PORTLAND – Thumb through the loop, then wrap your wrist three times. Wrap your thumb.

A couple of dozen pairs of eyes followed Bob Russo’s instructions and how-to example to complete the wrap. More than a few wrapped one hand correctly. More had to start over.

The first session of the Portland Boxing Club’s boot camp had begun. Slipping gloves over wrapped hands would happen later. Throwing a jab or an uppercut at an opponent later still.

“That will happen when we decide you’re ready,” said Russo to his so-called recruits. No one said a word. No one seemed to break eye contact.

What, you thought boxing as a relevant sport was dead or dying? That mixed martial arts or cage fighting, as it’s called, had swept boxing into a dust bin of history? That parents prefer karate dojos for their kids? Don’t be so hasty.

“I’ve got about a hundred people on a waiting list,” Russo said as men and women and one 12-year-old walked through the door to his small, clean and humid clubhouse Thursday night. The ring dominated the space. Heavy bags suspended from the ceiling completed the spartan look.

“I had to do this,” said Russo. “I’m scared to death I’m leaving a Sugar Ray Leonard out there waiting to get in.”

After 20 years of providing a place for boxers to train and fight, Russo decided to open his former lumber kiln to boxing hopefuls in the slow months of July and August. Russell Lamour of Portland and Jason Quirk of Scarborough, two PBC mainstays and amateur champions, are assisting Russo.

Two boot camps, each for three sessions a week for about a month. Russo has relatively simple rules, including no tobacco, alcohol or drugs. Otherwise he won’t ask anyone to leave.

“They’ll do that on their own. They’ll know soon enough if they’re cut out for this. If they stick it out to the end, they’ll be invited to join the Portland Boxing Club.”

College graduates, students, and working men and women attended. A television reporter. A former high school and college basketball star.

A mother. Kellie Keefe of Yarmouth was back for a second boot camp. Her husband, Bill, was back, too. Joining them was their 12-year-old son, Charlie.

“I knew a little bit about Bob Russo and how professional he is,” said Kellie Keefe. “But everyone here has been so positive, so friendly, so helpful.

Kellie probably never will climb through the ropes on fight night. Her husband’s confidence has grown, but he won’t commit to a debut fight sometime in the future.

What happens if their son asks to take the next step and become an amateur fighter? “I’ll ask him a couple of questions first,” said dad.

For Brandon Charest and Nick Pocock, there are no questions. Recent Scarborough High graduates and football teammates, they live in Gorham. Both feel a void. They want to test themselves and fight. The MMA version didn’t appeal to them. Boxing does.

Andrew Duncanson, the former Portland High and Thomas College basketball star, whipped through his paperwork. He was an assistant basketball coach at Thomas last winter. He’s thinking of going back to school for a masters in business administration. Thursday night he simply wanted to start the process of becoming an amateur fighter.

Are any of them the next Sugar Ray Leonard, the former Olympic gold medalist and world champ? Probably not. But then, the last gold medal won by an American was 1996 in Atlanta. That was a light middleweight named David Reid.

It’s been 20 years since Oscar de la Hoya became the country’s golden boy. Pernell Whitaker and Mark Breland led an American gold rush that saw nine gold medals in 1984 in Los Angeles, when the former Soviet Union and its allies boycotted the Olympics.

A generation has grown up since the best of U.S. amateur fighters were a factor on the world stage. Quick, name three or four boxers on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team. Name two.

“It can happen again,” said Russo. “All you need is one charismatic fighter coming out of the Olympics.”

He had to break away. It was time to show his newbies how to wrap their hands.

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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