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February 18, 2010

Golden Gloves champ dreams of hero's welcome

John Roche Jr. of Haverhill dreams big.

On the cusp of a professional boxing career, the 21-year-old can already envision a parade in his honor through downtown Haverhill, a hero's homecoming, with the world heavyweight title belt in his hands.

Roche will fight his last opponent as an amateur in April, after two successful matches in the last few months. Roche took home the heavyweight championship at the Golden Gloves in Lowell on Tuesday, Feb. 2.

Overall, his record is eight wins, two losses and seven knockouts. Both losses came on decisions.

Roche was enthralled by the "Rocky" movies as a child and idolized boxer Rocky Marciano. But his parents told him the sport was too rough. So he hacked it out in football and basketball at Haverhill High School. On the day he turned 18, he signed himself up for boxing lessons.

"I always wanted to box. It was a dream come true, something I wanted to do my whole life."

He started training with Kenny Stevenson in his basement, then at the Haverhill Boxing Club on Stevens Street. But when the city closed that facility, Roche helped build Shoe City Boxing, a new, independent gym on Merrimack Street.

"This gym is owned by the kids who are members," said Stephen Clark, director of the board at Shoe City. "Kenny (Stevenson) and I just run it. And it's because of kids like Johnny that make it work. Every day, every month, it grows."

A year ago, the gym had about five members. Now, 30 boxers are working out on a good night and 10 to 15 are there every day.

"When you're here, you're like family," he said.

Roche is one of the daily members. He trains seven days a week, for three to four hours a night at the boxing club and a few more hours at Choice Fitness. He spends even more time watching film of his fights and videos of other boxers.

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