Justin Bell was one win away from reaching the Washington Golden Gloves Tournament championship finals and he was not about to be intimidated.
Not by a bigger, more experienced opponent. Not by the gamesmanship that fighter tried before the bout. And not by the incredible crowd noise inside the Sugar Ray Leonard Community Center throughout Saturday night’s 178-pound semifinal.
Bell, 18, remained confident and boxed his way into the finals with a close decision over 27-year-old Jeff McCalla of Baltimore.
“Very smart fight. It was kind of like a graduation for him,” said Lamont Roach, Jr., one of Bell’s coaches from No Xcuse Boxing Club in Capitol Heights. “He was going up against an older, stronger guy. He always brings the electricity to the table, but he boxed smart at the end and boxed his way to victory. I was very proud of his performance.”
Bell, of District Heights, advances to Saturday’s scheduled 178-pound final at the Waldorf Jaycees Community Center, where he’ll face Genc Pllana of Hagerstown.
Saturday’s semifinals were all fought before an engaged full house, but the energy in the room amped up noticeably late in the evening when Bell and McCalla entered the ring, with fans of both boxers cheering throughout the back and forth fight.
Perhaps looking for an edge, McCalla slammed down hard on Bell’s glove when the fighters touched up before the bout.
“When he came in there and hit my gloves, that’s when I knew I had him because he tried to intimidate me,” Bell said. “If you’ve got to try to intimidate someone, then you don’t really have anything up your sleeve to try and beat them.”
Fueled by the crowd, the pair traded blows throughout the first round, with each trying, but failing to land a home run blow.
“I wasn’t intimidated to bang with him. I gave him a little bit of banging, but I didn’t want to bang with him if I didn’t have to,” Bell said. “It’s not a street fight, it’s a boxing match. So I just took him around the ring. Then we he got close, I hit him with a counter.”
Bell appeared to be winning the second round as well when McCalla caught him late with a left hook to the head that resulted in a standing-eight count.
“I wasn’t hurt,” Bell said. “But (the referee) probably thought I felt it more than I did. It was flush shot. I’m gonna give him that. It was a flush shot that landed.”
Bell appeared to get the better of McCalla in the third and then it was up to the judges. The scorecards were tied, in which case the judges choose the winner based on factors such as aggressiveness and efficiency of blows. The nod went to Bell.
“We made a little adjustment in the corner,” Roach said of his strategy. “The guy was kind of wide to the body. We told Justin to attack his body in the second round, third round. That brought us home.”
Now, in his third fight of the tournament, Bell faces Pllana, who advanced via walkover (the opponent failed to appear in the ring) and watched in street clothes as Bell fought his way to the final.
Bell had an uncle who boxed, and his own career started early due to his propensity for fighting outside the ring.
“Me and my brother, when we were in elementary school, we liked to fight a lot,” Bell said. “One time we got into a fight and got in trouble at school. So my father was like, ‘Since you all want to fight so much at school, I’m gonna take you somewhere you can get your anger out.’ So he took us down to the boxing gym.”
He took a break from boxing when he was 9, but resumed two years later. About four years ago, he and his brother, Jason, who fights at 165 pounds, joined Lamont and Bernard Roach at No Xcuse.
“They used to come to my fights when I was young,” Bell said. “My father saw in their fighters what he wanted to see in us, so he took us down there.”
Roach said Bell’s speed and ‘no fear mentality,’ make him successful.
“He has very good speed,” Roach said. “Once he really gets out of the banging mode. And his awkwardness. It’s hard to tell where his punches are coming from. We use that to his advantage.”
Now Bell is two wins away from fighting for the Golden Gloves national title in Las Vegas, a step on the road to his larger goals.
“We want to keep fighting in every tournament for the next two years and then try for the 2016 Olympics,” Bell said of him and his brother.