The coach’s knees are bent, his shoulders hunched. He slowly jabs twice with his left hand and throws an uppercut with his right.
Sweat glistens on his forehead as he shows his boxers how to throw the combination of punches. The lights shine down on the 49-year-old. Rob Scardina, who everyone calls Coach Rob, stands in the center of the ring, where he is surrounded by the young men of B-Town Boxing’s competitive team. Some mimic his movements.
The coach’s sparring partner is Josh McRoberts, his stepson. Josh raises his hands to meet each punch. Each connection is met with a light smack, but as Rob speeds up through the combo, Josh quickly becomes flustered.
“Shhhiiii ...” Josh catches himself mid-swear.
“That’s more for the swear jar,” Rob says, cracking a smile.
“I didn’t even say the whole word,” Josh says.
“I know what you meant,” Rob says.
Dianna is in the office taking care of the business aspect of the gym and didn’t hear Rob admonish Josh but she agrees with his rule.
B-Town Boxing’s team is made up of young men from their late teens to mid 20s. Their coach makes them pledge to keep their conversations clean just as he makes them pledge to stay out of trouble and not get into fights outside the gym. Josh’s slip up costs him $1 and ups the contents of the jar to $4. Not too long ago it had $5, but someone lifted the change.
The last thing Rob wants is for one of his boxers to walk into a job interview and be so used to dropping f-bombs that a few slip out. Boxing is about controlling emotions. It’s about more than throwing punches.
As Rob tells his boxers, “There are a lot of worse things that can happen in your life besides losing a boxing match.”
Boxing is a primal sport that leaves people bloodied and bruised. Boxing also demands respect, dedication and resilience. It’s methodical and full of opportunities to learn. Rob and Dianna Scardina want the young men at their gym to win, but more importantly, they want to see them mature.
B-Town Boxing, located in The Warehouse on South Rogers Street, had its first callout meeting in December 2013. Since then it has grown from a gym populated by just Rob and his stepson to one frequented by 30 to 40 people daily and a 14-member competitive team.
When Rob walks around the gym his face is often scrunched. He looks like he wants to beat someone up but never raises his voice. He’ll tell people why they’re getting hit and how to make opponents miss, but he doesn’t hover over their shoulders. When Dianna isn’t taking care of the business side of the club, she walks around during practice.
As she greets every boxer she asks how they’re doing and sometimes playfully chides them. One showed up to a weekend sparring practice dressed in a hoodie and pajama pants.
“You just wake up?” she asked.
“I’m ready to go back to bed after this,” he said.
Dianna asked another how his recent newborn was doing. The baby just had a little stomach ache. When it gets warm enough that colds aren’t a concern, she’s offered to watch the baby for him at practice.
Rob and Dianna want each boxer to be successful. One day they’ll stop boxing, and when they do Rob and Dianna want them to have learned truths inside the ring they can apply elsewhere.
Tommy Butler, 22, uses boxing to push himself and combat bouts with depression. The quiet IU senior hopes to use a Fulbright scholarship to teach English in Spain for a year after he graduates this spring. Outside the ring, he brushes off confrontation. Inside the ring, each hit is a shot to his pride. Tommy won his first competitive bout in early December.
Marquese King is one of the gym’s resident Indiana Golden Gloves champions. The 25-year-old won a title in 2015 and is a veteran on Coach Rob’s competitive squad.
Alberto Sostre hopes to become an ambassador for the Netherlands and fight for the rights of the disabled worldwide. The 26-year-old IU grad student is in his third year with Coach Rob and speaks English, Spanish, Brazilian Portuguese, Dutch and German. He has even earned an academic scholarship from the Indiana Golden Gloves organization. Rob has become a father figure for him, and Alberto knows he can talk to Rob about anything.
“You have a life outside the sport,” Alberto said, “and he and Dianna really do care to know what’s going on in your life.”
Josh, Rob’s stepson, is a 2014 Indiana Golden Gloves champion. The 19-year-old spent fall 2015 and spring 2016 at IU but isn’t in college anymore. He decided to focus on boxing. He wants to become a coach like Rob.
Egos take away from the gym’s ability to allow its boxers to flourish. Every now and then Rob said a newcomer who thinks they know it all because they’ve seen the “Rocky” movies comes through. That attitude threatens the existing family atmosphere. Some just can’t handle a loss.
In the ring, a fighter is always alone, but Rob and Dianna and a boxer’s teammates and friends help them get there.
Rob and Dianna met in June 2010. Both already had five kids of their own — 10 total.
Rob fell in love at first sight and texted her a proposal 15 days after their first date. He asked in person the next day just to confirm.
“I guess I was trying to feel her out and make sure she wasn’t going to turn me down,” Rob said. “Then, the next day, I figured I better seal the deal and make it official and do it the right way.”
They spend nearly every minute of the day together. They share a cellphone. Together they run B-Town Boxing. Through six years of marriage Rob is adamant they haven’t argued once. He knows it sounds crazy.
“If he’s thinking of something, within seconds we’re both thinking of the same thing,” Dianna said. “That happens daily.”
Both agree the gym doesn’t exist for them to make as much money as it could. Other gyms prop up their best boxers and use the rest as bodies to ready the higher-profile members for fights. Rob and Dianna don’t want to do that because it would cause the gym to lose its family feel.
They don’t really eat out, but Rob worries about how they’re going to fix the van if it breaks down. But that’s all right.
“We have a roof over our heads. We have cars that run most of the time. We have food on the table,” Rob said. “What else can you really ask for?”
Dianna agonizes over their bills. Rob finds a way to calm her down.
“I don’t even second guess it when he says everything’s going to be okay,” Dianna said. “When it comes out of his mouth I know everything’s going to be okay.”
It was from Olympian and heavy weight champion George Foreman that Rob first got the sentiment that there are a lot of worse things that can happen in life besides losing a boxing match.
It’s one he’s relayed to his boxers and was reminded of the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
Dianna drove to Purdue to pick up one of her sons, and when she got home didn’t give much thought to the swelling in her left leg. Dianna isn’t one to just sit around. She started to get ready for practice that night, but Rob told her no. He wanted her to stay home and keep her leg elevated.
The next day the swelling persisted and her leg had started changing colors. By early afternoon Rob and Dianna decided she needed to go to the hospital.
An ultrasound revealed Dianna had a deep vein thrombosis blood clot that stretched from her knee to her hip. The doctor wouldn’t even let her get off the bed where the ultrasound was performed and brought an emergency room bed to Dianna instead of transferring her there in a wheelchair.
Rob didn’t sleep much the nights Dianna spent in the hospital. They were both nervous, but by Friday they were told Dianna could go home. There was no operation, just orders to take medication and stay off her leg as much as possible.
Rob told the team what happened at practice the Monday after, and while Josh said they were concerned about their team mom’s health, they were glad at that point there was nothing further to worry about. Dianna didn’t talk to many of them about it but didn’t expect to. They’re young and not likely to initiate an emotional conversation.
It wasn’t until late January the swelling reduced to the point Dianna could wear her own tennis shoes and not an old pair of Rob’s. She could wear her normal jeans and not a pair of sweats or larger-sized jeans she bought from Wal-Mart.
As Dianna recovered, Josh said everyone around the house tried to pick up the slack with chores and cook a little more here and there. At the gym, even though Josh and Rob were usually busy coaching and Dianna focused on the business side of the team, they tried to limit her movement.
Boxing never crossed Josh’s mind before Rob and Dianna got married. They forced him to start training with Rob as punishment for fighting with one of his brothers, and soon Josh became the first to click with his house’s new father figure.
Josh’s first three years in the gym with his stepdad resembled private training, and Josh grew to love and respect Rob. The hard exterior of a man who looks like he’s ready to beat someone up peeled away to a genuine individual. His jokes have an element of sarcasm, come in the spur of the moment and push buttons in ways that don’t cause harm.
Rob used to joke that Josh would take over running the gym, and in mid-November Josh officially became an assistant coach. His young boxing career isn’t over, but along with Rob and Dianna he agreed he wasn’t physically or mentally prepared to fight right now. Josh wants to mold champions.
Rob said he gives Josh four or five years before the 19-year-old is ready to take over completely.
Then Rob plans to duck away with Dianna to a small cabin in the woods, possibly in North Carolina. He envisions one bedroom, a fireplace and front porch fitted with two rocking chairs.
They talk about it all the time and joke about it whenever things get stressful.
“I can’t wait to get to that rocking chair,” Rob would say.
At a practice in late January Rob and Josh stood on the outside of the ropes and watched two IU students sparring in preparation for a bout later this spring.
They watched their hands, footwork and position relative to each other and above all ensured everyone stayed safe. The taller veteran pounded the shorter, stockier newcomer enough to the point the newcomer’s nose bled throughout most of the session. Multiple times Rob told them to separate.
Between rounds Rob and Josh would come up with three quick hits on what the boxers needed to address because too much information can be detrimental. Then they’d watch and see if the fighter listened.
When boxers don’t train enough, it shows when they spar. Boxing isn’t a sport someone can take lightly and hope to be good at when the bell rings.
All Josh knows about boxing he’s learned from Rob, and while Josh is learning how to coach as he continues to box, Rob doesn’t see the two as all that different. There’s enough time for Josh to learn what he needs to.
Dianna gets nervous thinking about her son taking over the gym by himself, and Josh has his own apprehensions and fears, but Josh has shadowed his parents through the struggles. Rob has taught him how to read body language to judge levels of understanding, a droop of the head tends to describe frustration. He’s adapting lessons to the goals of his students and realizing while some may want to fight competitively others just want to stay in shape.
Rob and Dianna are pestering him to find a girl who’s interested in boxing to share it with.
At a show in Evansville, Indiana, only Marquese was scheduled to fight. Josh took up his spot ringside and was seated a few feet behind and to the right of Rob.
A family-oriented crowd surrounded the ring, which was in the middle of a basketball court. Reserved tables surrounded it on the floor, while the majority of the crowd watched from the gallery. One member of B-Town Boxing seated in the gallery said the people at the tables looked like they were there to be seen. They weren’t nearly as engaged as the true fans.
Marquese’s bout came sixth. As other fighters boxed, Rob, Dianna and Josh, all wearing black B-Town Boxing club hoodies and jeans, cycled in and out of the locker room. Inside Rob wrapped Marquese’s hands while both Rob and Josh kept Marquese warmed up with mitts and a jump rope. They tried to keep Marquese calm by talking about a future fight and reminding him of his training.
During the fight both Josh and Rob’s eyes remained fixed on Marquese. He struggled to establish himself in the first two rounds and failed to use combinations to set up position.
“Calm down,” Rob would yell after blows from Marquese’s opponent forced retreats.
Josh sat silently and listened. Rob’s advice to Marquese, to make his man miss, stop waiting and come back with combinations, mirrors what Josh will need to give when he coaches the corner.
Marquese took the momentum back in the third round but lost.
Dianna came down from her place in the stands, where she videotaped the bout, and waited at the entrance to the locker room. Rob, Marquese and Josh walked toward her. Marquese was in the middle with Rob on one side and Josh the other.
Rob knew Marquese was experienced enough not to dwell on the loss. He just kept telling him he was proud. Marquese was ready to get back to training.