Detroit Boxing Gym Turns Teens into Great Athletes – and Even Better Students

Photo: Cortez Todd, 13, spars with Coach Khali Sweeney.

"This is not the run-of-the-mill boxing gym," says Carlos Sweeney, also known as Coach Khali, the founder, program director and head trainer of the Downtown Boxing Gym in Detroit, MI. You won't just find a boxing ring and punching bags hanging from the ceiling in this gym - you'll also find rows of computers and plenty of room to spread out textbooks and notebooks.

The Downtown Boxing Gym is part training facility, part after-school program. The boys and girls, ages ranging from 8 to 18, don't just learn how to box, but learn how to become better students and well-rounded members of the community.

Coach Khali opened the gym, located among abandoned buildings and vacant lots, eight years ago. He first started training his son, daughter and coworkers, but soon enough all the kids in the neighborhood wanted to be a part of it.

"When I started working with the kids, I saw they needed so much more," Khali tells the Good News. "It reminded me of my youth, growing up in the neighborhood without something to do, and from there, it was just my love to help the kids in the community. It's been a free program for the kids in the community ever since."

If the gym had a motto, it would be "Books before boxing." The gym has a partnership with Teach for America Detroit, which provides teachers and tutors to help the kids with their studies. Once they finish their homework, they can throw on their gloves and train.

To participate in competitions, kids in the program need to keep their grades up. It's a huge motivation for them to work hard and focus on their academics before giving it their all in the ring.

"We have 100 percent graduation rate, all of our kids that stick with the program graduate on time," says the 44-year-old coach. "It's a very positive thing in the community."

Of the kids who go to college, many return to the gym as assistant coaches. "They want to stick around," he says. "It's a safe place to go. One of the safest in the neighborhood."

That's one of the gym's other important features - providing a safe environment for kids and teens to socialize that won't leave them wandering the streets in a high-risk area on Detroit's east side. The gym has also teamed up with Forgotten Harvest food bank to ensure that none of the kids go hungry.

"I wish this is something I had as a kid, I've seen so many of my friends end up in prison, and I've seen so many lives taken at a young age," Khali tells us. "They didn't have anything positive to do like this."

There are currently 65 youths registered in the program, but there are over 150 on the wait list. The gym is accepting donations so they can afford to get a bigger facility to meet the demand. "We can't afford to have our youth waiting around," he says. "If they're waiting around, they can get into all types of trouble."

Photo: Downtown Boxing Gym participant Katherine Higgs shows off her diploma after graduation.

If you'd like to make a financial contribution, or if you have a van or truck to donate that will help safely transport the kids to and from the gym, visit

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