Veteran of war in and out of the ring pays back a debt to troubled teens

Bert Neves keeps his eyes on a couple of young boxers.

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — Tucked away on the third floor of an old Pawtucket textile mill, a boxing laboratory is mixing sweat and skill with local teenagers to help them find their way.

The motivation behind B & F Gym in the Lorraine Mills complex for the past 30 years is Bert Neves, who’s often seen and heard encouraging the young boxers from behind the ropes.

“They don’t have to ever fight in an actual bout,” Neves said. “But the discipline you need to come here, sweat, work hard, can change them.”

He knows from experience since he used to be a troubled teenager in the ring, and on the streets.

But a tour in Vietnam back in 1969, with a picture of his little girl who was two months old at the time tucked in his pocket, straightened out Neves.

Neves was 19 when he went to war.

‘She helped me survive,” he said. “I guess my problems started when I was 13 years old. Fighting on the streets, getting in trouble.”

Several years in and out of court, and an old school judge had seen enough.

“The judge said you have two choices,” Neves recalled. “I’m tired of looking at your face, Mr. Neves. Either you volunteer to go into the service or I’m giving you time in jail.”

He chose the Army and a year later, he came home from Vietnam with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He used boxing as therapy, opening up the gym to help young Rhode Islanders use the sweet science in the same way.

While he worked full-time in a warehouse, the gym barely broke even. But Neves found profit in success stories.

“There were four boxers who went pro and a lot of other good stories as well,” said Neves. “[One involved] a member of the Latin Kings. He wanted to get out of the gang so he came to our gym. And from there, today he’s married, doing well.”

Neves and the volunteers who keep the gym humming say it is all about building confidence, even for teens arrested for crimes like dealing drugs or breaking and entering.

“They’re not confident,” Neves said, agreeing that some might think the opposite of someone who’s brazen enough to break into a home. “These kids are looking for attention. They’re looking for someone to show them the way.”

Millennials are bringing new issues to the ring. Parents are sending their kids to Neves’ gym to pry them away from computers and smartphones.

Others put the gloves on to learn how to protect themselves from bullying.

“Once my boxers are at a certain level where they can defend themselves very well, I say don’t you go out there and bully,” added Neves. “It takes a man to walk away from a fight. I should know. That’s what got me in trouble.”

Neves is now retired but he plans to keep the gym open for as long as he can make it up the stairs. Reason number one is to help the kids, but the gym is also vital for his own therapy.

“We’re not going anywhere,” he said. “We owe it to the kids to help them.”

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