Moe Rites is like a character from central casting—the former featherweight boxing champ with heart, who opens a gym in his hometown to keep kids off the street and pass along the wisdom he’s gained from taking a punch or two.
In this case, the golden gloves, the heart and the wisdom are real.
Since Rites and partner Raj Manoharan opened their gym at 900 Leeds Avenue in Arbutus, the facility has become a popular spot for people of all types—men and women, girls and boys, from elementary-school age to middle age—who have become students of the so-called "sweet science."
What they learn is that 95 percent of boxing is throwing your fists around, slugging a heavy bag or rapidly rapping the speed bag. Add in some weight-lifting for strength and jump rope for cardio, and you've got an exercise routine that is unrivaled. But the sport also takes an amazing amount of control.
As the regulars partake of this challenging combination of fitness and mental training, Rites circulates through the gym barking orders, pulling somebody off the uppercut bag to spar with punch mitts, and then on to the double-end bag.
“It’s a great workout,” says Matt Federline, whose 9-year-old son, Mark--a student at Halethorpe Elementary School-- has been training at Mighty Moe’s Gym for about two months.
“He loves to come down here and box after school,” Federline says. “It builds confidence big time, and he’s experiencing something different.”
Almost 50 members have joined the gym, paying $60 a month to use the facility and train with Rites. The gym is open Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., and until 3 p.m. on Saturday.
As a boxer and trainer, Rites has a reputation that follows him from gym to gym. He was the trainer at Arbutus Boxing Club until it closed in 2000, then worked in Fells Point at Baltimore Boxing Club until opening Mighty Moe’s with Manoharan in January.
Rites was raised in Irvington, and at an early age moved to Arbutus. The pugilistic arts gave his life a purpose and direction, and a focus to keep demons at bay. Boxing “kept me out of jail,” Rites admits.
“If I hadn’t gone into boxing, I’d probably be locked up or dead,” he goes on to say. “Boxing taught me discipline and respect. Instead of going out and robbing people, I work it out in the gym.”
During his three-year amateur career as a featherweight, Rites had 21 wins and nine losses. In 1995 he was Golden Gloves and the featherweight champion, and in the following year the lightweight champion. As a professional boxer, Rites had one win, one loss and three draws. Last fall he was inducted into the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame.
Rites is also something of a celebrity trainer, working with Chris Carr and Tom Zbikowski of the Baltimore Ravens, Rudy Gay of the Memphis Grizzlies, Baltimore-born R&B singer Mario, and Christine Williams of R&B group RichGirl.
"Doctors, lawyers, nurses, all walks of life come in here," Rites says.
On a typical afternoon at Mighty Moe's, it isn’t unusual to find two-time Golden Glove winner Gary Monroe of Arbutus, or Olympic team boxer Marcus Henry of Owings Mills, named Baltimore’s Best Boxer by City Paper in 2005 (with a record of 34 wins and four losses, including 25 knockouts) training with Steve Bucci of Baltimore.
One regular is Michael Heuther, a private tutor and special education teacher at Sparrows Point High School, given the ring name “Boy Scout Mike” by the gang at Mighty Moe’s.
Heuther, 58, took up boxing at age 42. “I got into this to keep in shape,” he says.
During the afternoons after school, Heuther helps kids with their homework and other school issues. “If they’re having difficulties in school, they have an opportunity to talk with me,” he says. “I tutor them and spar with them, too.”
Students have to have passing grades to use the gym. “If they don’t have a good report card, they’ll be sitting out here with Boy Scout Mike and watching everybody else in the gym,” Rites says.
Within the ring, boxing isn’t about the ability to take a punch or render your opponent unconscious, but about learning to think clearly with a fist headed toward you, keeping your impulses and anger in check.
“You have to control yourself while still being aggressive,” says Victor Fernandez, 18, of Arbutus. “You can’t make mistakes. If you let that anger out, you’ll lose your balance, get your footwork messed up and everything like that.”
While mixed martial arts and other forms of fighting have gained popularity, boxing retains a timelessness and purity that is appealing.
"Everybody's getting into the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championships] and MMA [mixed martial arts], but there's a complete difference between boxing and MMA," says Greg Wright of Catonsville, a criminal justice student at Towson University.
"It's not just getting in there and brawling somebody," he says. "It's moving somebody, picking your spots, making them uncomfortable. Like they say, it's a sweet science. Not everybody can do it."