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'That kid is 100 percent'

Local 11-year-old boxer Keegan Grove is nationally ranked

Local 11-year-old boxer Keegan Grove is nationally ranked

June 03, 2009|By CHRISTIAN WORSTELL

Alfred Grove knew almost immediately he would have to find another sport for his then 8-year-old son, Keegan.

After giving up on karate three years ago because it was too passive for him, 11-year-old Keegan Grove, of Martinsburg, W.Va., has fast become one of the best boxers in the country at his age.

"We used to do karate and it wasn't going too well because we always used to hit people too hard and they would say, 'Light contact, light contact,'" Keegan's 14-year-old brother, Zachary, said. "My brother and I thought that was a bunch of crap, so we stopped."

That's when Alfred, a former wrestler and powerlifter who earns a living as a pipe fitter, started working the phones to find his boys a different outlet. He stumbled upon the Hagerstown Boxing Club on Prospect Street.

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Three years later, Keegan, a fourth-grader at Tomahawk Intermediate School, is a two-time Region 3 Golden Gloves champion and a two-time Maryland State Silver Gloves champion. He was a bronze medalist at the National Championships in Kansas City in February and is ranked third in the country in his age group. Keegan was also the first recipient of the "Grassroots Award" for his representation of the values upheld by USA Boxing.

"I want to go to the Olympics and then turn pro," said Keegan, who trains six days a week.

Though small in stature even for his age -- he weighs just 87 pounds and has to stand on a chair to train on the speed bag -- Keegan packs a powerful punch. A loud snapping sound echoes through the gym as he throws jabs, hooks and uppercuts at the padded hands of trainer Johnnie Johnson.

"He's one of the best kids I've had at that age," said Johnson, who's been training for 38 years and whose clientele includes former world heavyweight champion Riddick Bowe. "That kid is 100 percent."

Grove is so advanced that he and Alfred travel all the way to Washington, D.C., every Wednesday just to find suitable sparring partners for Keegan. More times than not, those sparring partners are 14 and 15 years old.

Because of his choir-boy looks and his gentle persona on the surface -- Keegan is also an accomplished artist -- he has been given the boxing moniker of "Sandman."

"He's a sleeper," Alfred said. "When he comes into places, people laugh and all, but they aren't laughing when he leaves. He's had 30 fights and he's won 25 of them. He cranks them out."

Keegan's toughness was tested during his very first sparring session at the Hagerstown Boxing Club. His nose was broken by an older kid, so Alfred popped it back in place and Keegan got back in the ring. He also recalls sparring a 15-year-old when he was just 9.

"He hit me really hard but it didn't make me have any second thoughts. It just made me want to fight harder," Keegan said. "I'm short and I spar a lot of 13- and 14-year-olds, so my dad tells me to step with my jab and then when I'm inside, throw a right hand and score."

Also in Keegan's corner is Zachary, who also trains at the boxing club and tapes all of Keegan's fights for him to watch later.

"He's young and he's growing," Alfred said of Keegan. "Sometimes I worry about burning him out because he's only 11, but then I come home and he's watching a tape or reading a boxing magazine. He's deep into it. It's his life."

Keegan knows already how far is too far.

"Some boxers go too far, like Evander Holyfield," he said. "But I'm not going to. I just want to go to the Olympics and then turn pro and get a couple bouts at each title."

Alfred says the discipline Keegan has learned from boxing has shown in both his schoolwork and his home life.

"If you can beat that opponent in the ring, you can beat anything in life. If he gets knocked down, he gets back up and just keeps heading forward," Alfred said. "He's overcoming obstacles that even he thought he couldn't do but it just shows that if you work hard enough you can do anything in life."

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