This is a story about a community center in the core of Kansas City. It is a story about the Kansas City Golden Gloves initiative to bring boxing back to the city’s core. It is a story about a group of people who volunteer their time to try and accomplish all of that. But what this story is really about, is a little boy named Benny.
January 2017 was an exciting time for me. The glowing promises of a new year seemed to be coming true as the Kansas City Golden Gloves and my trainer, coach Craig Cummings, opened the door to Kansas City’s newest boxing gym at the Garrison Community Center. Mr. Cummings asked me if I would like to help coach – and I couldn’t have been more excited. If boxing is my “religion," my “soul,” well, then helping kids learn about boxing is my “heart.”
And, as anyone who has watched “Field of Dreams” knows, “If you build it, they will come.”
The kids poured into the brand-new boxing gym in their community center. There were kids of all ages – boys and girls – who were curious about the rings, bags and gloves. Many of them stayed and wanted to take a jab at this exciting new sport presented to them. For some, it would turn out to be a short-lived whim. And this was OK. Boxing isn’t for everyone.
Soon enough, though, we had a fairly consistent core of kids who attended the gym regularly and begin to build their skills. Our little team was gelling into a cohesive group. It was thrilling to me to see certain kids who were responding to boxing in the same manner that I had when I first began the sport. I could see confidence building in some kids, and respect and discipline in others. Every time I witness the positive impact that boxing has on a kid, I’m filled with happiness. I love to see kids find something in boxing that fills a void in their life.
Things were progressing nicely in our new gym. There seemed to be a steady flow of new kids who stopped in to check things out.
On a typically typical evening we had a small group of “regulars” who were going through the routine of training, when the door slammed open, and a small storm entered the gym. A little boy, probably 10 or 11 years old burst into the gym and began to wreak havoc. He was in a boxing gym, and he was here to fight.
He began to aggressively call out kids who were working on bag drills, footwork drills, and other training techniques.
“You wanna fight me? I bet you don’t, but I wanna fight you,” he hollered at the top of his lungs.
I quickly intervened. The regular boxers went back to the tasks at hand, and I attempted to explain to this kid, that this isn’t how it worked. Number one, this isn’t about “fighting.” At least not in the sense that he had interpreted boxing. I tried to tell him that this was a sport, with techniques to be learned. I offered to go over the basics with him. He would have none of this. He informed me that he already knew how to fight. No one needed to show him anything. With that he stormed off and grabbed a pair of gloves.
I returned my attention to the other boxers in the gym and moved them along to the next drill. I spent a few minutes with them and then decided to address the situation with the new little boy. He was beating a heavy bag with as much anger as I have ever seen in a person. I watched for a bit, and then approached him to try and offer him some instruction on the proper way to stand, throw a punch, etc. He turned and struck out at me. I caught his gloved hand just before it connected with me.
I told him to remove the gloves and to leave the gym. He removed the gloves all right, and then proceeded to throw them at me. I picked them up and returned them to the bin. I then escorted him to the door. I told him he had to leave that night because he had been disrespectful to the other boxers in the gym, and to someone who was trying to help him. That would not be tolerated in this gym. I also told him he was welcome to come back the next night and try again. He hollered and yelled all the way to the door, and left with just as much bluster as he had entered.
This was the first time Benny was asked to leave the gym; it would definitely not be the last.
Benny would return often. He would be asked to leave just as often. But, he was always told he could try again the next night we were open. The door to boxing was never permanently closed.
His returns began to last longer and longer, until he had received a sufficient amount of instruction that coach Cummings finally determined he was ready to spar. This was what he had been waiting for; he was finally going to get to “fight.”
It was a treat to see Benny’s instinct in action. He had a knack for this boxing thing; and undeniable natural ability.
Unfortunately, after his sparring experience, Benny no longer wanted to bother with the other toils in the gym. All he wanted to do was spar. The coaches explained to him that he had to work on bags, do the drills and practice all of the techniques he had acquired every night before he would be allowed to spar.
This must have been a deal breaker for Benny. He no longer found his way down to the boxing gym.
As time went on, and we didn’t see Benny, I thought I might have been relieved. After all, this kid was challenging, to say the least. But I found myself missing him; wondering what trouble he might be getting himself into. I thought of him often.
After a couple of months, I began to go to the gym on non-boxing days to get in my own workouts, and take advantage of some quiet time. One quiet afternoon, as I was shadowboxing in the ring, the door slammed open, and a familiar storm entered the gym; Benny was back.
I stopped what I was doing and greeted him. The first thing out of his mouth was, “Can I spar?” Well, I told him that nothing had changed. He still had to do his other work before he could spar. But I made a deal with him; If he gave me three rounds each of shadowboxing and bag work, then I would give him three rounds of mitts. And that’s just what we did.
This began a new routine of sorts for Benny. Anytime I came to the gym for my own work, Benny would find me or I would find him, and we would negotiate a boxing workout that would culminate in some sparring.
One day, when I was working out, Benny came into the gym and I braced myself for the latest round of negotiations. But on this day, Benny didn’t want to negotiate. He wanted to talk. He sat down on the floor next to my weight bench. There seemed to be something different about him that I couldn’t quite place. Then it dawned on me; Benny didn’t have on his usual armor of defiance and anger. He was quiet, complacent.
I asked him what was up. He gave a generic answer. I tried another angle and asked him a little about his life: How many brothers and sisters does he have, is he the oldest, that sort of thing. That’s when Benny started to talk – more than I’d ever heard him speak. He spoke in a soft voice, and he spoke volumes.
He talked about how many times he’d moved from city to city, town to town, in his life. He detailed the reality of his home life. The narrative that this little boy shared with me filled me with fear, and made my stomach churn. I wanted to reach out to him, hug him, protect and shelter him. But I knew that this would cause him to flee. Benny didn’t take kindly to sympathy.
That afternoon there was no boxing – just a lot of talking in a boxing gym.
When I got in the car to head home that day, the tears came. I was overwhelmed with so many emotions. I was terrified by the life this little boy has seen; but I was so grateful this boxing gym had made it possible for my path to cross with Benny’s.
I would love to say this was a catalytic moment, that magically changed Benny’s life. That he became an outgoing and happy little boy. Sadly, Benny is still angry, defiant and guarded. But I can say, moving forward, Benny is different.
He says, “please” and “thank you.” He holds doors open for me when we’re walking. He talks to me from time to time, sometimes about serious matters, and sometimes about little boy matters; those are my favorite conversations – the nonsense conversations.
We still have to negotiate boxing workouts, and he still doesn’t come to class regularly. But I can count on seeing him in the gym at least once a week.
Will he ever be a competitive boxer? I have high hopes that he will. Like I said, he does have natural ability… but, for now, I am so happy that he finds his way to this boxing gym where he can talk about whatever he needs to. I’m happy that he can come here and win a negotiation where he earns what he wants.
I’m grateful gyms like this exist for kids like Benny, who – above all else – just need the opportunity to be little boys and learn the lessons all little boys deserve to learn.