2024 Hour Detroiters: Khali Sweeney & Amanda Case

The founder and CEO of Downtown Boxing Gym, and the researcher behind the gym’s educational programming.
Amanda Case (left) and Khali Sweeney with DBG Executive Director Jessica Hauser, who serves as a liaison between DBG and Purdue researchers and assists with data collection and analysis, in one of the classrooms where youth programming occurs. // Photograph by Chuk Nowak

In 2013, Amanda Case was flipping through a magazine — this magazine, in fact — when a particular article caught her attention. Case, a native of Royal Oak then starting her first year as an assistant professor teaching educational psychology at Wayne State University, was intrigued by an article about a boxing gym that wasn’t really a boxing gym.

The Downtown Boxing Gym was exactly what Case was looking for: a place where students were being educated outside of a traditional classroom.

She began studying its methods and has published academic papers and given presentations at conferences about the gym. “I think it’s safe to say that I have largely built my career around this partnership,” says Case, now an associate professor of counseling psychology at the Purdue University College of Education.

The gym’s founder and CEO is Khali Sweeney, a Detroit native who grew up on the city’s east side. He started the Downtown Boxing Gym in 2007 with a simple idea: Kids would come to box and would get help with their schoolwork in the process.

The program has since grown from residing in a leaky former car wash to inhabiting a polished, 27,500-square-foot space once occupied by a bookbinding factory. Every weekday, kids sign in, drop their phones at the front desk (“The outside world stays outside,” Sweeney says), and line up in the gym, which serves about 250 kids in a given week. They’re surrounded by sports equipment — punching bags and two boxing rings, yes, but also a rotating climbing wall, weights, soccer nets, and chessboards.

But first things first. The gym’s motto is “Books before boxing,” so the kids do their homework before moving on to footwork.

Each of the students has an individualized education plan, developed for them when they came into the gym for the first time. An academic staff of 14 (including nine certified teachers) awaits them as they break off to go to various spaces — classrooms, tutoring rooms, study spaces, a reading lounge. DBG also has a brand-new science, technology, engineering, and math lab. There, kids can learn how to program robots, use a 3D printer, or, as Halloween approached, discover the density of pumpkins — before carving them into jack-o’-lanterns.

“We live in a tech-based world,” Sweeney states. “We want to get our kids introduced to it, exposed to it, get them familiar with it, so they can go into the tech industry.”

They also have free time, when they can choose to do just about anything (boxing, say). Yet lots of these kids, most of them Black and Latino, many of them poor, many of them once, like Sweeney, more worried about being tough than being smart, are in this other space doing, well, nerd stuff.

“We don’t even have to coax them,” Sweeney says. “They love it.” And love yields results: Over the past 15 years, 100 percent of DBG’s kids have graduated from high school.

The year 2023 was a big one for the gym, too. It was one of three winners of the 2023 Library of Congress Literacy Award, which came with $50,000. Even more, DBG and Purdue University just received a $2 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation to study the long-term impacts of the gym’s STEM research program. The study’s principal investigator is Case.

“How we prepare students, and especially Black and Latinx students, for STEM is a huge point of conversation because we don’t have enough qualified STEM workers and are projected to have even a larger shortage in the future,” Case says. “Part of the reason is because we’re not attracting all students of color to those fields. So what the grant is trying to do is to look at how this pretty unique setup that the gym has … might actually create opportunities to reach students who otherwise wouldn’t seek out STEM learning opportunities.”

Sweeney and Case make an interesting pair. Whereas Case has a wall full of diplomas and awards in her office, Sweeney’s background is a bit different.

As a younger man he’d been in more fights than he could count, had seen people shot, and was doing as many pushups as he could each day. Prison seemed inevitable; he figured he might as well be ready, though it was for a destiny he couldn’t predict at the time. As he told CNN, which named him one of its Heroes in 2017, “I had a guy shoot [at me] 26 times. The reason he didn’t hit me — it was for me to be here for these kids.”

That was before the gym, before he realized he could use boxing as a ploy to get kids off the streets and invested in their education. It was before a family member pulled him aside and told him that there were other people, lots of people, who didn’t live the way he lived, and that those who did were mostly dead. Sweeney brushed the person off, but there came a point where he didn’t just notice the kids in his neighborhood; he recognized them. They were kids who weren’t scared to fight, who weren’t scared of anything, except maybe a book.

And so, at age 38, he took what money he had, rented a space, and called it a boxing gym. He’d go to the park and start shadowboxing, and before long, kids would come up to him, asking him if he boxed or who his favorite fighter was. He did box, he would tell them. In fact, he had a gym, and they could come for free. They just had to do their homework first.

Case’s research has shown that a big part of what makes the Downtown Boxing Gym successful is its intentional focus on building relationships and the fact that its founder is someone all the kids can relate to.

DeShawn Beal is one of those kids. When he was in sixth grade, “I was into things — gangs, fighting, guns, all that type of stuff,” he says. “Khali saw me running from school one day. … He told me why school is important and why I should be in school every day instead of running the streets.” Beal ended up joining the program and staying in it through 12th grade.

Today, Beal is a 2023 graduate of De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren. He attended via a scholarship program through DBG and maintained a 4.3 GPA while taking Advanced Placement and college-level classes. His plans are to become an aerospace engineer.

Looking at Sweeney is like staring at a parked Ferrari with the engine on. His energy damn near hums, and yet when he speaks, it’s with a soft, sure voice. Sweeney can box, but his demeanor suggests that he doesn’t need to. It suggests, in fact, that you could take as hard a swing as you like for all he cares, but when you’re done, he’ll ask you if you wouldn’t mind tutoring a kid? He is determined to use his power to expand the program and eliminate the waiting list, which had more than 2,000 young people in Detroit on it at the time of publication.

The Downtown Boxing Gym team is looking to franchise, to teach others how to do what they do, but they’re taking it slow. What Sweeney does can’t exactly be taught. You have to find those people, the ones who are willing to put in the time, to be obsessed with every detail.

During a recent tour, Sweeney sees a puddle on the floor; he stops to place plastic cones around it so no one slips. The tour resumes, detailed but quick. There is so much work still to do.

This story is part of the 2024 Hour Detroiters package, our annual roundup of people who make Motown better, more interesting, and more fun. Learn more about our Hour Detroiters here, and read more stories from the January 2024 issue here.