By Mike LaBella
---- — When Tayler Provost stepped through the doors of Haverhill Downtown Boxing, she drew some quizzical stares.
But when she put on a pair of boxing gloves and stepped into the ring to shadow box, heads really turned. And when she started punching the heavy bag, mouths dropped.
“That girl can really hit,” said Ray Hebert, co-owner of the new club at the edge of downtown.
“She has a whistling right hand,” said his son, Raymond “Rocky” Hebert Jr., an assistant coach at the club.
Provost, 18, of Amesbury is the first female to join Haverhill Downtown Boxing. The club opened on June 7 and is located in a long-vacant storefront at the corner of Locust and Orchard streets, just a few blocks north of downtown.
“To have a girl boxing is amazing and a good thing,” Ray Hebert said. “I hope it will inspire other girls to try the sport.”
Hebert, 58, boxed in his youth in Lowell and his sons, Randy Hebert and Raymond Hebert, were both Golden Glove novice champions.
The elder Hebert opened the club with his business partner Derek Couture, a 2008 New England Golden Gloves champion. A nonprofit organization that relies on membership fees and donations, it also relies on a dedicated group of volunteers who want to teach the sport to children and adults.
Provost’s coach, former Golden Gloves boxer Mike Witham, said Provost is a 5-foot, 3-inch 140-pound dynamo who is in top physical shape and never quits punching. Provost has been a gymnast since she was a kid and now teaches gymnastics in Brentwood, N.H.
“I just like the sport,” she said of boxing.
Last December, she asked her grandfather Marty Provost of Sandown to find someone who could teach her to box. He put her in touch with Witham, who told her she could start in a week. Provost wasn’t satisfied and asked to begin training the next day.
“You’ve got to have that attitude and that’s how she’s been training ever since,” Witham said.
It wasn’t long before Provost began sparring at Arthur Ramalho’s West End Gym in Lowell, although one problem always seems to get in the way.
“It’s hard to find another girl boxer to spar with,” Provost said. “But there is one girl boxer in Lowell and I’ve sparred with her twice this year.”
Provost’s involvement with boxing does surprise some people, “especially guys,” she said.
“When she first asked me if I thought she could box in the ring, I told her she might want to wait until she gets punched in the nose once,” Witham said.
Provost didn’t have to wait long for that.
“I did get punched in the nose, but it didn’t hurt,” she said.
According to the USA Boxing organization, the rules regarding women’s boxing are similar to the men’s program with a few minor differences including: The optional use of breast protectors and groin protector, a required waiver stating that the participant is not pregnant at the time of competition, and a difference in the number and time of rounds.
Witham said Provost’s workout routines are grueling and include running four miles every weekday, hitting the heavy bag and speed bag, and jumping rope. After an hour of boxing, she’ll do 60 squats (deep knee bends) with 100 pounds on her shoulders. Witham said she never seems to tire and usually shows up at the gym early.
”I get the weekends off,” said Provost, who hopes to fight as a novice in the Golden Gloves tournament in Lowell next January.
Ray Hebert said he wants to train young fighters and give kids from the inner-city something positive to do in a safe and encouraging environment. But there are rules, he said.
”If their school grades slip, they can’t box until they bring them back up,” he said.
”This is for kids who don’t have anywhere to go,” he said.
”You don’t have to train for the Golden Gloves if you don’t want to and you don’t even have to fight,” he said, explaining that members can simply work out but not get in the ring with other fighters.
”Every kid is equal here,” Hebert said.
About 25 young people and adults have signed on with the club, including one newcomer, a 13-year-old Haverhill girl. Hebert said she brought her 8-year-old brother and that he’s allowed to participate in light workouts, but no boxing.
”Once word gets out, I think more girls are going to want to join as well,” Ray Hebert said.
Steven Asadorian, who will enter the eighth grade at Whittier Middle School this fall, said he was learning to box at the Haverhill Boxing Club, which closed late last fall and is looking for a new home. When he learned about Haverhill Downtown Boxing, he signed on as a member.
”I love this club,” he said. “It’s nice and compact and it’s made just for boxing.”
He brought along one of his classmates, Jivany Torres, who said he enjoyed his first experience at the club so much that he plans to join, too.
”I’ve been wanting to do this for a while,” Jivany said.
Other than a sign designed by Ray Hebert’s granddaughter Kiana Rivera which is in the club’s front window, you’d never know what was inside. But step through the blue wooden front door and it’s apparent this is a place where boxers train.
There are speed bags, heavy bags, weights and a boxing ring that was in the movie “The Fighter,” only it’s more compact because Ray Hebert converted it from a 22-foot ring to a 16-foot ring to better fit the room. He said the ring and ropes were donated by his former trainer Arthur Ramalho.
”I want to take kids off the corner and bring them here,” said Thomas “T.J.” George, a volunteer who used to train at other boxing clubs in the city. “I want them to feel better about themselves.”
Hebert said opening the club was a labor of love and that it would have taken a lot longer if not for the support he received from: Steve Carter, a plumber from Newton, N.H., who donated supplies, fixtures and his labor; Wheelabrator company of North Andover, which hauled away junk that formerly cluttered the building; and Shaun Martin, an electrician from Salem, N.H., who installed new wiring and light fixtures at no charge.
”The owner of the building has been very supportive of our efforts as well,” Hebert said. “This is going to be a nice community center, a nice place for the kids.”