PART THREE: Calculated Risks

Cerresso Fort has chosen a dangerous sport, but the 15-year-old says the chances are worth taking if you know the right moves


St. Paul Pioneer Press, Dec. 28, 2001©

Cerresso Fort is sitting in his civics class at Harding High School, where the teacher has asked students to tell her the difference between a calculated risk and an unnecessary risk.

“A risk that’s worth taking is if you go out for football. You could get hurt,” the teacher says. “But what would be something you’d never do because it would be bad for you?”

“What about boxing?” Cerresso asks.

“Hmm, that’s kind of a gray area,” she says. “Is boxing a risk worth taking or not?”

“Maybe not for everybody,” Cerresso says with a smile. “But it is for me.”

Cerresso is a lean and strong 5 feet 9 inches. Fighting in a middleweight division, few other local boys his age and size have the skills to step in the ring with him. Each of the past two years, Cerresso has won regional Junior Olympic championships and finished second in his class in the national Silver Gloves tournament.

His coach says he has the physical tools to mature into an elite boxer, that he could compete for a spot in the 2004 Olympic Games. He just needs to muster up a little meanness.

Cerresso is 15 and doesn’t know what it’s like living in the same house with a mother or father. His grandmother Pearl has raised him since he was an infant. Cerresso and Pearl live in a one-bedroom apartment in downtown St. Paul, eight floors up and overlooking the State Capitol. They don’t have a phone or a car, but they don’t treat the situation as a hardship. It’s just the way things are.

Even without parents in his daily life, Cerresso is the product of a strong family. Two of Pearl’s daughters live in town — Pearl’s son is Cerresso’s father — and both women have cared for Cerresso over the years. The guys at B.T. Bombers boxing gym are the other side of Cerresso’s family — the men in his life.

Cerresso lights up at the thought of competing in the Olympics. He also hopes boxing leads to a college scholarship. He made Harding’s B honor roll last year, and he has an eye on Marquette University in Milwaukee.

“Boxing ain’t that kinda sport that’ll teach you the ABCs and the 123s,” he says. “It does take mentality to box, do combinations, you know, like one-two-one. But I want to learn more about life, about things on the outside world.”

Sometimes, Cerresso seems just as excited about his ambition to become a masseur.

“I got big hands, you know,” he says. “I’ll go to California, Vegas, New Orleans — anywhere it’s hot and they need massages.”

Grandma in his Corner

Cerresso can’t walk more than a few feet down the halls of Harding High School without someone flashing him a smile, slapping his hand or shouting out a “Hey, Woo-Woo” — Cerresso’s nickname since infancy. It’s the same when Cerresso shows up for Sunday school at Free at Last Church on Seventh Street. He’s as popular with adults as he is with other teen-agers.

Smiles come as easily and often to Cerresso as his ever-changing hairstyles. When adults address him, he meets their eyes with sincere attention and answers “yes” to their questions rather than “yeah.”

In the school’s jammed cafeteria, Cerresso picks up a chicken patty that looks like an orange hockey puck and carries his tray over to where some friends are sitting. When everyone’s finished eating, Cerresso gathers up the half-dozen trays from his friends along with his own and deposits them in a bin halfway across the cafeteria.

“Why make everyone walk all this way, know what I’m saying?” he says.

His only responsibility back at the apartment is ironing his clothes. Pearl stresses the importance of a sharp crease.

“Suppose he get married and his wife gets up and leaves him,” she says. “I want him to know how to fry a hamburger, how to do his wash, how to keep his body together — don’t depend on no woman to do it for him.”

A diabetic who worked 31 years as a housekeeper, Pearl divorced her only husband before Cerresso was born. In 1986, she learned from a child welfare worker in Chicago that one of her sons had become a father, and even then it took a few calls to convince her of the truth.

Pearl took custody of the 2-week-old baby and one of her daughters named him Cerresso. The boy lived with Pearl until, as a 10-year-old, he went to live with another of Pearl’s daughters in St. Paul. When Pearl followed her daughter to Minnesota, she again brought Cerresso in to live with her.

From early on, Pearl remembers, Cerresso wanted to be “the little man.”

“Even when he was 2 or 3 years old, he did sit-ups and pushups and had me count for him. Couldn’t even do but one pushup, but I’d count, anyway,” she recalls. “He wanted to arm wrestle — me or anybody — and wasn’t his arm that big around.”

Cerresso’s father also lives in St. Paul now, but Cerresso only sees him once every few months. He has even less contact with his mother, who still lives in Chicago.

“I love all my grandchildren, but Cerresso’s the one without the mother and father,” Pearl says. “Everybody got a family, but where his family at? It’s not just me. I have two daughters and two sons who are his parents, too. But I say he’s mine. I feel the pain he be going through. You always need someone to wipe your tears, and I understand his hurts.”

The Making of a Champ?

Cerresso’s covered in sweat, hitting the heavy bag at B.T. Bombers and looking sharper than he has in weeks.

“Woo, it’s bam-bam-bam, not just bam-bam,” gym owner Clem Tucker tells him. “That third punch is gonna be the one that gets the knockout.”

Other boxing coaches around town have tried luring Cerresso away from Clem and Bombers. They see the raw talent, the quickness in his step and his punches, the success he’s had with only two years of training.

Cerresso says he’s loyal to Clem because he trusts him as a person as well as a coach. Pearl kept Cerresso out of the gym altogether during the first few weeks of the school year, so Cerresso could concentrate on school, and Clem supported the absence.

He talks about Cerresso’s focus, dedication and sacrifice, levels of each he rarely sees in fighters at any age, and Clem repays those traits with the sort of consistent attention few others in Bombers see.

“He could be running the streets and be the Romeo all the girls want him to be, but he got his grades back up and kept his focus,” Clem says. “If it wasn’t for his grandma and his two aunts, the good support group he has, no way could he have done it.”

He sees the effects of Cerresso’s upbringing — “the concern for other people, for older people, which you usually see in young ladies, not young men,” Clem says. But that tenderness, he adds, is Cerresso’s greatest hurdle toward becoming a world-class boxer.

“He’s generally a soft person and you have to really get under his skin to bring out the tiger in him,” Clem says. “You gotta have the I’m-gonna-beat-your-ass attitude, but he’ll get it. You lose enough close ones, you get the attitude sure enough.”

When Cerresso shows up to train, Pearl is often with him. She will talk a bit with Clem and watch Cerresso work out and spar. Most parents would watch such contact with trepidation. Pearl sometimes looks as if she’s watching a TV show. But inside, she worries, even if Cerresso is just sparring.

One time, after getting hit hard, Cerresso told Pearl, “I see diamonds.” Not long ago, a pro light-heavyweight sparring with Cerresso connected just hard enough to bloody his nose. Cerresso thought it was broken, dropped his gloves and wouldn’t fight anymore. Pearl saw the whole thing and kept silent.

‘Like a Man’

Cerresso straightens the padded headgear onto his head and steps through the ropes of the claustrophobic ring inside Bombers.

He’s about to spar with Clem’s son, a stocky pro who’s built like a bull. Clem often puts Cerresso in the ring with guys who outweigh him by 20 pounds or more, so he can work against people who can push him around the ring. That sometimes worries Pearl, too.

Clem’s son isn’t throwing a lot of punches, but he isn’t giving Cerresso a whole lot to hit, either.

“Can’t wait, Woo-Woo, gotta be first,” Clem says. “Ain’t nowhere to run. Gotta fight.”

Clem’s son throws a short cross that connects with Cerresso’s chin.

“Stay off his head, son,” Clem says.

Cerresso emerges from the round with a bloody lip. Pearl wets a towel with water and brings it over to him. Clem wants him back in the ring, but Cerresso shakes him off, removes his headgear and calls it a day. Clem looks at Cerresso, but he doesn’t push it. Other fighters are waiting for their time in the ring.

Cerresso cleans himself up and follows Pearl out the front door. They plan to catch a bus home.

“People say “You gonna turn out like Muhammad Ali,’ and I say that’s why I learn new moves. I don’t like getting hit,” Cerresso says. “At first I wanted to do other things and not box. But I got determined to do what I gotta do, like a man — even though I’m not a man; I’m still a child. But you do business all the same.”

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