a program that can turn things around quickly. It takes years for a solid normal family to raise good kids and it is the hardest job in the world
My proudest accomplishment in my life is that my daughter turned out to be a good person, and a good mother. But that was over 18 years if parenting and being around every day.
Now you take a kid who has no father, a poor home life, a kid that does not have someone there every day of his life teaching him about all the values he should have.
It’s hard to imagine any program that will make a permanent difference in a short time span. You are working from the outside trying to do a job that was suppose to be done from the inside.
Many kids that have come into the program wound up living in our home. It is probably the best way to make an impact, day by day over a long period of time.
If you want to make the same kind of impact parents are suppose to make you have to be willing to make the same sacrifices that parents have to make with their own kids.
The reason Main Street Gym has success is in part because the sport of boxing, does not have a season, it is year round that means more time with the kids. It does not end with a season or because they graduate high school. It is a sport where an 8 year old can start and come in all week long, all month, all year long, year, after year.
That’s what it takes to fix the problem, time and consistency. I am working with kids that are 9 who have been with me for 3 years, kids 16 that have been with me eight years, Alex has been with me since he was 16 or 17, and now he is 31.
Fernando, was with me for 12 years. It’s all about putting in the time and being constant with your philosophies.
Schools work to prepare kids for higher education, but I don’t see these kids prepared for the workforce. I would like to see a realistic place that teaches what it is like to work in a construction environment, a place where kids go to learn exactly what is expected of them and some of the basics that will at least get them started on the right foot.
The vocational courses in schools are a start but I have seem a lot of kids hit the jobsite and didn’t realize the pace and the expectations that differ from a controlled environment. I would like to see more courses about how to handle money and basic living finances and the day to day things you run into in the real world.
The most basic of concepts is getting lost, if you want something, you have to work for it.
Q. How does Main Street Gym help?
A. I like to think of the Gym as the rock, the place where everything is constant, and solid. It’s a place that a kid can feel safe, which is strange when you think that it’s a boxing gym.
But it’s a place where all kids get respect and are treated equal. If you’re considered a little different in other circles, we don’t care. It’s all about a good attitude.
When you show that, you rise to the top no matter what you look like or how talented you are. We try to instill those times tested values of hard work, and discipline. We demand a given respect to the coaches when you start, but work to turns it into an earned respect, which is the best kind.
We want kids to have pride, but we want the right kind of pride. We teach kids to stay humble and hungry so they never stop striving to be better. We do not subscribe to the theory that everyone is a winner. Everyone is not a winner and losing can hurt but must be handled with dignity.
We work to show kids some semblance of normalcy like last week when we took all the kids fishing and then did a cook out. Now I have seen the reaction of kids winning a boxing trophy, but it was a whole new level when they caught a fish and they all caught fish.
There are thousands of boxing gyms across the country and only a few have ever created world champions, so if all you look at is how many champions your create, as a gage of success, we failed a lot, but if you put a value on how much effect you have on a kids life and how much we might add his quality of life, we have winning record for sure.
Q. What are the primary principles that you preach?
A. I’m not a Preacher so I don’t preach. I inform, I try to lead by example, and I try to get kids to understand why right overcomes wrong,.
In the sport of boxing, sportsmanship is a such a treat to watch. Two guys throwing punches at each other round after round and the second the final bell rings the boxers immediately embrace each other in recognition of the respect they have for each other.
They understand what the other must go through and sacrifice to be able to compete at that level.
We talk about community and how this town has helped us to exist. That means you should appreciate that help and this community. People buy tickets for raffles, donate funds to the Gym and help in other ways because they believe these kids are worth the investment, so I say, don’t let these people down, they believe in you.
They other day I took all the kids to Vinny’s LaRoma for pizza. I was walking out with one of one of the kids who is 9 and has about 13 fights, when a patron asked me if this was one of my boxers, he then asked to meet him.
It was a thrill to that kid that someone recognized he was a boxer and wanted to meet him. It gave me the opportunity to explain why you always want to be friendly and polite to people.
That guy might want to come out a watch you when you fight and cheer for you.
Q. What do you say to people who say boxing promotes violence?
A. I think I have a much better vantage point to determine if boxing promotes violence. With 27 years of experience I can say without a doubt that boxing not only does not promote violence it is a deterrent to violence for kids who come into well structured boxing programs.
Boxing has always been and still is, one of the best deterrents to violence. It was used to get those violent kids off the streets, in the 1920s when the Golden Gloves was started and it is still the key in thousands of gym to combat violence in every city in the USA. That is why so many cities target funds for boxing programs, because it works and everyone even remotely involved, knows it works.
Violence and boxing are two separate things and when a kid starts boxing, he is in a structured setting, working to practice and compete by strict rules. He is listening to instructions and forming a bond with his coach who, if necessary uses boxing as a privilege that can be taken away if the boxer does gets involved in negative things outside the gym.
All you have to do is talk to the parents of problem kids. Talk to the teachers of problem kids.
They too had concerns about boxing promoting violence, but when you are at your wits end with nowhere to turn they take the chance and find out the truth, boxing is a deterrent.
If that were not so, I would not be doing it for 27 years.
A huge percentage of kids who come into the sport come from street violence and leave it behind, including a large number of today’s champions.
Q. What’s the best boxing advice you have received?
A. I have gotten some great advice from many coaches and some were like mentors to me, most have passed on. The late Mr. Truman Tuttle who worked with a young Sugar Ray Leonard, told me about competition: “Know the rule book, it can be your worst enemy in a big competition or it can be your best friend”
Barry Hunter, Trainer of World Champion Lamont Peterson once told me about losing a fighter that you put a lot of time into, “ It hurts but it’s a part of boxing and you’re not a complete coach until you go through it.”
And the best advice I heard from the Elmo Adolph a referee that worked many world title fights, said your biggest wins will be outside the ring … he knew.
Q. How can people in the community help you in your work at Main Street Gym?
A. I wish I had another answer because it always seems to come down to funding.
We have had so much help in the past that I will never be able to thank some people like Dan Burt who spearheaded the building of the new Main Street Gym and put in so much time work and money to get us into this great facility.
Don Hall who let us use his property for free way back in the beginning or Gillis-Gilkerson who helped with the land. There are countless others that helped in various ways donating work or money.
We have as solid board of directors with people like Mark Granger, Sandy Fitzgerald, Dennis Weller, Dan Burt, and my wife Nancy Chernoff, who all work so hard behind the scene.
I am a very lucky man, when I stop long enough to think about it.
But anyone that has ever been part of a nonprofit understands that a big part of the work is raising funds to keep it going. It’s not the fun part, but it is necessary.
We have sponsors like like Pohanka, Rommel, Robinson’s Family of Businesses and Yard Design, as well as others that help when they can, but we are always working to raise funds to keep the doors open.
We have applied for grants but have not been successful in getting the kind of funds that would take the strain off us so we could focus more on our work with the kids.
If any person or organization wanted to help us, we are a 501-3(c) so all contributions are tax deductible.
If there was a grant writer that would be willing to help us it could be a huge factor. Programs in the Baltimore and D.C. get large grant to insure that those programs continue to run, but we rely on the generosity of local businesses, individuals and other civic organizations.
Another way people can help is by supporting our events. We work hard to raise the money to buy holding events at the gym such as the Casino Night, the Cornhole Tournament and boxing events.
Coming out to these events are a guarantee you will have a great time and they are always very reasonably priced.
Q. What’s your favorite thing about living in the Salisbury community?
A.That this is my home. I came here 39 years ago and sank my roots deep. My wife and I have had a good life here, we have good friends here and I have experienced what it feels like to be taken in by good people and made to feel welcome way back when I first moved down here to Parsonsburg.
I was given the privilege of having an entire community get behind us as we climbed the boxing ladder and fought in the Civic Center and the Shorebird Stadium.
That kind of support was humbling and I felt a huge responsibility to live up to what we had created.
You asked how it felt to lose a fighter that you trained for so many years, but what feels worse was not delivering a home grown World Champion when your town wanted it so badly. I saw how it brought the entire Eastern Shore together and it was beautiful thing.
But I have also seen how people in this community supported the gym when it had nothing to do with the bright lights, ShowBox or ESPN. I see the support we get when it’s just some overweight kid that gets picked on in school, or a little kid that we picked up at the homeless shelter and brought to the gym. I received calls from the American Legion, the Eagles Men’s Club to help the Main St Gym.
I am always shocked, humbled and appreciative of any one that helps the program.
This town is not just where I live, this place is who I am.
Q. If you and I got in the ring, how many 10ths of a second would it take for you to knock me out?
A. The only time I ever wanted to knock you out was watching you hit your golf ball as straight and as far as you wanted … every single time.
Greg Bassett is editor and general manager of Salisbury Independent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org