When Martin Cornejo was 8 or 9 and getting into fights with other boys in his neighborhood in Lima, Peru, his uncle sought to control and redirect that energy in a time-honored way. Now Statesboro Boxing Club students are learning from Cornejo's experience in international amateur boxing.
His name is pronounced Mar-teen Cor-nay-ho. His club, as seems appropriate for a boxing club, is in a slightly out-of-the-way place. It's in a storefront-type building, but in the second row of such buildings, not visible from the highway, in the complex across Highway 24 from Mill Creek Regional Park. The club here is the first business Cornejo has owned, although he ran a club for another boxing trainer in Athens, Ga., and coached some top-ranked women boxers.
Cornejo reports that he was twice a national light welterweight champion, in the Peruvian Federation of Boxing, in 1999 and 2000. How did he get there, and then here?
"It's a long story," Cornejo said.
It began for a kid on those tough Lima streets a little over 30 years ago.
"My uncle, my aunt's husband, he saw that I liked to fight all the time, and then he started putting T-shirts - we didn't have gloves then, so he started wrapping T-shirts on my hands - and we started sparring like that, and I liked it a lot," Cornejo said.
His uncle was only a boxing fan, not a serious boxer. But soon they found an older former boxer, who lived nearby, who started teaching the pugilistic preteen.
"After a while my uncle bought me a pair of gloves, so every night we'd go outside and box with my friends, spar with them," Cornejo said. "It was not very technical, but it was boxing, trying to stay out of trouble."
Coming to America
He immigrated to the United States in 1994 at age 19 to Athens, and worked in a place that built railway freight cars. But, he found a boxing gym in town to pursue his passion. The 1996 Atlanta Olympics inspired him to train for 2000.
"In 1999 I went back to my country and I fought and I won, and the guys who were there, they told me, ‘We want you to come and try again next year for the Olympics,'" Cornejo said.
Besides winning the Peruvian titles, he trained for seven months, sparring in Chile and Argentina as well as Peru, for a pre-Olympic boxing qualifying event held in Buenos Aires. But he didn't make it to the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia.
Disappointed, Cornejo returned to the United States, where his coach wanted him to turn pro. That didn't go well, Cornejo said. Instead, when his coach decided to pursue his own boxing interests in 2001, he left Cornejo in charge of the Athens gym.
In 2003, three young women whom Cornejo coached won Georgia state championship titles in their weight divisions. One of them, Jennifer Grant, then 22, went on to win the National Golden Gloves championship in the 119-pound weight division that year in Chicago.
Also, while he was coaching in Athens, several of his male boxers were runners-up in state championships.
Cornejo married, and his wife's academic career took him to other U.S. cities. They lived in Gainesville, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio, before moving to Statesboro about three years ago. His wife, Dr. Claudia Cornejo Happel, is assistant director of the Center for Teaching and Learning at Georgia Southern University. They have a son, born in Athens, and a daughter born in Gainesville, "a Bulldog and a Gator," their dad said.
When Cornejo arrived in Statesboro, he heard there was one boxing club, but it went out of business. He sought to start his own, and went to martial arts gyms and health clubs hoping to find a place at an existing business.
The club owners turned him down, except for Eddie Lott, who owns an American Taekwondo Association martial arts school. So Cornejo started the boxing club at Lott's ATA Black Belt Academy about a year and a half ago.
"I'm thankful that he gave me the chance, because there were a lot of people coming," Cornejo said.
He moved out, to the space he is leasing off Highway 24, about a year ago. Moveable mats cover the floor, and punching bags hang from a metal frame that surrounds the ring and supports the ropes.
About 15 of Cornejo's students take his "cardio" boxing class. Sometimes they do speed drills. Other times they practice combinations. Classes start with a warmup, followed by boxing, followed by core and stretching exercises.
No mystery to her
Tina Whittle, author of the Tai Randolph mystery series, takes the classes twice a week with her daughter, Kaley.
"I'm almost 50, but boxing is something my 17-year-old daughter and I can do together despite our age difference, and we've kept at it because it's the perfect mix of individual effort and group support," Whittle wrote in an email. "It's just me and my weight bag, but when the music gets pumping and all the students start punching, I can feel the vibrations of the ring and hear the leather on leather all around me and I feel part of something larger than myself."
Whittle, whose fifth novel, "Reckoning and Ruin" came out in April, acknowledges she also takes classes in self-defense techniques as research, and previously studied Krav Maga. She has Cornejo scheduled to coach a workshop for the local chapter of Sisters in Crime, a crime fiction writers' organization, in October.
Cornejo also offers "Olympic-style" boxing classes for individuals who want to get into competitive boxing. His only student in this category, as of August, was Cierra Jordan, 17, a Southeast Bulloch High School senior, who also attends Georgia Southern University.
At Southeast, Jordan has played varsity volleyball for four years, runs the 400 meters and the 4x400 relay and placed sixth in the state in pole vault last year after breaking the school record.
Since June, she has trained as a boxer Mondays through Thursdays, plus twice a day on Saturdays and Sundays, and sometimes also Fridays. Jordan learned she liked boxing after she and a friend tried the club's standing introductory offer of one free cardio boxing class.
"She's very into it, and she's really disciplined at this point, and if she sticks to it - would you mind having an Olympic champion here?" Cornejo asked. "Even a national champion, somebody who made the Olympic team for the United States - would you mind that? How about two?"
Cornejo and some friends hope to start a nonprofit organization here to help underprivileged youth get into boxing. He said the coach who prepared him for international competition, Cuban-born and educated Maykel Balmaseda, who now coaches Olympic-class boxers in Spain, is interested.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.