Overusing an old cliché can really tick Coach Khali off — even if it’s somewhat accurate. MTV was one national media outlet that perpetuated a certain Detroit cliché perfectly, the boxing coach says, albeit with good intentions. Producers came to the city to film “I’m a Boxer in Detroit” for the channel’s True Life series. It was about two kids growing up poor, getting exposed to drugs and gangs, and getting a chance to overcome it all with boxing.
Is boxing really that powerful in Detroit? Its rich history looms large. Joe Louis’ monolithic fist on Jefferson Ave., after all, would come to symbolize not just the sport itself, but a city capable of sustaining the larger “fight” — whatever that may be at the time.
Still, boxing in Detroit has seen better days. With the death of Emanuel Steward last year, the fate of the famous Kronk gym again fell into question. Many other gyms have closed. Mixed Martial Arts has whittled away at boxing’s fan base.
“With MMA, you see blood and guts,” Khali says. “People getting knocked around. Boxing is like a sweet science. Two guys using skill. That’s just not as exciting as MMA.”
Khali, a Detroit native whose given name is Carlo Sweeney, has a profound respect for the “sweet science.” He teaches it every day — free of charge — at his Downtown Boxing Gym, famous in the tight-knit boxing world for its unique youth program and champion fighters. Gyms from New York to Mallorca, Spain, have aspired to re-create its dynamic.
But in Detroit, it’s remained relatively unknown.
Which is to say, don’t make the mistake of thinking that Khali is in the boxing business. He’s not getting rich. He’s not grooming professional athletes. At one point, he couldn’t even keep the lights on at the gym on a desolate part of Saint Aubin Street on Detroit’s east side. Here, Khali says, boxing is just the “hook.” It can bring a kid to the table. But it can’t save the kid if he doesn’t know he has choices.
“We need to be a good example of a way out,” says Khali, who grew up in a now-abandoned east-side neighborhood. He thought he’d become a “gangster.” At one time, he was. He doesn’t remember going to high school because he was always getting kicked out — a “pipeline to prison,” Khali recalls of the experience. The last thing misguided kids need, Khali says, is an adult who’d rather not deal with their problems.
“I’m cool with these kids learning how to box,” Khali says. “Boxing is a good thing. But education, positive role models, and having a safe place to go where you’re not scared that someone’s gonna sell you drugs is way more important. You know why kids join gangs? Because they’ve got reading problems. They’d rather look cool than stupid.”
On a cold January afternoon, Khali sits in the gym’s study room. The rest of the building (Khali thinks it used to be a car wash) is dark and dingy. This small space with a few computers, however, is almost blindingly bright in its fluorescent haze. Portraits of the gym’s 12-member competitive team decorate a bright orange wall, an homage to the hard work that sent one boxer, Anthony Flagg, 18, currently the No. 2-ranked amateur boxer in his weight and class in the world, to the 2012 Olympic tryouts. Another boxer, Cortez Todd, 15, is ranked No. 1 in his weight and class.
In this respect, Flagg and Cortez aren’t representative of most of the other 65 students who go to the gym every day to train. Those students will never be good enough to win an amateur fight. They’ll certainly never go pro. All of them, including Flagg, are dealing with the issues that continue to define Detroit’s most dangerous areas.
“My best friend is a drug dealer,” Flagg says.
But where most gyms would have turned these kids away, it’s been Downtown Boxing Gym’s philosophy to embrace them. The program includes not only serious training for everyone, but mandatory academics and old-fashioned attitude adjustments. It’s an approach that’s led to a 100 percent high-school graduation rate since the gym opened seven years ago. City-wide, the rate is about 32 percent.
“Some 16-year-old can come in here thinkin’ he’s real tough. He be thinkin’ he’s the man. Well, I’ll put him in the ring and show him he’s not,” says Kevin White, a trainer at the gym. “Everyone here, they’re gonna meet their match one day, so we gotta deal with those attitudes. We’ll put you in the ring to see who you really are. At the same time, we’ll get up in your head and teach you how to be a grown-up.”
That includes breaking down the gang culture, which has held an equal aura of power in Detroit. “The (gang) era is gone,” Khali says. “It’s all make-believe. It’s all crap. We’re breaking the cycle.”
Downtown Boxing Gym is just now starting to feel the results of that effort. Word is spreading that this isn’t just about boxing, and there’s a waiting list of more than 60 kids. For years, Khali operated without a formal financial plan and struggled to stay afloat. Then, in 2010, the gym’s development director, Jessica Hauser, helped turn it into a nonprofit organization when she realized it might not survive.
At the time, Khali was paying for everything out of his own pocket. He reluctantly started to ask for contributions of $30 a month. Most families didn’t have the funds. Many didn’t even have the gas money to get their kids there, either, so Khali would diligently pick them up every afternoon after school.
Hauser, who formerly worked in Birmingham’s after-school programs, saw how Khali interacted with the kids. “He had their full trust,” she says. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, they need a fighting chance.’ ”
With its nonprofit status comes a bit more legitimacy, and they’re hoping to move into Eastern Market so the gym can accommodate more kids. Their first fundraising dinner last fall netted enough money to keep the lights on, and Hauser is helping connect students who want to go to college with mentors at local universities, taking academic opportunities to a higher level.
The authenticity of Downtown Boxing Gym’s mission, however, remains. As much as Khali winces at his past life, he knows it’s also a great equalizer that makes kids believe he can help. People in city courts have been known to send troubled kids to him. “Kids immediately take to what I say,” he says. “They know that I know what they’ve been through.”