Shorty and His Gym
Two pre-teen, African-American boys walk into the United Community Center Boxing gym on Milwaukee’s South Side. The Gym is not much larger than a classroom. There is a small ring and a set of eight punching bags. There are trophies displayed on shelves circling the room. One wall has neatly framed pictures of past and present UCC fighters extending in a line at eye level. There is a bulletin board filled with pictures of boxers, and a banner reading “Home of Israel ‘Shorty’ Acosta and The UCC Boxers.” “Who is Shorty?” one of the boys yells over the sounds of punches connecting with bags and boxers’ chatter.
Israel “Shorty” Acosta is standing ringside and yelling at two sparring pupils. Acosta is in his late 50s with a salt and pepper mustache. He wears a baseball cap, sweatpants, a sweatshirt and thin black rimmed glasses. At 5-feet-11-inches, Acosta is not the most dominating physical presence, but his loud voice and confident demeanor fill the small gym.
The two boys approach Acosta and ask him how to join the gym. He tells them in broken English that it costs $50 to join and they have to buy a helmet. He tells them they must be at the gym at 4 p.m. every day.
Fifty bucks, a helmet, and a commitment are all it takes to receive boxing lessons from one of the most successful boxing trainers in the state of Wisconsin. Acosta was a notable amateur boxer in the 1970s and 80s, winning the 1984 National Golden Gloves light flyweight title and fighting prominent boxers like Freddie Roach, the current trainer of Manny Pacquiao.
As a trainer, Acosta has coached his pupils to golden glove championships and Olympic trials. He coached on the 2000 Olympic team and trained many of the best fighters to come out of Wisconsin in the past two decades.
Like any successful amateur boxer, Acosta faced the temptation to go pro, but with 74 fights already under his belt he decided to continue with his new passion: training.
“Its like I tell everybody," he said "I came so close, like a piece of hair from your mustache, to winning the gold medal. But my gold medal is the kids. That’s my real gold medal.”
A Cast of Characters
Peter Ehrmann of West Allis is one of the rare sports writers who make a living reporting on what he calls a dead sport. Ehrmann remembers an age when boxing was still front page news.
“When I first got interested in boxing in the very early 1960s and there was a heavyweight championship fight, the next day the Milwaukee Sentinel would have the results in a banner headline on the front page,” said Ehrmann.
Ehrmann fell in love with boxing as a boy and wrote his first story at age 14. These days, in his 60s, he writes primarily about the history of boxing in Milwaukee, recalling the glory days of what is now a “niche” sport.
“In the 50s the golden gloves tournament attracted 10,000 people to the Milwaukee arena,” said Ehrmann.
The sport’s popularity is far from its pinnacle in the 50s and 60s and Ehrmann blames that on a number of factors including bad promoting, bad coaching, and conflicting governing bodies. However, one thing Ehrmann does remain optimistic about is the UCC gym and Israel Acosta, who Ehrmann says is a contrast to less experienced boxing trainers.
“If they have a towel slung over their shoulder and learn how to put a mouth piece in, they think they know how to box,” said Ehrmann.
Ehrmann said there’s no question that Acosta is the most important person in Milwaukee boxing today. His fondness for Acosta extends beyond his success as a trainer. Ehrmann spent time covering the UCC gym as a freelance writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He recalls going to one of Acosta’s boxing exhibitions in the early 90s with his two children.
“Israel spent half the time running around to get the kids food,” said Ehrmann.
It is Acosta’s passion for helping that keeps young people coming through the door at the UCC gym.