In the heart of inner city Cleveland decimated by post-industrial unemployment, extensive foreclosures and vacant properties, lies the Manor House. Coach Fred Wilson has dedicated himself to turning drug dealers and users into boxers, hoping to give them a positive outlook on life.
A striking depiction of the crucifixion is painted on the back door of the House, just a half-block from Coach Fred’s home where he trains kids several times a week. On those evenings the space transforms itself into heat, sweat and muscle. It is a place into which the kids crowd and dream of glory, or, more to the point – to escape Cleveland’s impoverished realities and violent confrontations.
“What I saw in my neighborhood was a lot of drug sellers and a lot of drug users and they would sell right in front of my home. At the time, my kids were small, maybe two or three, I knew once you have drug trafficking, you have a lot of shootings, and it’s always the innocent bystander that gets shot – not the drug dealers. So they would make drug transactions right in front of my home and I got real upset, so being a former boxer I would run up and scare the customers away and I would grab the kids and I would want to kill them.
At that time I was the president of a street club, “The Brotherside Drug Free Zone” and we would brainstorm trying to figure out a way to take the streets back from the kids and we tried calling the police but it seemed like the police would warn the kids. One time I saw the kids sitting on a police car selling drugs, so I called the police. I said “hey, you know they are sitting on you car and they’re selling drugs” and I saw he came out of the mini-station down the street, and talked to the kids and pointed down the street and then he drove his car to me and said, “Yeah, I got rid of them, they’re not sitting on my car no more.” Then I saw the kids just give me a funny look and I said “Wow, maybe it’s deeper than what I thought.”
One particular time, I grabbed this kid and said, “Don’t you EVER do that again.” I was gonna beat the living daylights out of him. And this kid said … he said, “Sir, I’m sorry.” I said “WHAT DID YOU SAY TO ME?” He said, “I’m sorry – I didn’t know” and right then I said, “there’s some hope in that kid. This was the only thing he knew and right then I said he just needs guidance and he just needs direction.” So I would take those kids, talk to them and at the time, I would bring them into my basement. I have a bag down there and I would teach them and then I would talk to them about life, about what they were doing out there and why they were doing it. I got to meet the kids that I hated so much, and I saw what was their motivation: they just didn’t know. They had nobody to tell them not to do it. They left school, and that was their education, that’s the only way they knew to make money. So I would talk to the kids, and, I grew not just to like the kids, I grew to love them.
Now what I do is deal with at-risk youth and I try to take them out of the element of street violence or selling drugs and give them a positive outlook on life.
Each kid is different, I try to give them more than just boxing. I get involved in their lives and that’s what every kid needs. A lot of kids, they don’t have fathers; they have a mother but she’s not really there. Many kids came through that life of violence and drugs; but I really don’t have all the resources to completely protect them and take them off the street, and a lot of it’s gotta be up to them. I can only plant a seed and show ‘em. I’ve got five kids myself so, I can’t take them in.
Early on, I was dealing with maybe 20 kids. I had a minivan and they all wouldn’t fit in my minivan, so I had the bigger ones run to the gym. It was maybe three miles, three miles from where we trained and I would have them run and I would trail them in the van. Then I would have them run back after practice.
They were running six miles a day. Rain, snow, wintertime they would run, summertime. Yeah, yeah. (laughing) They ran a lot.
In 2003 we went down to Kansas City for the national tournament. We had one title that year. The next year we came back and had at least three. So we were pretty much established, as a team, as a good team, but we still didn’t have good facilities but the people we box against, they don’t know that and they still don’t.
We were recently offered a space at the Y, it’s a blessing because the rate people are calling, they want to join. They all want to box and at the time when we had 50 kids, I said, we can’t, we couldn’t even fit 25, so I had to break them up into days. We still need a ring. We still need equipment. We got a makeshift ring that we use down there, but I feel like if you are doing the right thing, positive things are gonna happen.
I ended up turning kids away because I just didn’t have enough room. I know a lot of kids, I had to buy their license for them, my wife hates that, but a lot of kids, they don’t have the money and I don’t want them breaking in or stealing cars, or doing what they had to do to get the money, so I would try to do it.
Boxer Deloren Grey’s (Dee) got a lot of potential. He’s a kid that needs a lot of positive reinforcement as far as his boxing is concerned. He’s a great kid but every kid has the potential to do the wrong thing, but Dee is focused and he loves his family. When he came to me, he was boxing for another coach, the coach didn’t particularly have a lot of knowledge as far as boxing is concerned.
Dee picked up on it early because when we went over to his old gym to spar, he saw the way my kids respond, he saw the way that they move their hands, they move their feet. He would come to me for pointers and hey, I’m going to give it to you. I’m gonna give you the truth, if you’re a good kid – I will help you. He’s been doing great. I’ve been showing him how to bring his power from twisting because he’s a very strong kid. By him being compact, his body attack can be vicious and I’m showing him how to use his body attack. He sees it now, he knows how to rotate his hips to generate power. He’s just a little bottle of TNT and if he hits you, he can hurt you bad.
I try to relate boxing to life because life will knock you down. But you can’t just lay down, you’ve got to get back up and especially where we live, you’ve got to get back up and you’ve got to keep going. Sometimes, you’ve got to get picked up and that’s what I do, I pick them up. If they have any issue outside of boxing, we’ll sit here all night and we’ll talk about it, because I’m a mentor, I’m a father, they’re my kids. They’re not just my boxers.
When I lose a kid to the streets, or I lose a kid to violence, especially violence, you know that bothers me, ‘cuz like I said, they’re my kids. My sons and my daughters. It took me a while to realize I’m not going to save them all. I’m lucky if I can save one. My wife – she tried to help me to realize that too. I just can’t explain: it hurts real bad, and to lose a kid to violence, that’s oh my God, that’s the worst, that’s the worst feeling ever. So, I hope to never feel that again.
I wanna see all the kids make it and that’s crazy to say but I think it can be done. I think there’s grant money out there that I haven’t tapped into that would help this gym and if I could get the kids where they’re not worried about money. If I got a government grant coming in every year, I could build the type of facility that I need, that has dormitories that can house some of the kids. We could really focus on the task at hand, which is boxing, and to help, get some pros out there.
Cleveland is very competitive when it comes to boxing but Philly’s a tough town too. I like to say Detroit is sorta like Cleveland, you got hungry boxers, but I kinda love Philly boxers. A lot of them put the sweet sides together, like the way I would teach it. They got a particular style…a lot of punches, a lot of movement. Philly’s a tough town to go against. I’m glad we don’t have to go too much against Philly.
That’s what I say in the Golden Gloves … it is hard to make it out of Cleveland because to me the best competition is here in Cleveland. I don’t want to say it’s a cakewalk, but it’s a little easier.”
–Coach Fred Wilson
PHOTOGRAPHS and Interview by ANTHONY SUAU
With support from Leica Camera