A decade ago, Richardson Hitchins of Crown Heights was selling water in a park so he could buy sneakers for school, seeing violence all around him, and wishing his single mother had enough money to put him in karate classes.
Now, at 19, he’s an Olympian and two-time Golden Gloves champion who recently signed with boxing great Floyd Mayweather's promotions company and won his second pro fight Saturday at the Barclays Center.
“One time I saw a friend get killed when I was a little 10-year-old. I was running with my cart and my bottles of water, telling everybody in my neighborhood I had just seen him get shot,” Hitchins said this week at Atlas Cops and Kids boxing gym in East Flatbush. “I’ve seen the craziest things at 8, 9, 10 years old — drug dealers, trap houses. They’d put out pistols in front of me, put ’em on the table. This stuff to other people is like, oh, that's crazy! But to me, it was regular.”
Instead of becoming caught up in the violence, Hitchins has beaten the odds — and also lots of opponents in the boxing ring.
“I witnessed lots of shootings in my neighborhood. That’s not what got me into boxing. What got me into boxing was I was just always that kid in school who loved to fight,” he said. “I used to love slapboxing. I wasn't the person who would bully anybody, but I would get into fights. If I felt like somebody was unbeatable in the street, I'd want to be the guy to beat them up.”
However, it was karate that had initially caught his eye.
"There was a commercial on TV for Tiger Schulmann’s,” he said. “But we didn’t have the money for that.”
Then one day at age 12 he went on YouTube to watch videos of Mayweather, wanting to learn to box like him. He started looking up local boxing gyms online and came across Atlas Cops and Kids.
“I had to learn where this place was ASAP. So I got on the train,” he recalled. “I didn't know where I was going, but I knew it was in Flatbush.”
When he found it, everything changed.
“I was like a kid in a candy store: the gloves, the smell,” he said. “I'm in love with boxing, deeply in love. I fell in love with boxing before I fell in love with a girl.”
Behind the Cops and Kids program is Pat Russo, 55. As a 22-year-old rookie cop, he was instrumental in starting the boxing program in Sunset Park.
Hitchins considers Russo a powerful mentor in his life.
“That’s an angel from God,” he said.
And Russo is high on Hitchins as well.
“He came into the gym a wise guy, and the gym made him into a young man,” Russo said. “There's smart, and then there's boxing smart. He is boxing genius.”
As an amateur, Hitchins won the Ringside World Championships twice and the Junior Golden Gloves Nationals twice. He was also a Junior Olympics qualifier.
“Being in boxing tournaments was so cool, seeing all the kids from different cities. I was learning different handshakes,” he said. “I matured quick.”
But he faced disappointment when he failed to make the U.S. boxing team for the 2016 Olympics.
“I’m like man, where do I go now?” he said.
An answer was forthcoming. Weeks before the Olympics, Hitchins traveled to Azerbaijan for a qualifying match — seven fights in seven days — and won an Olympic spot representing Haiti, where his parents are from.
"I was on Cloud 100,” Hitchins said about being in the Games. "I cried.”
But in Rio, he lost to Team USA’s Gary Russell. Even so, he had secured at least one important fan: Mayweather, his idol as a child.
"I met with Floyd in Rio, and we were talking about signing,” Hitchins said. "He took us out to eat. Shortly after that we met in Miami. He was telling me, ‘I’m looking at you like, damn, this kid can fight!’ I spoke to different promoters, and nobody had the offer Floyd was giving me. When I signed, it was even 10 times better than I imagined.”
Hitchins said the deal involves “making sure I don’t have to worry about anything other than boxing. I'm promised about seven fights a year for two years back to back. So within two years I should be right there next to a world title,” he said confidently.
In March, Hitchins won his first pro fight, with a first-round TKO of Mario Perez at Barclays. On Saturday, he dominated Alexander Picot of Puerto Rico for four rounds in a junior welterweight bout and was declared the winner in a unanimous decision.
Hitchins still trains at Atlas Cops and Kids every day, with coaches Aureliano Sosa and Leonard Wilson.
"What I'll always remember is, I was a 12-year-old kid with nothing — I mean nothing,'' he said. “Now I'm coming to the gym in a Lexus at 18, 19 years old. I just look at stuff like that, like damn, if it wasn't for this gym, it would have never been like this.
"I'm gonna be a big name in boxing. I definitely see myself taking that superstar light and taking it to the next level, the Mike Tyson level. I want that type of stardom.''