By J. Matt Barber
As you climb the murky stairwell and enter Chicago’s Windy City Gym, you’re greeted by a symphony of sights and sounds, perhaps only properly appreciated by an enthusiast of the Sweet Science.
The percussive swat of leather jump ropes against the old hardwood floor combines with rapid-fire speed-bag and rhythmic, muffled blows against a heavy-bag. The musty air betrays the ghosts of fighters past, who spilled both sweat and blood in preparation for bouts fought long ago; but, remembered still today on walls adorned with classic fight posters and other memorabilia. The oldest active boxing gym in the U.S., Windy City is as much a museum as it is a place to train.
As combatants spar in one of the gym’s two rings, teammates and trainers gather-round the ring apron and shout instructions; “Use the jab!” “Move your head!” “Work the body!” There’s a hopeful energy, forecasting victory in bouts yet to come.
Behind the counter sits Willy Williams, the gym’s seasoned, witty and good-natured Manager, sharing humorous anecdotes with a few dawdlers who should be doing stomach work. And in the gym’s second ring, Head Trainer Sam Colonna shuf-fles from side to side; holding the pads as Andrew Golota ominously delivers punches with frightening speed, accuracy and power.
In the world of boxing, it’s a well-known adage; “behind every great fighter is a great trainer.” So, what kind of trainer is Sam Colonna? In addition to Andrew Golota, Colonna has trained such fighters as Angel Manfredy, Angel Hernandez and Vaughn Bean. He has worked with hundreds of amateurs and has cultivated scores of Chicago Golden-Gloves, Illinois State and National Golden-Gloves champions. Moreover, Sam has mentored hundreds of professional fighters (yours truly included) and continues today, to maintain a stable of prospects, the envy of trainers, managers and promoters throughout the worldwide boxing fraternity.
Whereas, many trainers take an approach akin to that of a hung-over Marine Drill Instructor with a rash, Sam’s training style is one of calculating calm and steady instruction. He doesn’t raise his voice; he’s not insulting. Although he’s not prone to shout or belittle, neither is he one to sugarcoat reality. If a fighter’s fat, he’ll tell him so. Out of shape? - Forget it; he’ll work you until you wish you’d been a tennis pro. If you’re looking for contrived stroke and false flattery, take it down the street; Sam doesn’t like to play games. He tells it like it is.
Yet, rugged honesty is only part of Sam’s allure; his base of knowledge and wisdom in the fight game, coupled with his ability to impart that knowledge and wisdom, is rivaled by only a handful of other trainers past or present.
But, what really sets Sam apart from all the rest is his character. In a sport that has a reputation, fair or not, for shady deals, Mob ties and fighter exploitation; Sam Colonna is a rare beacon of integrity. Countless “at risk” inner-city children and teens have found a home at the Windy City Gym, and have found a true roll model in Sam Colonna. If necessary, he’ll afford a fourteen-year-old novice with a drug problem as much time and attention as a top middleweight contender preparing for a title shot. Don’t have a job? Sam has one for you. He’ll have you up at 4:30 a.m. running alongside his car throwing newspapers for his delivery service. Don’t have a place to live? Sam’s been known to let fighters stay in the gym’s adjacent and ample living quarters until they’re back on their feet.
Still, the best measure of Sam’s character is his reputation among his colleagues within the diverse boxing community. Sam is one of the most appreciated, well-respected and trustworthy individuals in the fight-game. As those who know him will attest, he has a true heart for his fighters. It’s patently clear that Sam is more concerned about the person wearing the gloves than any personal gain he might receive when those gloves fly into action.
So on November 13th, when Andrew Golota challenges John Ruiz for the WBA world heavyweight title at New York’s Madison Square Garden, don’t forget to look for Sam Colonna in Golota’s corner. Consider the trainer behind the fighter as he provides his own brand of calm, reassuring and effective instruction. And to the benefit of boxing, if his past successes and present circumstances are any indication, Sam won’t be throwing in the towel anytime soon.