BELOIT - Street fighting can turn deadly, which is part of the reason Markese Terrell and others are leading an effort to take youngsters with a love of fighting into the boxing ring to channel their aggression toward a better life.
Terrell knows the dangers of street fighting firsthand. His cousin was killed by a bullet while observing a street fight that turned into a gunfight in 2015.
Terrell was a mentor for at-risk high schoolers at Community Action Inc., but wanted to do more. After seeing the "Creed" 1 and 2 boxing movies, he decided the best way to help would be mentoring young boxers.
About two months ago he teamed up with Mario Rojas, owner of ROJAS Boxing Gym, and US-certified boxing trainer Javier Franco to launch a free volunteer-run youth boxing program. Terrell works at Frito-Lay by day and Rojas and Franco work full-time jobs at Serta Mattress.
Despite their busy schedules, the group meets every day after school from 5:30 -8 p.m. To help find more youngsters for the growing program of 13 teens, New Life Ministries Minister Anthony Johnson walks the streets trying to round up new recruits. He then loads them in the church van to drive them to what he hopes will be a first step toward a better life.
The plan is to use the young people's anger and aggression to create champions, both in and out of the ring. To stay in the program, youth have to work to get good grades, with volunteers checking in with their teachers.
Boys interviewed said they desperately needed the program. Some come from low income families or have witnessed violence. Despite others coming from good homes with father figures, they still found themselves challenged by the temptations in their neighborhoods. What connects them all is the need to get out their anger and find other ways to cope with their frustration.
Nahcere Smith, 14, had to grow up fast. At age 6, he saw his older brother shot at Summit Park.
Despite having a supportive father and family, Smith said he's struggled with a short fuse and resisting the temptation to fight. Although he won fist fights and relished the competition on the streets for years, he knew how physical fights could turn deadly. Eventually he got suspended and arrested in seventh grade. Ever since his arrest, Smith has been hoping to try boxing. It was a life-saver, he said, when Terrell called Smith's father about the program.
Smith, who participates in football, basketball and track, immediately took to another physical challenge. Not only could he get out his anger, but he said he learned discipline.
"In boxing, if you get hit in the face you can't get mad or it will throw off your boxing style," he said. "This is a place to learn how to cope with my anger, train, fight legally and get off the streets."
Terrell said Smith is one of the most focused boxers in the ring.
Johnson found another youth, 15-year-old Armani Young, in front of his church preparing for a fight. Young said he had gotten out of jail eight days previously and was about to throw a punch when those with the boxing program intervened. He has since been boxing every night and said it's a great way to stay out of trouble.
Anthony Beard, 15, started back up boxing just weeks ago after boxing for years in Rockford.
"I can just punch it and get my anger out. If I'm in a bad mood I can throw it out on the bag," Beard said.
Terrell said Beard, with years of experience, is a great kid to have around because he can tell his competition stories to the other boxers to excite and motivate them.
Once at the gym, the youth learn the moves from gym owner Rojas and Franco. They offer their time free of charge and occasionally chip in with gas expenses when taking the boxers to competitions.
Rojas said he wanted to teach kids how to be more disciplined, follow more rules, and make sure they don't have any thoughts about drugs or guns.
"If they want to be violent, they can do it through sports," Rojas said.
"People who put their mind and heart into it can go far. The toughest opponent they are going to face is themselves," Franco said.
Volunteer Diana Munoz said she was drawn to help out because youth need something affordable to do which catches their interest. While some youth might take to swimming or tennis, other kids are looking for something different.
"This is relatable," Munoz said.
Beloit Police Lt. Andre Sayles said he's working to help the group get more equipment and support. He will be directing youth on the street to the program. Sayles said he hopes people in Beloit get behind the program. He said it supports young people and prevents them from becoming part of the system.
"It's a great outlet. People get frustrated and sometimes they take it out in the wrong way. It's a good way to take pent-up aggression and hit a bag instead of a person," Sayles said.
Smith and Beard are doing so well, Terrell said they will be heading to the USA Boxing National Junior Olympics on June 22-29 at Marriott West Hotel in Middleton, Wisconsin. Rojas is also considering taking them to an outdoor competition in Waterloo, Iowa on June 8.
For more information on the youth boxing program people can contact ROJAS Boxing Gym at (608) 718-2449 or email Terrell at email@example.com.