Detroit’s Khali Sweeney’s been fighting long before COVID-19, so his Downtown Boxing Gym team fights on amid the deadly pandemic
In the early 1970s a Detroit recreation center gradually morphed into a powerhouse boxing gym. Under the tutelage of the Kronk Center’s passionate coach, Emanuel Steward, its fighters started dominating Golden Gloves national tournaments. Kronk’s homegrown team failed to qualify for the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, but fortuitous circumstances resulted in Steward working with a talented prospect from Maryland named Ray Leonard. Leonard brilliantly fought his way through the field that summer in Montreal, and returned to Detroit with one of the team’s five gold medals.
Steward assembled a staff to handle Kronk’s boxing activities over the next few years. In 1980 all of the former Detroit Edison electrician’s efforts culminated in Kronk’s first world champion in Hilmer Kenty. Kenty, a 24-year old Lightweight from Columbus, Ohio, stopped one-loss Ernesto Espana via ninth round TKO at Joe Louis Arena to become the WBA champion.
In the ensuing decades several champions honed their craft at Kronk. Thomas Hearns, an early product of Emanuel Steward’s Champions of Tomorrow (ESCOT) organization, became the gym’s first homegrown world champion in August of 1980 – five months after Kenty. Kronk’s renowned champions includes Gerald McClellan, Lennox Lewis, Michael Moorer, Wladimir Klitschko and most recently Tyson Fury.
Fury, part of lengthy list of Detroit adopted boxers, stopped Deontay Wilder in February to become the WBC Heavyweight champion. The camp marked a return to Kronk for Fury, this time under the guidance of the late Steward’s nephew Javan “SugarHill” Steward.
Khali Sweeney Founds More Than a Boxing Gym
Every gym operating in Detroit is likely to find itself engulfed by the long shadows with a mix of red, gold and blue hues unintentionally cast by Kronk gym and its indisputable legacy. However, while the visionary Steward and Kronk exceedingly served the needs of its local residents in the 70s and 80s, succeeding in today’s Detroit requires a different presence. Here is where former high school drop-out Khali Sweeney has chosen to bite down and punch back – along with his team at the Downtown Boxing Gym (DBG).
Before going into what Sweeney’s efforts are currently, concerning the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, one has to take a look back at the landscape circa 2007 when the nonprofit first opened. Starting there, the gym’s mantra of “Books before boxing!”, resonates even greater.
According to a U.S. Census Bureau graph from a Detroit Free Press article published May 24, 2018, since 1969 the city’s population has decreased from 1,527,426 to just 673,104 in 2017 which represents a 44 percent loss. The major drivers of the decline include Detroit’s loss of factories, violent crime statistics, and the inability of the city’s leadership to modernize the local economy. In a 2018 Forbes article the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s Michael LaFaive summed up that last factor with the following:
My explanation involves the basic idea that capital, be it financial or human, goes where it’s welcome, and leaves if it’s not. And Detroit politicians for decades have repeatedly made capital unwelcome.
In that same article Forbes contributor Scott Beyer supports LaFaive’s view with some statistics, “Of the nation’s 20 largest metros, the Detroit metro area performs about average, with 2.1% GDP growth… Six of the ten largest cities in greater Detroit have grown in population since 2010.” This is in spite of a major failure on behalf of Detroit’s government.
Detroit, in unprecedented fashion for a municipality of its size, filed for bankruptcy in December 2013. The city was $18 billion in the red.
All of the above is useful information. But, that’s a macro view of what’s going on when discussing census totals and GDP growth in Detroit. On the city’s east side Sweeney had a ringside view of the young children and teens not everybody could focus on when talking about 673,104 people on a graph.
The fact that Detroit’s poor services don’t add up with the fact it has some of the nation’s highest property taxes probably isn’t a focus of Sweeney’s neither. Nor can he, as one man, do anything about the corporations LaFaive says continue to set up shop around Detroit’s outskirts to avoid dealing with the city’s public administration.
DBG’s Training Is Beyond Boxing
After realizing his purpose back in 2007, on a January 2019 segment on NBC’s Today Show Sweeney shared the mission he set out on when he realized Detroit’s streets typically led to outcomes of either death or prison.
The county jail doesn’t have a waiting list. The county morgue doesn’t have a waiting list. – Khali Sweeney, founder of Detroit’s Downtown Boxing Gym
“I wanted to keep kids from going down the same path that I went down. I wanted to encourage them, and inspire them, to do something great.”
He believed the discipline component innately present in boxing could be instrumental in youth working their way through all of life’s lessons. Along with boxing training – participation is possible only if the GPA requirement is met – DBG also offers youth ages 8-18 free academic help and enrichment programs.
Now that tales of DBG’s impact are widespread, thanks to the Today Show piece and an ESPN article in 2018, kids are experiencing way more beyond free tutoring. The nonprofit exposes its students to various enriching activities with its growing list of partners on a seemingly weekly basis. Recently Matthew Williams, the founder and executive director of Pipeline Connect, tailored curriculum for DBG’s STEAM lab that culminated in the gym’s team advancing to the state championship of the LEGO robotics competition. DBG frequently arranges trips for its seniors to colleges and universities in the region.
In an effort to foster interest in pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) careers DBG and its partner Microsoft organized a workshop for students at the corporation’s store in Troy. Students learned about computer science, career options and coded commands in a video game as part of DBG’s computer science week.
Students often give back by volunteering to support activities organized by other local nonprofits. DBG also expands its students’ horizons by partnering with groups like Detroit Horse Power to provide unique experiences like a week-long training on how to ride and care for horses at Ann Arbor’s Center Ridge Equestrian Center.
The nonprofit shares success stories on its social media accounts as its students receive scholarships or reach accomplishments such as graduation. Occasionally, local partners such as Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry visit DBG to provide basic health supplies, support safety by properly fitting students for mouthpieces and to inform students about important matters such as good dental hygiene.
Sweeney had the vision and passion for DBG, but along the way he’s received invaluable help from key individual that eventually evolved into a very important, deeply committed and highly capable staff. Some of the members of the DBG team include Jennifer Hauser, Executive Director; Leslie Andrews, Senior Director of Strategic Direction; Amy Mullins, Secondary Education Specialist; Meredith (last name not provided); Development Administrator and Event Coordinator, as well as several other staff members and volunteers.
DBG’s Role Shifts During COVID-19 Pandemic
In early March state governors and health officials nationwide began announcing orders that closed various types of small businesses such as restaurants, movie theaters, nightclubs, barbershops and beauty salons, gyms and recreation centers, and even churches. This move was intended to eliminate, or limit, social gathering while the medical community had an opportunity to devise ways to combat the spread of COVID-19. Since this crisis was deemed a pandemic and cases of the coronavirus started being tracked, confirmed cases in the U.S. exceed 723,000 with over 38,000 ending in deaths.
This is another crucially important number that Sweeney didn’t allow to dissuade him. Conversely, this statistic revealed to him what Detroit’s streets revealed to him in his Today Show video. The students he’s been serving still need his help, and as a result of all of his experiences with DBG, he’s able to help them.
This deadly fast-spreading virus seems like something that would shutdown a nonprofit like DBG with a mission statement about encouraging and inspiring kids on the east side of Detroit. Especially with the doors to the gym being ordered closed indefinitely.
Well, as fans of the sport typically see in some of boxing’s biggest bouts, fighters valiantly walk towards hurt and harm to pursue victory. Over the past several weeks of quarantine throughout the country, the DBG team has exemplified that same quality found in many of boxing’s greatest champion fighters.
In an April 17 Instagram post, DBG illustrated the scope of its COVID-19 emergency response effort:
DBG’s staff and its effort during this time is beyond commendable. Sweeney and his team swiftly adapted its outreach efforts to shift from training kids in boxing and tutoring, to now utilizing its fleet of vehicles to daily transport care packages to its 150 students and their families (as well seniors in the community). All while the new normal of daily living is buzzing with social distancing practices. Of course, DBG’s team does so with the safety of its volunteers in mind.
The DBG isn’t looking for another award or applause. They’re looking for support. This ongoing effort seems impossible based on reports of Detroit’s local economy, the poor track record with social services, and with the way the country is currently burdened in general. Guess it’s easier to move in this moment when they’ve been beating the odds for 13 years.
If you are able support the DBG, an extremely important member of the boxing family, you can do so by visiting them HERE.
Steward’s commitment to his fighters, in conjunction with culture he cultivated at Kronk, resulted in Olympic gold medalists and world champions in as soon as six years of its inception in 1970. In 13 years Sweeney hasn’t groomed DBG’s first world champion. But, while Steward preached knocking out opponents, this man who once dropped out of high school as a junior implores his pupils to knockout their assignments. He’s worked with his staff so that, collectively with those who’ve gone through the program, they can all raise their hands as world changers. Or, changers of the world.
One chief parallel between the journey’s of Steward and Sweeney is how each man partnered with Detroit’s political leaders and business community to revitalize Detroit and the lives of some of its citizens. In their respective eras, with similar yet different challenges to faces, they’ve shown young people how to fight and win.