by Rod Beard
DETROIT (AP)—Shanté Higgs spends some of the school day thinking about throwing punches.
When school is over, she does her homework and then looks for someone to fight—boy or girl, doesn’t matter. Most of the girls her age are afraid of Higgs, 15, so she normally fights boys. She doesn’t get in trouble because of her fights, though. In fact, it’s encouraged as part of the daily routine at the Downtown Boxing Gym, a small training club near Eastern Market in Detroit.
The gym offers a youth program that serves about 30 students ages 8-18, who get valuable after-school academic tutoring and boxing training—all for free. It’s the brainchild of trainer Khali Muhammad and Scott Smith, who work with the students from 4-6:30 p.m. each day.
All of the students get homework help based on their needs each session. This includes math and language arts. During the summer, the tutors plan to help with creative writing, public speaking and art, as well as typing, foreign language and ACT test prep to spur the students to excel academically as much as they do in the ring.
Some of the youth boxers at Downtown are nationally ranked, but the competition is not the motivation behind getting them interested in boxing. It’s to give them a positive outlet for their frustrations and to get them involved in something constructive.
“It keeps them off the streets and gives them something to do,” Muhammad said. “There are life lessons in boxing. If they’re coming here, they have to perform academically.”
Youngsters from all over the city—and as far as Taylor—flock to the gym as their sanctuary away from the streets. It’s not just an after-school hangout; parents bring their children and stay to watch them train.
The gym, which is open Monday through Saturday, has a white painted exterior and is almost camouflaged by the few houses and open fields surrounding it. The building used to be a car wash and a candy store.
Now, the dank gym area is painted gray and has a cramped feel. Muhammad prefers the dreary decor and affectionately refers to the gym as the “Terrordome” for its no-frills ambience—as he believes it should be for boxers.
“But when we train, we train hard,” Muhammad said. “You don’t have to be state-of-the-art.”
Weights, heavy bags and other training apparatus line the walls, with the boxing ring in the corner. There aren’t any windows, adding to the claustrophobic feel, and the two doors provide most of the light—and a slight breeze—on a spring afternoon. The thick, musty air is broken only by the bell tones every 90 seconds or so, and by Muhammad alternately barking commands and encouragement to the young boxers.
The gym provides an emotional refuge for Cortez Todd, 13, an eighth-grader at David Ellis Academy, who said he would consider becoming a pro boxer.
“I like it here because I got into a lot of trouble in school and I can get my frustration out through boxing,” said Todd, who has boxed for four years and is ranked second nationally in his class. “The kids don’t mess with me at school now.”
For Higgs, a sophomore at Ross Hill Academy, participating in the program is an opportunity to improve academically and athletically.
“My parents ask if I’m coming home to do my homework and I tell them it’s done,” Higgs said. “(Tutoring) keeps me on track with what I need to do.”
But Higgs has to overcome some challenges, as well: “This is where I come to fix my problems when I’m mad.”
Muhammad was an aspiring boxer when he was in his 20s, until his fighting career was cut short when he was shot in his elbow. With that dream doused, he moved to training other young boxers.
The idea for the youth program came about through an unusual series of events. Muhammad enjoyed helping train boxers and wanted to work with the students in the program for free, but couldn’t do all the training and also handle the business operations.
Muhammad was training professional boxer Rich Powers, who recommended Muhammad’s workouts to some suburban friends. One of those friends was Jessica Hauser, who had experience working in the Birmingham Public Schools and helped establish after-school programs there.
Hauser took the idea of the youth program to Smith, who had worked extensively in opening software companies and in the automotive industry. Together, the three wove the framework of the youth program, which officially opened in January.
“It relieves the stress of having their parents pay,” Muhammad said. “We get donations from restaurants and other donors. They help where they can.”
That connection with the community enables the youth program to remain viable and has helped Muhammad focus on training the students and trusting the business side to business people.
“My goal is to solidify things financially so we can keep the gym open and the kids can have a place to come,” Smith said. “We want to take away every excuse the kids could have not to graduate from high school.”