Tom Archdeacon: Bridging two cultures through boxing

Here’s how far the “Welcome Dayton” initiative has come.

The effort, begun by the city commission and the mayor to make Dayton immigrant-friendly, was characterized by an extended, open hand.

Now it comes with a cocked arm and a closed fist.

And there’s also the rhythmic rat-tat-tat from a speed bag, the steady thudding back beat coming from the heavy bags and the piercing, high-pitched sound of a ring bell that marks time in three-minute intervals.

The Ahiska Turkish American Community Center — in conjunction with local boxing figure Milt Pearson — is opening a spacious gym and launching a fight show promotion this week.

Already it has a star quality about it.

Not only will Pearson’s son Chris, the 25-year-old, once-beaten super welterweight contender, train at the gym for his bouts, most of which are in Las Vegas, but two Turkish fighters — with World Boxing Council championship belts, big followings back home and on social media and movie star good looks that will make them stand out here — have just relocated to Dayton and will call the gym their home, as well.

The pair of super middleweights, 25-year-old Bugra Oner and his 26-year-old brother, Alptug, arrived in Dayton on Sunday and got a warm hero’s embrace at the Community Center from the Ahiksa Turkish community here.

“It was a real nice welcome,” said Milt Pearson. “There must have been 150 to 200 people here and there was a band and then a big meal afterward.”

Thursday afternoon at 12:30 the Community Center will hold its kick-off press conference to announce the boxing venture and the gym’s grand opening will be Saturday at 3:30.

Not only will the boxing venture cater to pros like Pearson and the Oner brothers, but it will feature an amateur boxing program that will include fistic hopefuls like Ilyaz Mamadaliyev, the 17-year-old Belmont High junior who has been in training for a couple of years and is readying for his first bout.

Like the more celebrated pros, he was at the gym Tuesday to work out a bit as his father, Zakir, and 14-year-old brother, Imran, watched from the bleachers.

Ilyaz was born in Russia, moved with his family to Tucson, Ariz., when he was 8 and a few years back the family relocated here to be part of the growing Ahiska Turkish community.

He said boxing is a sport the Turks especially embrace.

“Fighting is in our blood,” he said with a smile.

While the new boxing venture plans to host periodic amateur shows at the gym, it will also put on bigger pro shows at the Dayton Convention Center. The first one is planned for some time in April.

“With our own fighters and those we bring in, this will be an international stage and it will be right in downtown Dayton,” Pearson said.

Islom Shakhbandarov, the president of the Ahiska Turkish American Community Center and Pearson’s partner in this project, picked up on that thought:

“Milt and I will be putting on the first professional boxing show in Dayton in 20 to 25 years.”

‘Building bridges’

After decades of oppression and forced displacement from their lands, some Ahiska Turks began finding a home in Dayton some 10 years ago.

Initially, six families were placed here by the U.S. State Department.

For someone from the other side of the world who may have heard of the sexier, more-hyped American destinations — places like California, Miami or New York City — Dayton was an off-the-radar landing spot

But the Turks found they could get affordable homes here, comfortably raise a family and, in the process, grab hold of a piece of the American dream.

In 2011, they also were met by the open arms initiative called Welcome Dayton.

Because of the declining population of Dayton, the city fathers wanted to entice new people to the region and the Ahiska Turks were a group that especially embraced that concept.

“That Welcome Dayton that everyone talks about?” Shakhbandarov said. “It started with the Turkish community.”

Today he said some 400 families — 2,000 to 3,000 Turkish people overall — now call Dayton home. Many have settled in the Old North Dayton neighborhoods that once were in decline.

It’s been estimated the Turks — through real estate purchases and logistic investments, especially in trucks, truck stops and warehouses — have had a $75 million impact on the local economy.

As the community grew, there became more of a need for a universal gathering place.

A few years back the city sold the declining Bomberger Center on East Fifth Street to the Turks for $831,000. The price on the 22,276-square-foot facility will be forgiven over a 10-year period if the organization operates and maintains the building as agreed.

Today the facility — renamed the Ahiska Turkish American Community Center — is a well-maintained, thriving place that includes a nursery, meeting spaces, a mosque, a playground and now an impressive boxing gym with a 20-foot ring, a dozen heavy bags and a row of speed bags along one wall.

“It’s not just about sport itself,” said Shakhbandarov. “It’s about building bridges between communities. That’s one of the most important things here.

“It’s kind of an ambassador, a way to bring two cultures together.”

Shakhbandarov said it was four years ago — when his 13-year-old nephew was an amateur boxer training in Pearson’s gym in Old North Dayton — that he first got to know his new partner.

He said his nephew drowned “trying to save two other kids in the (Mad) river” and he saw how Milt was saddened.

About a month ago Pearson said Shakhbandarov called him up and said he wanted to talk to him about boxing.

“I said, ‘What do you know about boxing?’ ” Pearson said with a grin.

Among other things, Shakhbandarov mentioned two words:

“Bagra” and Alptug.”

A boxing family

The two Oner brothers and their dad, Murat — using their own growing vocabulary of English and an interpreter — said they are from “a total boxing family.”

“Boxing is our life,” Murat said.

He was an amateur boxer and now helps his sons. He said his wife is in sports medicine, his two other sons boxed as amateurs and now one referees and he said his daughter boxed, too.

Bugra had over 250 amateur bouts, fighting around the world from Mexico to Romania, Russia, Ukraine, Albania and Azerbaijan.

Alptug had 160 amateur fights.

Both brothers are 8-1 as pros.

They won their minor WBC belts on the same night — Feb. 14, 2015 — in a show in Adana, Turkey where they lived.

Alptug knocked out Mindia Nozadze for the vacant WBC Eurasia Pacific Boxing Council super middleweight crown. Bugra decisioned Ramazi Gogichashvili for the WBC Youth world super middleweight title.

Both lost when they came to America and fought more experienced pros on a card in Miami last August.

They’ve come to Dayton to regroup and Pearson said the news got a big response on Facebook.

“Bugra put it out there and he got 97,000 likes,” Pearson said. “These guys are really popular.”

That’s easy to see. They have a charm about them and appear quite colorful.

Among his tattoos Bugra has Attila the Hun inked on his right side. Alptug has the equally imposing Kursad, the ancient Turkish general, tattooed on his right side.

Tuesday they were joined by Chris Pearson, who is 14-1 after suffering his initial setback in December, when he was upset by Eric Walker in a nationally-televised eight-round bout in Vegas.

He too has refocused himself and will likely fight in April, possibly on the Las Vegas undercard of Badou Jack, the 20-1 super middleweight.

A former Trotwood-Madison High School basketball player, Pearson said he looks forward to having a gym back home to train in and especially to be sharing it with a couple of guys like the Oner brothers.

“They have the same pedigree as me,” he said. “This should be good for all of us.”

And for a lot of other folks, too, Milt Pearson said:

“Chris is a high-profile athlete back here and Bugra and Alptug are too in their community. You can’t have three better ambassadors to bring two communities together.

“I think we’re on the verge of something really good here.”

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