Boxing empowers bodies and minds at Friedberg JCC

JCC has locations in Beth Ohr’s annex


Dozens of athletes gather at the Friedberg JCC each week for a unique lineup of boxing classes that are quickly becoming the undisputed champion in the community. The program has taken off under the leadership of North Merrick resident Steve Solomon.

The Friedberg JCC has branches located in Oceanside, and in South Merrick, at the former Temple Israel of South Merrick. Located at 2655 Clubhouse Road, the facility is now an annex of Congregation Beth Ohr in Bellmore.

The JCC offers three classes — one for those with special needs, another for those with Parkinson’s disease, both for JCC members, and a third for the general population. The general class is open to JCC members and nonmembers alike, and has quickly become a favorite among boxing enthusiasts across Long Island. The center becomes a sanctuary — a place where they can push their physical limits and find solace in the rhythms of the ring.

Kevin Payne, 24, of New Hyde Park, says the classes have changed his life. Battling weight gain and searching for a sense of belonging, Payne found refuge in the gym. With the guidance of Solomon and the support of his classmates, Payne not only shed pounds, but also gained a newfound sense of purpose.

“I was 215 pounds, and I’m down to 168 now,” he said. “I was going down a bad track. I wasn’t taking care of myself, and I was super-unhealthy. But I was able to come here every day, and I’m in way better shape now. The thrill of it is what kept me doing it. There’s nothing similar to it.”

Payne, who praised Solomon for helping him get into shape, is looking to enter the world of professional fighting.

“I’m trying to get into MMA,” Payne said, referring to mixed martial arts. “I want to go to different gyms and get all the work possible. Just get good at fighting, because I want to be able to protect myself and my kids one day, and if I have a son, teach him.”

The general class is open to men, women and teens, and Solomon likes to keep things fun, mixing obstacle courses and a variety of exercises with the boxing training and sparring.

Gabe Santiago, a freshman at Oceanside High School, is the youngest member of the class at 15. He had tried wrestling before, but after watching the boxing film “Creed,” Santiago became enamored of boxing, has enjoyed the classes at the JCC and said he wants to stick with it.

“I really like that you can get some instruction, but then also do your own thing, too,” he said.

Solomon is a respected figure in the local sports scene, and boasts many years of boxing on Long Island, dating back to when he was a student at East Meadow High School. He took part in a boxing program at Echo Park, in West Hempstead, run by the late Arthur Mercante Sr., one of the sport’s best-known referees, who worked the legendary heavyweight championship between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier in 1971, as well as other title bouts.

Solomon taught special-needs students health and phys. ed. in several school districts throughout his career, including 30 years in the Uniondale School District. He implemented boxing in the schools, and when the JCC was looking for a boxing coach last year, Solomon was recommended for the position for his extensive work with the special-needs population.

D.J. Dingle, 40, a Long Beach native who works with the special-needs community in a multi-sports program at the JCC, found himself at a crossroads after a knee injury from basketball sidelined him two years ago. Hesitant to return to the court, Dingle discovered a new passion in boxing.

“I was out for, like, 12 weeks when I broke my knee, and as soon as I was able to come back, I was pushing basketball to the side and I’m focusing more on this,” he said. “It builds some discipline, and especially working with the special-needs community, you need patience and discipline, and that kind of transfers to them, because they feed off of that energy.”

Solomon’s son Zach, 23, is following his father’s path, and has a background in adaptive physical education. An alumnus of Sanford H. Calhoun High School in Merrick, Zach started working with people with special needs at the JCC along with Dingle, and assists his dad in the general boxing class. Zach also attends Adelphi University part-time, and, like his father, is a skilled boxer and an all-around athlete.

“I was around (the special-needs) population, so I have a nice, big heart for them, and I always wanted to help them out,” he said.

Zach was inspired when he saw his father box when he was young, and his dad coached him in multiple intramural sports, including basketball. As the boxing program continues to grow, Steve said, he hopes to be able to continue coaching alongside his son, even after he starts coaching at a local school district.

“We want to coach together,” Steve said. “I got my license and he’ll get his. Maybe we’ll be working in the schools together because together we’re a good combination.”