Manitoba

North End boxing haunt doesn't pull punches in fight for at-risk youth

The youth come for an exhaustive 60-minute boxing workout, but this gym exists to shield them from the sometimes unforgiving city outside its walls. We "get to these kids before, maybe, they start going down the wrong path," North End Boxing Club head coach Aaron Black says.

This is not your grandpa's boxing club, with homework as important as sweating through your punches

Anywhere from 10 to 20 pugilists in training, including Vincent Millar, show up every day after school at the North End Boxing Club. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Niko Ramos slips into the boxing club before any other kid. His coach hands him a water bottle, then Ramos grabs a book. 

In this boxing club for North End teens, reading or homework must come before any jabs and right hooks. Sometimes, the coach quizzes them on what they've read to ensure you're paying attention. 

The main event comes afterward: an exhaustive 60-minute workout, winded teenagers flailing their arms in a cardio-focused session. 

This time, Ramos has brought a new friend, who begrudgingly picks a book off the North End Boxing Club's shelf and drops his winter jacket on a desk. He came for the boxing, not this.

"I have to read the whole thing?" he asks in disbelief.

"It's not a bad thing," Ramos responds.

Studying the sweet science

The teens may not realize it, but this gym exists to shield them from the sometimes unforgiving city beyond these concrete walls.

The North End Boxing Club was designed to keep kids on the straight and narrow. It is a free after-school haunt for neighbourhood youth age 12 to 17 to study the sweet science and for their classes.

The club was the brainchild of former Point Douglas city councillor Mike Pagtakhan, who wanted to give youth a new place to play after the Burrows Resource Centre building on College Avenue closed down. The repurposed building now houses the boxing club.

We "get to these kids before maybe they start going down the wrong path," says Aaron Black, manager and head coach of the North End Boxing Club. In his day job, he supports men living at Pan Am Place who may otherwise be homeless or at risk. 

Sometimes youth drop by the club because they need someone to talk to, he says.

"They're not training that day, but they're meeting with me. They're discussing what's going on at home and then they make an effort to come back.… As a result of the progress they make here, their self-esteem improves and they become more driven."

Niko Ramos focuses on his studies before his boxing class begins. He initially didn't want to join the class when his mother suggested it, but he was won over once he started coming. (Ian Froese/CBC)

For one young man suspended from school, the boxing class served as his only escape, Black says. 

"This was really his only place to be where he had friends, where he had something to even just do."

Three years after it opened, the city funds the pugilism centre with an annual grant in the tens of thousands, Black says. The 3,000-square-foot centre is operated by the brass at Pan Am Boxing.

There are no actual smackdowns here, since the workouts are no-contact.

It's a place for North End youth to go, a diversion from violence in a city grappling with a mounting homicide toll and rising violence and property crime rates

"These kids could be anywhere, right?" Deven Marsden, one of the youth, says. "Anything can happen, really. The world's kind of messed up, especially Winnipeg. 

"This can kind of be an escape to avoid going into those gangs." 

Positive impacts

But Marsden says he doesn't need this boxing club to avoid violence. Without his late-afternoon boxing workout, the 18-year-old figures he'd simply play more video games. 

Still, other youth are at risk. 

"There's kids that come and they're here regularly and then they kind of disappear on us," Black says.

Aaron Black, manager and head coach of the North End Boxing Club, hopes the facility will serve as a positive influence and reach youth before they make bad choices. (Ian Froese/CBC)

The club started with four young pugilists in training, but 200 kids have come through the ranks since 2016. There are 10-20 kids who show up regularly to each class. 

"The positive impacts we've seen over the years, it's pretty incredible," Black says.

There's Marsden, once shy and timid, but he's become more outspoken. He's thinking of entering his first competitive bout now that he's 18. 

Then there's Den Den Valete, who says the half-hour of supervised homework time sharpened his academics, and he's lost 30 pounds through the workouts. 

Ashton Firman, 17, visited the club the first time because of his appetite. 

"A couple of my friends told me that there was pizza day here and that sort of made me come here and try it out," he says. "I actually really enjoyed [the boxing] because of that, and now I've been coming here a lot of times."

Coach Black holds command in the gym with a steady confidence.

"Light, light, light," Black tells Firman while he pummels a punching bag. "Don't worry about power," he says — focus on form. 

His boxers-in-training listen, and anyone who sneaks a glance at a phone puts it away when Black peers in. He has fun with the kids, too.

"Oh, we've got to cut that hair," he quips at one teenager throwing punches into the air. 

Ashton Firman gives a punching bag his all on a recent afternoon at a free after-school boxing program designed to give youth in Winnipeg's North End a place to go. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Black hopes the after-school program will someday involve parents and their kids taking classes together.

For Black, though, the program is already paying dividends.

"To be able to be here every day just on its own is great itself, but to be able to see these kids progress — it's not even work," Black says.

"It's training with younger youth that are becoming friends and it's seeing the impact they're having on the community."

Knockout idea in the North End

3 years ago
Duration 2:13
A Winnipeg boxing club is trying to give youth a fighting chance.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ian Froese

Provincial Affairs Reporter

Ian Froese covers provincial politics and its impact for CBC Manitoba. He previously reported on a bit of everything for newspapers. You can reach him at ian.froese@cbc.ca.

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