There’s Always Another Round.
Since 2007, the Downtown Boxing Gym has been empowering Detroit students to be positive and productive members of society through education, athletics, mentorship and intervention. The free, after-school program takes place year round in a large facility located on East Vernor on Detroit’s east side.
“The gym was always meant to be a safe place.” Says founder and CEO, Khali Sweeney. “Boxing is really just the hook to get the kids in the door, because it’s easier to tell your friends you’re going to a boxing gym than an intervention program. My philosophy is ‘books before boxing’ because education is plan A. Boxing is a hobby. It teaches you things like self-discipline and to be healthy, but we’re not focused on kids making a career out of it. With any sport, you’re always one injury away from being homeless, so I emphasize that education is what will open pathways to success.”
It’s a mission that’s close to his heart because of challenges he faced early in life.
“I really never got any support from the adults in my life. I wasn't encouraged or pushed to be the best that I could be. Most people would tell me that I was going to end up dead or in jail. And, from about the third grade on, I never learned to read or write. I knew I couldn't do it, but nobody took the time to recognize that I had a problem, they just pushed me through school. So, people would see me arguing or starting fights and just assumed I was a bad kid, but I was just embarrassed that I couldn't read or write.”
Those challenges stayed with him well into his teens and ultimately lead him down a dangerous path.
“I dropped out of school and joined a gang because I really didn’t care about my life. I was always wondering when I was going to jail. I would do pushups so that when I hit the prison yard, I would be ready. It was totally the wrong mindset.”
But everything changed when he had a fateful conversation with his brother.
“He said, ‘You do know that the rest of the world doesn't live like this, right?’ And I was like, ‘No, I don't. Go back to your fantasy because this is my reality.’ Then he showed me a picture of his friends and said, ‘Look, I can call all these guys right now — let’s see about your guys.’ He started pulling out pictures of my friends and saying, ‘He’s dead, he’s dead, he’s dead, he’s on the run, he’s in jail…’ That’s when I asked myself, ‘What do I want to do with my life?’”
Sweeney resolved that going back to school was the first step to turning things around, so he got a job, started hitting the books and eventually taught himself to read and write.
“When I started getting back on track, I would try to encourage other people I knew to do the same, but they were too set in their ways. That made me realize that I wanted to work with kids in the community to help them avoid the path I went down.”
Early on, boxing taught Sweeney valuable lessons that transcended the ring, and he wanted to use it as a way to engage kids in need.
“Boxing was right up my alley. I saw the discipline and fun in it. I saw the focus that it took and drive that it took... I would run five and a half miles on the weekends with my cousin who was a boxer. He taught me the fundamentals as well as life lessons, but he wasn’t in a position to be a consistent teacher for me at the time, so I ended up slipping back into my old ways. That’s why I’m so consistent with our kids. Early on my car used to break down and people would see me walking on the freeway in the snow or rain because I had to be at the gym for them.”
He knows how important that consistency is because many of the gym’s students come from circumstances similar to his own.
“You have kids that haven’t had a decent meal, who have academic problems or are getting bullied — we even have the kids who are doing the bullying. They all come to the gym and have to run side-by-side with one another. When you see the kid who got bullied run five more miles than you, it’s humbling. It creates a bond.”
Though athletics and academic support get kids through the door, it’s Sweeney’s personal approach to mentoring that drives their remarkable results.
“I'm open and honest with every kid. I tell them how my life was and where I was headed. I don't hide or glorify anything about my past, I just tell them the truth — that somebody created a narrative for me by saying I was going to be dead or in jail, and I believed it. The school wanted to kick me out. Plenty of people welcomed me into gang life and the county jail was ready to welcome me too. So, I just try to remind them of what's really going on out there and what’s worth fighting for.”
With time and tireless determination, Sweeney changed that narrative for himself and is helping others do the same.
“A lot of people think our kids are predisposed to violence and ignorant behavior, or that they’re just not really trying, but nothing could be further from the truth. The kids that I work with are beautiful, humble young men and women who just want a fair chance. And they prove the skeptics wrong. We have a one hundred percent graduation rate. We have kids who have gone from straight F’s to straight A’s and are attending some of the best colleges in the country.”
Beyond the individual impact, The Downtown Boxing Gym’s work is also helping unite a city where neighborhood feuds run deep and the disconnect between the city and suburbs can run even deeper.
“We have kids from all walks of life, but we’re all one community. The kids motivate each other, they help each other, they stay the night at each other's houses... We have former gang members who are now making peace in their neighborhoods and across the community. We teach them to be free thinkers and judge others by their actions, not by their own perceptions — you have to give everybody a fair shot.”
The gym has become a gem of Detroit, with folks from the neighborhood and throughout the metro area volunteering their time and support to help the organization grow. But Sweeney recognizes that the fight is only beginning.
“The community has really rallied around us. We have 175 kids right now, as well as a volunteer list a mile long with folks from all professions, demographics and tax brackets. It’s amazing. But I'm also a little bit disturbed that we have a waiting list of 850 kids — there is no waiting list at the morgue or the county jail… There are a lot of good organizations doing good work in Detroit, but they should not have waiting lists. That’s why community service is so important — if we don't value our community, who will? We all have to pitch in and work.”
To learn more about their amazing work, visit downtownboxinggym.org