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ESPN’s ‘Contender’ boxers hit Dudley Sq.

Bridgit Brown

ESPN sent the four semi-finalist fighters from the third season of its series “The Contender” to the heart of Roxbury last Saturday.

Sakio Bika, Jaidon Codrington, Sam Soliman and Wayne Johnsen greeted youngsters from the Fit Kidz program of the nonprofit Body By Brandy 4 Kidz on Washington Street.

They spent more than an hour with the kids, signing autographs, gym clothing and equipment donated by Everlast. They also worked out with the children, showing each one how to properly wrap a boxing glove, throw a jab and duck a left hook.

Produced by acclaimed reality TV king Mark Burnett, “The Contender” stars hall-of-famer Sugar Ray Leonard as host and mentor to the boxers.

“‘The Contender’ has helped so many boxers realize their dreams and it’s been a wonderful way of humanizing the sport of boxing, which has been looked down upon because of the nature of the sport,” said Leonard in an interview with the Banner.

The final episode of the season took place in Boston on Tuesday night at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Stooping to autograph the water bottle of a tiny 6-year-old, the six-foot-tall Johnsen smiled and talked about his upcoming fight.

“I’m nervous, but it’s in a good way. I love what I’m doing,” he said.

Johnsen, a native of New Jersey, faced Soliman for third-place honors and a $50,000 prize.

The Australian Soliman studied tae kwon do, karate and kickboxing before turning to professional boxing. But in Dudley Square, he was just having fun.

As two gloved-up youngsters approached Soliman and Johnsen, they raised their hands, giving the kids targets at which to throw a jab. One shot nearly caused the jovial Soliman to keel over.

“Wow! That’s a powerful punch,” he said.

Upon entering the gym, Bika stood staring in awe at the child-sized treadmills, mini-nautilus equipment, the tiny, yet sturdy boxing ring and the other kid-friendly exercise equipment.

“I think this place is amazing,” he said.

Housed at Body By Brandy Fitness Studio, Fit Kidz makes use of the country’s first and only full-service, state-of-the-art “kiddy” gym. Founded by Brandy Cruthird, the gym offers fitness programming, health education, self-empowerment and community outreach programs.

“Every child should have a gym like this made available to him or her,” said Bika.

A 2000 Olympian for Cameroon that now represents Australia, Bika fought Queens, N.Y., native Jaidon Codrington Tuesday night for the “Contender” championship and a $750,000 purse.

“I got my start in a place like this,” said Codrington. “Programs like this one make it possible for children to see a way out.”

Growing up in a family of boxers, Codrington began training at the age of 12. Nirmal Lorick, Codrington’s trainer, said he watched the fighter grow up in a gym quite similar to the one at Fit Kidz.

“He’s been through a lot, and it’s nice to be able to see how he turned out,” Lorick said. “It makes me feel good when one of the kids that I helped makes it into adulthood and can invite me to their homes for dinner, and lets me be a part of their lives.”

During his time at the Dudley Square gym, Lorick helped one boy wrap blue ribbon around his hands before squeezing them into a set of electric blue boxing gloves. Once fully gloved, the boy smiled.

“I’m hoping that people will see boxing as a sport. That’s the problem these days,” said Lorick, a former Olympic featherweight who volunteers his free time to teach inner-city Queens teens how to box. “The problem with programs like [“The Contender”] is that people don’t see boxing as a martial art. It’s also an issue of class.”

On that point, the legendary Leonard agreed.

“Boxing is a poor man’s sport. Kids in Beverly Hills don’t box,“ he said. “It’s a sport that folks like myself and other minorities can participate in because we don’t have the financial income to participate in golf, tennis and gymnastics. The positive side to boxing is that it creates character, a sense of self-confidence, and it’s a way for young men to express themselves.”

Fresh out of the ring with Codrington, 12-year-old Marvin explains what he’s been getting into these days after school.

“I come here four days a week, and I work out, and I sweat, and I love it,” Marvin said. “I started coming when my doctor said that my body mass index was too high for a kid my age. I work out, I use the machines and I’ve learned about how to eat and live a healthy life. We also take a nutrition class that teaches us about the types of foods that are good for the body.”