You walk into a boxing gym. The first thing you feel is a blast of heat. You see two teens sparring in the ring. A young boy is preparing to punch a punching bag with all of his strength. A preteen hits a speed bag in perfect rhythm. You see an adult talking to another man. They’re probably coaches, you think to yourself. Then you remember the heat, and you feel like you’re drenched in sweat. But hey, that’s boxing in Alabama, what did you expect?
They are all battling the heat to take part in Fight4Life, a boxing program that teaches trainees self-discipline, anger management, and self-defense through boxing and training. The program, which also includes tutoring and a bike-loaning service that allows kids to get home safely, was founded by Coach Greg Young Sr. and his wife, Dorothy. It is currently settled in Pratt City, a Birmingham, Alabama, neighborhood. It was founded in 1999 and reaches kids from all over the main Pratt City area. Some pro boxerstrain there as well.
Coach Greg was a boxer himself, and he had big dreams. He had dreamed of competing at the 1980 Olympics and then turning pro. He made the team, but was unable to compete due to the United States’ boycott of the Olympics. He was able to have a successful pro career, with a record of 24 wins and 8 losses. After marrying Dorothy Bell in 1986, he retired a year later.
An ordinary day at the Fight4Life gym starts with the boxers jumping rope to loosen their muscles. Then they stretch for a little bit before punching the heavy bag to let the aggression that’s inside them out. Then they are led to the ring. The boxers are taught a variety of drills to improve their technique, execution, and leg balance. Now they amp it up to the speed bag, which they use to help time hits—not just hand-eye coordination, but body, mind and soul coordination as well. Then they do some strength and conditioning through either weights, push-ups, or jumping jacks.
Payton Merriweather, a 10 year-old boy trains at Fight4Life. He’s been boxing for five months, and he first came to the gym when his father wanted him to be able to defend himself. But he’s really learned about something else. “If someone wants to start something and they throw a punch, I can step back and avoid it,” he said. One of his favorite parts is that there is a sign in the gym that says NO VIOLENCE. Payton looks for ways he can help out at the gym and even coached a new boxer, calling out advice and encouragement. “When I yell out ‘buffet’, you go all out on him!” he said to the new boxer.
“I’m going to tell you,” Coach Greg says, “the main thing we do is to help them learn how to control their anger and stress. If they get real good, then we’ll encourage them to work a little harder.”
Arturo Aguilar Jr. made his boxing debut August 11, 2017. The 18-year-old took a hard blow in the first round and fell. But he got back up and won by a knockout in the third round. But he wasn’t always like this. When he was 13, he decided to do something to get in shape and his dad, a boxing coach, recommended he take up the sport. But what he found was doing much more than staying fit. He now feels confident and focused, and that the Fight4Life crew is family. They were all there to support him at his match. “That feeling when you put on the gloves—amazing!” he says. He also wants to be the owner of a construction company after his boxing career.
Another Fight4Life boxer is Terrence Walker, 18, from Shreveport, Louisiana. He is a graduate of Jackson-Olin High in Birmingham. But he’s been through a lot in his life. He’s lost his mother and sister and he used to get into trouble, but he’s making his pro debut next year and he competed in the Golden Gloves last year as well. One of his favorite parts about boxing is teamwork. Normally you wouldn’t think that there’s teamwork in a sport like boxing. But with the coaches and other boxers, he feels like it’s a vital part to the sport.
If you talk to these boxers, one thing you’ll notice about them is that they are very grateful for the gym. In Pratt City, there aren’t a lot of places that offer activities that Fight4Life does. And the gym is able to do so because of a tragedy.
On April 27, 2011, a massive tornado outbreak touched down in Pratt City and destroyed almost the whole town. Trees were knocked down, buildings, businesses and homes destroyed and abandoned. Some buildings were rebuilt, such as the Fire Department and the Library, but most of the city is still in ruins. “On our alley, there is a church at one end, but the building behind it was leveled and they haven’t cleaned that area out yet,” says Dorothy.” The buildings on the other side are torn up, too… There was an apartment complex right down the street, but now you see nothing but a little debris, just scattered bricks.”
In 2012 Fight4Life was in a different part of Birmingham, and they hoped to stay there permanently. But a problem with the building meant that the organization had to move. A fellow boxer, Kenny McNeal, suggested they come to Pratt City. Kenny is a Fight4Life boxer and he has been there since he was 14. His father fixed motors and lawn mowers, and he had cleaned out the back of his warehouse so they could use it. “‘I’m not going. It’s too dangerous. No,’” Dorothy said. “But you can see, I lied. Because we were needed up there. I fought it. People are going to be looting. There’s drugs and crime, that alley is not safe.”
“After the storm, everything was just closed down. And there was nothing.” Coach Greg says. “I mean, what are the kids going to do? Somebody’s got to do something.
“There was just a lot of stuff going on. People were telling me, ‘No, don’t go there. Please, not there’... I thought about the tornado and what those people needed. They needed a change.”
Greg and Dorothy decided to be that change and make the move to Pratt City. “Because those benches that are out there? They are no longer used to drink or smoke or anything. Those corners? From one stop sign to the other, it’s totally peaceful now,” Dorothy says.
Fight4Life has equipped so many people with the qualities they will need later in life. Payton will need perseverance to become an astronaut. Arturo will need to be ready to overtake whatever obstacles come in his path to become a successful construction company owner. Terrence will need the patience and kindness to be an amazing father to his children. “They are all finding themselves and what they have inside” Coach said.