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We'll never turn anyone away. As long as I am alive, this gym will be open.
Chris Burns, Boxing Coach

Fighting for a Legacy

In a tiny classroom just off Geddes Street, Chris Burns works with students who are looking for a leg up in the workforce. Teaching is how he earns a paycheck, but his real passion lies in coaching local youth in a boxing ring.

There’s no money in it, but for Burns, it’s a job worth committing to.

“Monetary value is only one kind of value,” Burns said, “I get more out of this than that.”

Burns admits the job keeps him away from home a little more than his family would like.

“Sixty-five hours a week is a normal work week for me, plus 2 weeks away from home a year,” Burns said, “I’m lucky because I have a very understanding wife who knows I was married to boxing long before I was married to her.”

Burns got his start in the gym just like most of the kids that come through the North and West side Athletic and Education Centers, as a kid looking for some direction.

“I was 12 the first time I walked into a gym.” Burns says, ”I was a little overweight and I just wanted to find something positive to channel my energy into.”

The man that helped shape that pudgy kid is the same man Burns is trying to emulate.

“It all makes sense now, everything I want to do in boxing is because of Ray.” Burns says, “Whenever I’m coaching a kid, it’s Ray coaching them.”

Ray Rinaldi is a legend in Syracuse. A United States Army veteran and golden gloves boxer, Ray started his youth boxing program more than 50 years ago to mentor and encourage kids like Burns, who were hoping to become something more than a product of their environment.

“If they didn’t come to your place, they’d be out on the street,” Rinaldi says. “Who would give them a second chance?”

Rinaldi says his program keeps kids off the streets and gives them something to focus on, preparing them for a life as a person of strong moral character.

“Not all of these kids are going to go on to be professional boxers or professional fighters, but they’ll be disciplined.” RInaldi says, “That’s what it’s really about. Instilling that discipline.”

An example of Rinaldi’s program’s success is Martez Potter, a local boxer in his sixth year with the gym.

Potter was 15 years old when he came into Rinaldi’s gym, looking for direction. He was told he was too small for football, and his grades were suffering. Burns saw something familiar in the skinny kid from the wrong side of town.

“I saw a lot of myself in him,” Burns said. “I knew Martez didn't have an equal shot growing up in the neighborhood he grew up in. Crime, drugs… and he was able to turn his back to all of that and able to succeed.”

Potter grew up with a lot of responsibility to tackle. He wanted to help take care of his family and wanted to bring food to the table and help provide for his disabled uncle.

“I felt like I had to give back,” Potter says, “They took care of me, so I wanted to take care of them.

Monthly boxing bouts punctuated Potter’s teenage years. The gym gave Martez a place to refocus while finishing high school and while taking on multiple jobs.

Rinaldi and Burns have been with Potter through many of his biggest moments.

“They were even at my high school graduation,” Martez says, “I don’t even know if I would have graduated if I hadn’t had boxing to keep me focused. Now I’ve got two jobs and can count the number of days of work I’ve missed on one hand.”

Rinaldi’s program is a non-profit. He runs two education and athletic facilities on the North and West side of Syracuse on donations and grants alone. Rinaldi says that success stories like Potter’s are at the mercy of a dwindling economy.

On average, it takes about $162,000 a year to keep Rinaldi’s two facilities up and running. Those expenses include gas, electric, equipment and other maintenance fees. The amount of money coming into the gym from organizations like the Boehiem Foundation and the Department of Social Services has dramatically decreased over the last three years.

“We’re worried because, sooner or later, we’ll be boxing in sweats by because we can’t keep the heat on,” said Burns.

Other organizations have stepped up to try and help Rinaldi, including the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association, but the community is still aware that the smaller donations are not enough.

“We made the decision to donate $10,000 to Ray every year,” says Jeff Piedmonte, president of the Syracuse Police Benevolent Association. “We wish we could do more, we know they’re still hurting.”

In the meantime, Ray will keep looking for grant and donation opportunities. After all, it’s not just his legacy he’s trying to preserve. Surviving the economic 1-2 punch is all about passing on this tradition of discipline to the next generation, which Ray believes will be lead by none other than his most dedicated coach- Burns.

“He’ll be here,” said Rinaldi. “We talked about it, I just want to make sure that the community is behind him. I want this to be done right, so he doesn’t get hurt.”

Burns says regardless of the gym’s struggles, he’ll make sure these kids have the same opportunities he and Martez were given.

“As long as I am alive, this gym will be open,” said Burns.