At Nonantum Boxing Club, you earn your way in.

Just ask Tom O’Toole, Nick LaMothe and Lydia Davis, the latest crop of Haymakers for Hope fighters to come out of this old-school gym. Just weeks ago, they had their big moment in the 2016 Rock N Rumble at the House of Blues when the novices climbed into the ring carrying the confidence they rightfully earned in blood, sweat and tears at a gym where even Rocky would have fit right in.

Tucked into the quiet Nonantum neighborhood of Newton (also known locally as “The Lake”), the Nonantum Boxing Club (NBC) personifies the grit of boxing: downstairs, heavy bags swing in neat rows along the expanse of the former warehouse space, while upstairs two boxing rings share quarters with free weights, more heavy bags and a wall of mirrors meant for the perfecting of one’s fighting form. Not exactly worn out, the place is most definitely broken in. This is a place where fighters come to find out what they’re made of, and in doing so, often find something else: a second home.

“Boxing is a strange sport,” says Nick LaMothe, 28, who didn’t belong to any boxing gym until he signed up for Haymakers and was pointed toward NBC. “When you first walk in, you're a bit of an outsider. It’s a bit awkward getting paired up to work with other guys and you know you're so far behind and probably a disappointment to them while they are trying to get some real work in. But as you start to spar and really get some contact, show you can take a punch and hopefully throw one, the bonds grow and everyone rallies behind each other.”

They also push each other. For LaMothe that meant early-morning workouts with his trainer, Brian Bannon, 3 days a week, plus group drills and sparring with other guys in the gym.

“I can't say enough about Brian’s commitment to my success and his desire see me perform well,” says LaMothe. “The other great thing about NBC is that it's very much a teaching environment. From the top and most experienced trainers down to the guys I sparred with each week, everyone offers pointers, makes themselves available for drills, and supports the collective learning experience. It's been great.”

The gym’s commitment to the fighters can be a blessing or maybe a curse. For Tom O’Toole, who was also sent to NBC by the Haymakers team, realizing what was in store for him was a bit daunting at first.

“I met Marc Gargaro (one of NBC’s owners) on my first day,” says O’Toole, who had never boxed before. “He was very welcoming and then he said, ‘We expect you here 6 days a week.’ I have three kids and a full-time job! It was pretty disruptive at first, but we worked it out. I love the vibe in the gym. It’s very gritty. People go in there and work hard and they expect you to work hard. They definitely raised my game.”

O’Toole trained for the fight with Johnny Sementelli, a 6’3” former college football player who started boxing when the gym opened up in his neighborhood nine years ago. He fought in Haymakers in 2012, and has had 10 amateur bouts since. He’s also a proud part of the family that runs Nonantum.

O’Toole is the sixth fighter to climb into the Haymakers ring under Sementelli’s tutelage, though it almost didn’t happen. Halfway through training, O’Toole suffered a rib injury and dropped out briefly. “But he actually recovered well, so he went for it,” Semetelli says.

Preparing a novice like O’Toole for the Haymakers ring has been a highlight of Sementelli’s training career at Nonantum.

“Most of the Haymakers guys are starting at ground zero and basically taking a crash course in boxing,” he says. “They only have 4 months to prepare for an officially sanctioned USA Boxing amateur bout. It's pretty amazing how far they come in such a short time. It takes a lot of guts to step in that ring in front of a huge crowd at the House of Blues, so they should feel a huge sense of accomplishment no matter what the outcome is. These competitors train extremely hard—shadow boxing, mitts, sparring, road work, bag work—to get their bodies physically and mentally prepared to get in the ring for only 6 minutes. It doesn't sound like much, but it is absolutely exhausting! I enjoy being a part of a very exciting event, to raise money for a great cause, and seeing these people transform and to be able to check something off their bucket list that they never expected they could do, or would do.”

Boxing in a Haymakers event was certainly not on Lydia Davis’ bucket list when she first joined Nonantum to take boxing classes “just for fitness” a few years ago. But all of that changed when she watched her friend fight in the Belles last fall.

“I became completely caught up in the buzz of the event and could almost feel a sense of inevitability that I would throw my name into the hat,” recalls Davis, an expat from the UK who lives in Newton. “I’d only taken boxing classes for fitness. I soon learned that it’s a completely different experience to prepare for a fight! Nothing actually prepares you for the extreme highs and lows that come with training. There really are good days, bad days, and sometimes even good minutes, and bad minutes during a session! I love the crowd that I trained with; they made it all worthwhile. And I’m really enjoying the fact that, in my mid 40’s, I’ve learned a completely new skill set. The flip side of that is the total frustration at not being as good as you’d like to be. But from what I hear, you can box for 20 years and still feel like that!”

Training with Marc Gargaro and Dena Lawton, Davis says she couldn’t have asked for better coaches. “Both are amazing in terms of their knowledge, experience, support and ability to keep their sense of humor!”

All three Haymakers novices benefitted from working out with Nonantum’s growing stable of Haymakers alumni, who always pitch in to help with sparring, mitt work and plenty of encouragement.

In particular, Haymakers veteran Christine Corcoran has been thrilled to be able to share her insights and advice, garnered from not one, but two Haymakers fights. It’s a rare opportunity that came along in no small part because of her love of the sport and her gym.

A cousin got Corcoran to try boxing at NBC in the fall of 2012, and it was an instant love affair.

“I think it was fate for me to find Nonantum, because it is not just the boxing gym I go to, it's family—my closest friends. I met my boyfriend there. I met Julie Kelly there. She is actually the first person I ever sparred.”

Which, Corcoran says, was kind of a joke. “She was like, ‘Want a birthday beating?’ And I was like, ‘Why not?!’ So she went light and I finally landed one and said ‘sorry!’ and then she hit me with a body shot and goes, ‘Never say sorry!’ Lesson learned!”

Corcoran never signed up for Haymakers. Instead, in the late summer of 2013, Julie Kelly called to ask her to fill in for a fighter that dropped out of the Belles of the Brawl. Aside from “that one birthday beating” Corcoran had never sparred, and had only used the heavy bags in classes. “But,” she says, “I love Julie Kelly so saying no wasn’t an option.”

With only a month to prepare, she didn't really have time to think about it. “That ‘oh shit what did I get myself into? ’feeling never came,” she says. “And I was confident. The nerves were slightly there because of the crowd, but otherwise I was ready and I got the second round TKO.”

Last May, Corcoran fought again as a fill-in, though she stepped in early enough to enjoy the full experience of media day, and to have an “amazing” training camp with Marc Gargaro and Dena Lawton.

“Dena beat the shit out of me every Wednesday,” says Corcoran. “Without her hard work with me in the ring and support in my corner, I wouldn't be the boxer I am today. And Marc. I feel like it's hard to describe how talented he is as a coach. He just knows. His mitt work, his knowledge of the sport, and how much he cares… I consider myself extremely lucky.”

And, while she calls Nonantum her family and her home, Corcoran will be the first to tell you it doesn’t happen overnight.

“What I love about Nonantum Boxing Club is that you have to earn your way in,” she says. “You have to have the work ethic and the heart to do it. It's a little rough around the edges; it's a small business gym, my kind of place and my kind of people. Everyone is there to work hard, and they help each other. We have talented trainers, talented fighters, and all of the heart.”

Margie Kelley is a mom, freelance writer, master gardener and sometimes boxer. She fought in the 2013 Belles of the Brawl in Boston, and managed to convince her husband, Chris Fitzpatrick, to fight in the Rock ‘n Rumble in 2015. Settling arguments has taken on a whole new meaning in their house!