The Ring of Truth
THE WILMINGTON BOXING Center sits a half-mile east of the Cape Fear River, and in the summer of 1993 it’s already old. A former firehouse, it has block walls with peeling gray paint, stingy lighting and grimy single-pane windows. Its concrete floors are worn bare and rutted with decades of foot travel.
Just past the entrance sits an undersized weight room with aging, hobbled equipment. Next to it is Coach’s office—a cramped space with a sagging door and hoary furniture. Beyond that is the former main bay, a stark, two-story room dominated by the boxing ring—a steel-and-canvas structure surrounded by duct-taped, misshapen heavy bags. Overhanging the ring is an old behemoth industrial heater, the sole source of warmth on cold and blustery Carolina winter nights.
A pungent smell of sweat on leather permeates the place. The soft swooshing sound of jump ropes—infused with the mechanical thwack of 16-ounce gloves on heavy bags—creates an ever-present white noise. The passing of time is marked every three minutes with the high, shrill peel of a round clock. After hours, the building looks post-mortem. But by day, it is robust with high-pitched energy—filled with the action of young people in the midst of hand-to-hand fighting and the smell of blood on canvas.
The gym is positioned on the front line of America’s class war: between the quaint, historic river district of an old Southern port town and the Jervay projects—the fin-de-siècle African-American remnants of centuries of racial and economic subjugation. The faces permeating the center are serious and alert; most are black, with a smattering of white. Talk is limited and laughter rare.
Sherriedale Morgan, universally known as Coach, is a slight black man with graying Jheri-curl hair, glasses and a mustache. In 1993, he is 59 years old, and in the center he is a god. He has been in boxing since his father chased him out of his Michigan home at the age of 12 to face a group of antagonistic neighborhood boys. He’s fought in the Pan American Games and has spent a full career coaching boxing in the Army. In 1974, the city of Wilmington asked him to inaugurate its boxing program.
He coaches sporadically with the U.S. National Team and, by the 1990s, has become a minor legend in Carolina boxing circles. Through the sport he’s also been spit on, called “nigger” and fought on a racially segregated military team. He is the embodiment of the term “no nonsense,” and his reputation precedes him.
On a hot midsummer day, he watches a white girl climb out of a car a halfblock from the gym. Like him, she is slight—5 feet 4, 125 pounds—and she has light blue eyes and wavy blonde hair. Despite her relative youth (she’s 26) and athletic build, the process of extricating herself from the vehicle is painful and laborious. She hobbles in the direction of the gym. Halfway to her destination, an odd thing happens—she begins to straighten up. At 10 paces, one can hardly tell she’s in pain. When she walks through the door, any trace of the hobble is gone.
“How do you feel today?” Coach asks.
“I feel fine,” she says.
Her name is Deirdre Fabian, and despite the fact she’s a girl—and after a month of using every trick he knows to force her out of his gym—Coach has become fond of her.
FROM A PLUSH COUCH in a comfortable Hillcrest townhouse with a canyon view, Fabian, now into her fourth year as a physical education teacher at Baker Elementary in Southeastern San Diego, courses through the seven years of memories fostered in Morgan’s vigilant shadow—from that auspicious first summer in 1993, when she tumbled into his gym on a fitness-seeking whim, through her 1999 victory at the U.S. Golden Gloves in Augusta, Georgia.
For nearly eight years, Morgan and Fabian shared a teacher-disciple relationship, with a combination of intimacy and intensity not easily understood outside the realm of martial sports. For the better part of a decade, Fabian spent two to three hours a day, five days a week, 52 weeks a year under Coach’s tutelage. But it was intangibles, not time, that cemented their relationship. From outside the ring, it’s difficult to gauge the bond established by a calm, confident bearing in the midst of pandemonium, to understand the comfort and reassurance born of a quiet, unflappable voice when your nose has been broken, your wind is almost gone and you have to dig to find the fortitude to face your opponent for two more minutes of anguish.
In 1999, Fabian took the U.S. title, and in 2000, she fought her last competitive fight. Then in 2001 she relocated to Los Angeles. It was a big move after 15 years in a small, coastal Southern town (where the New Jersey native graduated from the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, with a teaching degree). She didn’t take to the City of Angels—it was too big, too impersonal —but she found and fell in love with the smaller and more laid-back San Diego. She also began boxing again. Since 2002, she’s instructed at several local fitness centers and is now running a non-contact, cardio-boxing class at North Park’s Urban Body Gym.
“I think I’m kind of sadistic,” Fabian says with a laugh. “I push them hard because they’re adults, and they’re doing it for exercise. I combine a lot of the stuff I learned from Coach, working the bags and all that. We were doing it to train for fights, and they’re doing it to burn calories, but it’s the same in both: You get out what you put in.”
The former champ has fought only once since moving to California—a 2003 Toughman/Toughwoman contest—but she’s begun sparring with several different women in town. Almost 40 years old, she sparred 10 rounds in early January and claims (with a smile) she hasn’t lost a step. She also says her new hat—trainer and instructor, something of a coach—has refined her vision of Morgan and his methods.
“His style was different,” Fabian says. “He was old school, very basic. But if you worked hard, it worked for you. I had no pizzazz, but I came out and from bell to bell I didn’t stop—I’d just plow through. I’ve sparred with some people who do a lot of fancy stuff, but I think the good old-fashioned hard work . . . the girl that I ended up fighting in a contest out here—she went pro after that—she was very crafty, but I beat her, just on basics.”
At its core, boxing is a combination of art and savagery—a game of strategy fought in a finely tuned, highly choreographed dance, with wagers paid in blood, sweat and pain. At its best, it combines the beauty of extreme physical grace—forged under the duress of violent pressure— and the indomitable will of the human spirit. Success lies in thinking two moves ahead of an opponent and putting together a combination that will anticipate and trump them—while that opponent is pursuing an agenda designed to make you unconscious.
“When I told people—especially women—that I boxed, they were like, ‘Uuggghh,’ ” Fabian says. “I would get ‘That’s horrible; why do you do that?’ But for me, it wasn’t so much trying to knock someone out as it was out-pointing them, trying to score. It’s not just about going in and knocking someone’s head off.”
IN 1993, DONALD SANDERS was a young, dark-brown African-American from a bad neighborhood and a busted Wilmington family. Whether he found the center or the center found him isn’t clear, but either way, Sherriedale Morgan became something of a surrogate father to the 112-pounder. The kid had a natural grace and speed that made him compelling to watch, even for people who didn’t follow the sport. Though he was 10 years Fabian’s junior, the two were close in weight; they ended up being sparring partners for almost six years. As with a gaggle of Coach’s other boxers from the center, Sanders’ boxing career topped out in the quarter-final round of the National Golden Gloves competition. Fabian was the only national champion of Coach’s post-military career.
If boxing is a physical art communicated through a brutal medium, coaching is painting with another man’s arms. It’s one thing to think and move under duress, to throw combinations and not single punches, while the fight-or-flight mechanism is dumping adrenaline into the blood and screaming at the instinctive parts of the brain to flee. It’s something else to do that from 10 paces away, to know what to say, and how to say it, to direct another person to a meaningful response through a labyrinth of fear, agitation and exhilaration.
Though Coach made practices extra difficult for her in the summer of 1993—fully expecting to force her out—Fabian says she always felt safe under his tutelage. He never put a boxer in the ring until he felt that boxer was ready for competition—and almost invariably they were. Most of the man’s fighters were so eager to please him, they followed his orders with blind faith and complete trust. But if there was love at the center, it was tough love.
Morgan has always been on straight terms with the notion of hard knocks. Long after he hung up his gloves, his no-nonsense, deal-with-it style found its way into the ring via the boxers he trained and counseled through life. Tuesdays and Thursdays were sparring days at the center, and one could count on a bloody nose, the occasional black eye and a day-after headache. There was nothing easy about Coach’s training regimen; the majority of aspiring boxers washed out.
“I still hear him in my head,” Fabian says. “If I threw a punch at Donald and he slipped it, and I just swung and hit air, [Morgan would] say, ‘Make her pay.’ And Donald would. When I spar now, if I miss someone, I hear him in my head: ‘Make her pay.’ ”
Morgan was a throwback to the days of Cus D’Amato and Angelo Dundee, a trainer who believed in outworking an opponent before stepping into the ring and out-hearting them. His operation was no-frills and bare-bones, and his gym was open year-round. Workouts there may have been grueling, but they were effective. In the 1998 Golden Gloves title fight in Anaheim, though things went bad from the start for Fabian, Coach’s training and ringside presence helped her make it through the fight—to a controversial split-decision loss.
“I was facing the same girl I lost to the year before, [future featherweight world champion] Alicia Ashley,” Fabian says. “The first combination she threw, she broke my nose. It was a glancing blow, but it cut the top and broke it—I couldn’t feel it through the whole fight. I remember walking into the bathroom afterward and looking at myself, and there was blood everywhere. I had to go back to the fight doctor twice.”
The following year, Ashley went pro, and Fabian won the national featherweight title. With the Amateur Boxing Association championship belt in her possession—her dream accomplished—and knowing women’s boxing wouldn’t be sanctioned in the Olympics until at least 2008 (it still hasn’t been), the gym teacher and dedicated athlete quietly hung up her gloves. After 15 years in Wilmington, she decided it was time for a move and turned her sights to the West Coast.
There was nothing easy about transitioning three time zones. Not only was Fabian dealing with culture shock—and the extreme adjustment of moving from a small beach town to one of the country’s most densely packed metropolitan areas—she wasn’t boxing, for the first time in more than seven years. Then she found San Diego and the opportunity to open a boxing center in Hillcrest—a move that was as instructive as it was arduous (she worked 10 to 12 hours a day).
“That spring, I got a call from a kid I’d taught [in Wilmington], who had moved out here,” she says. “She was a sophomore in high school. I’d taught her in third through fifth grade. Her mom died while we were teaching her, so it was somebody I really had a connection with. She was like, ‘Miss Fabian, you were my favorite teacher,’ and right there I knew: That’s what I’m supposed to be doing. It was like an epiphany hit me on the head, the final sign. I got out of [full-time gym work] and got a teaching position that summer—and I’ve been at the same school ever since.”
Today, Fabian teaches boxing as a form of exercise—a far cry from the turmoil of the ring—but she still trains and continues to spar. In retrospect, she attributes her success in boxing to Coach’s sagacious leadership and to pure old-fashioned hard work, but Coach wonders if it didn’t have more than a little to do with the fact that those who lived and worked with her loved her so much.
“I remember that [Golden Gloves National Championship] match in Georgia,” Coach says in a soft, lilting Carolina drawl. “Deirdre had four teachers come from the school [where she taught] and they stayed with us two days, until the finals. They raised more hell, more ‘Come on, come on, you can make it’ . . . it just made you feel good. When we came back, the schoolteachers and students was waitin’ at the airport when we got off the plane. It made the [girls on the team] feel they really did something important. And they did, they really truly did.”
Click here to read "The Center," another episode from the Sherriedale Morgan/Dierdre Fabian saga. Hear more about Golden Gloves Champion Deirdre Fabian in "The Boxer".