Sports

A shared dream in the boxing ring

Two men wearing heavy gloves, moving, feinting, jabbing; a home-built, slightly dilapidated boxing ring; the metal box of a building that houses it all.

Welcome to Tony Sadler's world.

Inside Unit B, one of a collection of rental storage units near Two Notch Road, is testament to one man's passion. A photo of a 25-year-old Sadler in 1976 - sleek and fit at 175 pounds, gloved fists at the ready - hangs on one wall. Nearby, a sign declares "Tony J. Sadler is a member of United States Boxing in good standing for membership year" - the scratched-out date seems to read 1985 - "as a judge (and) coach."

Also taped above a bank of stained mirrors is a "million-dollar bill" with the hand-written message underneath: "That's the millions of $$$ that could be yours if you TRAIN HARDER."

Sadler, 58, opened his bare-bones gym in March 2008. Three evenings a week, 15-20 would-be fighters, from young teens to 55-year-old Gil Jacobs, show up to pound two heavy bags and a speed bag, do sit-ups and pushups and lift weights, but mostly to climb inside Sadler's ring and test themselves against one another.

A protege of the late Chris Hitopoulos, longtime S.C. Boxing Commission member and Columbia boxing guru who died in 1998, Sadler said he "continue(s) Chris' tradition of helping kids." But his pupils, who pay nothing to train, are not the only reason he does it.

In the ring, eldest son Antonio Sadler, 26 and a chiseled 149 pounds, bobs and weaves as sparring partner Chad Oldham fires punches. Sadler does not hit back; this drill is about defense. The younger Sadler _ "Quan" to his family, from his middle name, Daquan - knows he can punch.

He showed that Aug. 8 in his first professional bout, held at Columbia's Convention Center. With 1:36 left in the first round, Sadler - billed as "The Sandman," a moniker conceived by his mother, Mary - caught junior middleweight opponent Michael Taylor with a sudden right uppercut, set up by a left hook. Taylor went sprawling to the canvas, feet in the air, out cold.

On a video made that night, Antonio reveled in the victory before thanking "my dad for making this all possible." He said his father had come up with the winning combination the night before.

Hearing his son's words again, Tony Sadler smiled hugely. Then he eased himself into a wheelchair that is never far away.

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Tony Sadler wears special shoes and uses a cane when he walks. Some days the pain in his neck, exceeded only by the pain in his back, forces him to wear a cervical collar as well.

At 19, Sadler was a member of a U.S. Marines Air Wing, servicing electronics in A-6 jets. One day while removing a "black box" from a plane's belly, he lost his footing, suffering a herniated disc and an injury to his C6 cervical (neck) vertebra.

He recovered, even fought in the Eastern Collegiate Boxing Association while attending USC, and boxed into his 30s. "But (doctors) told me when I got older, (the injuries) would bother me, get worse," Sadler said.

The doctors were right.

At age 40, "it came on like gangbusters," he said. "Everything broke down." Injections were followed in 1999 by the first of several surgeries. Today, he has almost no feeling in his left leg, perhaps 60 percent in his right, and is on full disability.

Most of his weekdays begin around 3:30 p.m., when Sadler struggles out of bed to fetch his youngest of five children, 14-year-old Ty-Keem, from school. Then it's back to bed, stretched atop a heating pad.

Exceptions are Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Sunday afternoons, when he opens the gym, and other days when he trains Antonio.

"This helps me more than anything," he said. "If I wasn't here, I'd be in bed more than I should be.

"Sometimes, I started to give it up. My wife said, 'What else will you do?'"

Sadler does not dispute he is living out his own short-circuited boxing career through his son. "I live through his career - a lot," he said. Though he said he has never forced any of his four sons into boxing - "it's not the sort of sport to push a kid into; (it's) controlled brutality," he said - with Antonio he has pushed the envelope.

"At first, I was scared (of boxing)," Mary said. "But with Antonio, it seems natural."

"I'm hard on him," Tony Sadler said. "I tell him he has to put in the time and work. I tell him, 'You have a talent.'"

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For much of his life, none of that mattered as match as other things to Antonio.

"Gangs, the street," he said. "From middle school until about two years ago, I was good at not getting in trouble for the things I was doing - things I'm not proud of now."

Antonio, who lives with his parents, admits serving time at 18 in a correctional "boot camp" after being charged with strong-arm robbery - no weapon, he said, just his fists - following a dispute "over a bag of marijuana."

Well-spoken and intelligent - he claims to have scored 1340 on a PSAT and says he made good grades at Columbia High - Antonio blames his misspent youth on "boredom." He also saw boxing as a diversion.

"He had a lazy streak, didn't like to train," his mother said. Then, about a year ago, she said, the light came on.

"He was watching a fight on TV," she said, "and through the whole thing, he was saying, 'I can do this. I want to do this.' Afterward he said, 'Daddy, I want to step up and do it.'"

Antonio's demeanor now is all enthusiasm. "I even like to get hit," he said. "It makes me feel alive. I love coming out with a torn lip, getting hit in the mouth, tasting blood."

There's a side benefit to boxing, too: "It's a way to channel my aggression," he said.

Since his pro debut, he quit a server's job at an Applebee's to take a third-shift assembly-line job with Columbia Farms to make better money and, he said, have more training time.

Prior to that fight, he had split four amateur bouts, losing his last fight in Charleston in February. "When I lost those, it motivated me," Antonio said. "I've got to have focus; talent isn't enough."

Midlands boxing observers are not sold yet. One Palmetto Boxing insider said his group pursued the younger Sadler for a month. "He likes the attention," the insider said, insinuating that training was another matter.

But Antonio said that attitude is gone, though he is not modest about his abilities.

"I kick butt," he said, grinning. "I feel good and I look good, too. A lot of people told me (boxing is) tougher than I think, but I say, 'I'll win one punch at a time.' All I need is the opportunity."

Those have been in short supply so far. Antonio has not fought since his pro debut, and was turned down for a spot on an already-filled card Nov. 21 at Columbia's Radisson Hotel.

He said that will not deter him. He sees boxing as a way to make money, help his family - and, he admits, please his devoted father.

"I'd like him to see me successful," he said. "(Tony's health) affects me more than I want to say. He's been there for me the whole time, and I'd like him to see me on top before his time is up."

Antonio shook a visitor's hand, then walked inside Unit B, where he and his father moved back into the ring, working on their common dream.

Welcome to Tony Sadler's world - and now, his son's, too.

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