By Gary Purfield
At 750 N Brooklyn Street in West Philadelphia you will find the James Shuler Memorial Boxing Gym. Opened in 1993 by Percy “Buster” Custus, who still runs the gym today, the gym has become well known in the city for its group of talented fighters, its tough reputation, and some of the best sparring anywhere.
Saturday night the gym puts on its own card promoted by Custus from the Philadelphia Convention Center. Custus, whose real passion is training, has been promoting fights as well for several years as a means to provide the fighters in his gym with an opportunity to grow, gain experience, and fight under one banner where they are not taken advantage of by other promoters.
Custus opened the gym after his good friend James Shuler died from a motorcycle accident in 1986. Shuler was a top amateur whose Olympic opportunity was taken away when the United States boycotted the 1980 games. Shuler had a solid pro career, going 22-1 with 16 knockouts. Shuler’s only defeat came against Thomas Hearns. He passed away just one week after the Hearns fight. For Custus, opening the gym in Shuler’s honor was something he felt was necessary to honor his friend who he describes as a good guy and someone he never got into an argument with.
“James, when he died. You know I think it was untimely. Being the type of person he was a positive young kid. I think he was a good role model for a lot of kids. He missed the Olympics so I figured his name should be carried on in a positive way.”
Since the gym’s opening, it quickly has become one of the top gyms in a city known for having some of the best gyms in the country. As other boxing gyms have been unable to keep going in the modern boxing state, Shuler’s has grown and thrived. At any point when you walk into Shuler’s you will find some of the top fighters in the world including Steve Cunningham, Yusaf Mack, Dhafir Smith, Hanky Lundy, Eddie Chambers, trainers Nazim Richardson and Robert Hines, along with a host of other professionals, top amateurs, and plenty of youth learning the sport and staying off the street.
For Custus, teaching fighters and building champions is one goal but simply providing kids in the community the opportunity to make good decision is also one of the great joys of having a boxing gym. Boxing gyms in inner cities have a long history of being a place where kids can go to stay out of trouble and Shuler’s is no different.
“Some of the kids as long as they learn to stay with their own people and they don’t have no peer pressure I did my job. Half of them turn pro. I just want them to be able to walk down the street, don’t have to join no gang, don’t have to smoke weed, do none of that dumb stuff and I accomplished that.”
The gym may have opened less than twenty years ago but it has an old time feel. Shuler’s is as old fashioned as it gets when it comes to boxing gyms, with concrete walls and floors and no air conditioning. They have standard bags and old weights. On a summer day it’s a sauna inside the gym, but no one complains as it simply has a feel that this is what a tough boxing gym is supposed to feel like.
For Custus it has been a journey. The gym has grown but has seen tough times as well, most notably marked when talented young pro Najai Turpin, who starred on the first season of the Contender reality show, passed away in 2005. Lining the walls are murals and paintings including of the namesake James Shuler and one of Turpin. The murals stare down over the ring and other areas of the gym watching those who train each day.
“Oh yeah, definitely grew. Since day one opening and everything. Opening up there’s always a lot of name people here. There’s always a lot of real good boxing here. A lot of positive people, a lot of good kids, honor roll kids, and stuff like that all the time. For what we did it for to keep kids out of trouble, off the streets. My goal in my mind was to grow some world class champions, some world class guys. We fought for titles and stuff like that. I always thought Najai Turpin, Frank Walker, Yusaf Mack, all those guys were champions, but the powers that be ain’t connected the right way. Without the right people it’s not going to happen. Some guys died, Najai died.”
The gym also resonates as a family environment. Where some gyms tend to have competition amongst its fighters, Shuler’s is one the gyms where everyone is looking out for each other and rooting for each other. Attend a card with a Shuler’s fighter in action, whether that fighter is in the main event or walk out bout, and you see the majority of the gym’s residents on hand to support that fighter.
It is that family and protective instinct that pushed Buster Custus to step outside of his comfortable role as trainer and take on the role of a promoter. Beginning several years back, hosting shows at the gym, Custus now has begun promoting his own cards in the city featuring Shuler’s fighters from top to bottom on the bout sheet. Custus had seen enough of his guys being put into fights as the opponent or having to push other promoters to use his fighters so he has attempted to take matters into his own hands.
“Well as I said, I’m not stern and hard with things. I’m not the type of guy that begs people to do stuff. I’m not gonna ask a guy to put my guy on and say you can use him any way you want to put him on. I’m not like that so I found a way to promote all those guys that I had. I used to pay for their bouts. Some of them would fight and wouldn’t want me to pay them. They would be like your spending good money for us to fight. So I started doing pro shows right here where it worked out that I would make no money but at least everybody fought. I just felt good that all of them got a win, move up to 10-0, 11-0. It was a lot of love and stuff in here and boxing. I just been blessed but that was my way of putting everybody on without having to go to this promoter, that promoter asking to put my guy’s on. I already went through that. So we do our own shows. That’s why I do them.”
Custus hosted a card earlier this year in January from First District Plaza. The card had a good attendance, but despite everyone’s efforts had problems with fighters having to drop off the card. Still, they got their name out and Philly’s road warrior, Dhafir Smith got the opportunity to get a win at home in the main event.
Saturday they have bigger plans. Dhafir Smith (26-22-7, 4 KO) returns as the co-main event as he looks to stay active after winning the PA State Light Heavyweight Title in his last bout. He takes on Bobby Jordan (8-4-1, 3 KO) in a six round 175lb bout. Smith has fought the majority of his career on the road in last minute bouts where he faced being the opponent in someone else’s hometown. With his trainer Custus running a show he gets the opportunity to move forward with his considerable skill and deceiving record by fighting at home.
“It’s good staying active. I’d like to fight every other month. Me and Yusaf can stay busy and stay in the ring. We just want to make history for Percy Custus being one of the best trainers in the world. Period.
“I love fighting at home more. I can get the fair decisions. I mean, half of my losses I’ve been robbed. You know I’m not even going to dwell on that. I’m just going to keep doing what I got to do.:
Headlining the card is former title challenger Yusaf Mack (30-4-2, 17 KO), coming off a decisive win over Omar Sheika in April where he won the USBA belt and put on possibly his best all-around performance. Mack, who is also trained by Custus, always had skill and wants to remain active as he makes one more run at a title shot. He takes on Sabou Ballogou (8-5, 3 KO) to keep busy as he looks for bigger bouts in the future.
“Real good, my last fight before the Sheika fight I was off two years. My fight before that I was off two years so I feel good fighting right back after that. Keep you active. Sabou, I hope he come to fight.
“You know the last time I fought here (his hometown of Philadelphia), 08 when I fought Omar Pittman. Basically me fighting in Atlantic City is home but I’m like no, this is home. It’s a hop, skip, and a jump over on the L downtown and you’re there.”
The card provides an extra bonus for Smith and Mack who have known each other since their early teens and refer to each other as brothers. The two grew up boxing together and are close friends.
“Basically, this is the first card that Dhafir and I have been on together. So you know for our hometown we teammates, we brothers, so we going to turn it up. We’re going to give the fans what they want to see.”
For Custus, the promotional aspect is not something he relishes, but feels he has to do to protect his fighters. If Custus can build a brand, develop a fan base that turns out for shows, and bring along the gym’s fighters, he can gain the pull needed to market and work with other promoters to provide bigger and better opportunities for his fighters. The next Dhafir Smith that comes along can develop as a fighter fighting in the city instead of on the road. Be a fighter that is brought along getting a fair shake and the chance to build a hometown fan base. The fighters and Custus will have more leverage and more opportunity to get into bigger fights and get into coveted TV dates.
“It’s something I got to do. The training part is like putting my pants on. I can do that. That’s nothing for me to train some guy pretty decent. I ain’t talking about myself but I know what I’m doing with that. I just do that and all my fighters been good fighters. I don’t compare them to nobody, but I know none of my fighters are beat up. People can’t look at them and tell their fighters. They’re articulate, they went to school and all that stuff. So I’m doing that, but I do want to make money doing this promotion thing so I can blow this up and spread them all out and go national. I can gel with some of these bigger promoters and be looked at another way. I’ll be sixty in August. I didn’t look at it like that before, but now I look at it like that.”
Next year, Shuler’s Gym will be twenty years old. The gym has accomplished many goals like producing a world champion in Steve Cunningham and numerous regional title winners and title challengers. The gym has provided West Philadelphia youth a place to be after school instead of on the streets while providing those kids with positive mentors and role models.
Now they plan to take the gym into a new era. They want to gain the notoriety and attention needed to command the attention of bigger promoters and boxing’s power brokers to provide the best opportunities for their fighters. The gym has been built, but the brand and franchise are a work in progress as they will attempt to put on cards that grow to a point of earning bigger venues, bigger crowds, and possibly TV coverage.
Custus does his best to promote and has done well with drawing attention around the city. That being said, the typical promoter role of verbally selling a fight is not his favorite aspect. He keeps it simple when talking about the card Saturday night.
“All I need to say is I want all of them to come out victorious. I want all of them to be in shape. I want the show to get a little publicity so they know this is what we going to be doing and formulating like I wanted to. This is what I wanted it to be. When you see Shuler’s shows. Guys like, you can’t carry guys like that (referring to Steve Cunningham who walked in as we were talking) but down the line Steve Cunningham and other guys from Shuler’s gym I’ll be putting on our cards. We want to get to a position where we can start doing ESPN fights and stuff like that. I think we got a lot of talent. That’s all I do but I ain’t boasting about it or got a whole lot to say about promoting. Just be there you know what I mean.”
Fortunately for Custus, his co-headliner Dhafir Smith is more than willing to sell the show for him.
“Just want to put the Shuler’s Gym on the map. We want Percy Custus to be one of the top promoters in Philly. We about to make history. Yusaf Mack is back on the map. I’m back on the map. I’m going to make some moves. We all going to be making some moves after this year.”
“Just come out Saturday night, July 7, you going to see a good co-main event and a good main event. We going to keep it from there, keep striving, and keep doing big shows.”
The card begins Saturday at 7:30pm from the Philadelphia Convention Center at 1101 Arch Street. In addition to the two main events talented Philly fighter Eric Hunter is on the card along with Tim Witherspoon Jr and several Shulers fighters making their pro-debut.
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