Win It By a Knockout
LEBANON BOXING ACADEMY HOPES PROGRAM WINS BY A KNOCKOUT
YOUNG BOXERS FIGHT FOR GOOD GRADES, BETTER SELF-DISCIPLINE
Story and photos by KEN BECK
Former professional boxers D’regis Neal and Rico Cason look back and see how the sport of boxing opened their eyes as teenagers. They’ve been on the ropes before, even been down for the count, but they’re no palookas.
Their experiences in the ring led them six months back to champion a program that packs a punch for local youths, as the combo initiated Team Lebanon Boxing Academy. Now about 17 children from ages 5 to 17 show up weekday afternoons to work out in the Market Street Gym behind the Lebanon Civic Center.
The pupils come from Byars Dowdy, Sam Houston and Coles Ferry elementary schools, Walter J.Baird Middle School and Lebanon High as well as from a home school. Some live in the inner city. Some do not. But the lessons the children receive in the ring go further than skin deep and are far more important.
“I like hitting the bags and the speed bag, and I like to spar,” said John Paris, 12, a home schooler who has picked up the nickname of John John. “I mind better at home and I’m more active.”
Those are the type of results that Neal and Cason desire.
“I got into a fight at Highland Heights Elementary School in the third grade,” recollected Neal, 39. “My math teacher Mike Belcher had been involved in a boxing program in Nashville. He talked with my mother and got me involved, and several days a week he would drive me to Nashville. I found out I was very good at it.”
Scoping the situation in Lebanon’s inner city, Neal thought boxing might be a way out of trouble for youth today just as it was for him 25 years ago.
“I have a child and grandchildren who live in the projects, and it reminds me of growing up in the projects. When I was young we had superheroes like Batman and sports heroes as idols. Today’s kids look up to drug dealers. I figured if I could put kids in a gym, it might keep them from getting into trouble. This is better than being in the projects all day around people dealing drugs,” said Neal, whose granddaughter Amillion, 8, is enrolled in the program, while his wife Amina competes in the sport.
The coach mentions three goals he has for Team Lebanon Boxing Academy:
“No. 1 is to make sure they prosper in school and, hopefully, graduate. When they come in, most of the time they have homework. We make sure they do their homework and help them with that. They are required to keep a 2.7 grade point average".
“Second, we’re teaching them how to be young men and women, espe- cially those that live in the inner city. We try to teach then about the Bible and show them another life. We’re helping them to learn self-discipline and teaching them to respect each other and themselves,” said Neal.
“And, finally, we would like to have a champion come out of this town, Lebanon, Tenn. It’s a lot of hard work, but one day, hopefully, we’ll have a couple of champions. I see a lot of potential in a lot of them.”
The program is open to all. In fact, there are five adults training in the mornings. Any child over the age of 8 can choose to compete in boxing events in other cities, while most will keep it on a recreational level here in the gym".
“You hear some people say, ‘I just want to help one kid.’ Well, I don’t want to help just one kid. I want to help 10 kids, 15 kids,” said Cason, 39, head trainer. “I want these kids to know you can have fun without getting into drugs and gangs.”
When the program began, says Neal, they had but one punching bag and a single pair of boxing gloves. Today when you enter the tile floored gymnasium, a boxing ring with a blue mat commands the right side of the court. Three punching bags and a boxing bag hang from a basketball goal at right, and two bags hang from the basketball goal at the end of the left court. There are Stairmasters, ab machines, weights, 13 pairs of jump ropes and plenty of boxing gloves to fit little fists.
Neal and Cason with the assistance of volunteers built the ring from lumber donated by Fakes & Hooker. Lebanon city councilor Kevin Huddleston has assisted with utility bills, while Candice Jones serves as secretary for Team Lebanon Boxing Academy.
Of the young pugilists in training this evening, all of which have nicknames, Ronnie Hutchings, 7, aka Muggsy, says, “I like to hit people and I like ring revolution.” Said his sister, Bella, 9, nicknamed Izzy, “I like hitting the bag and jumping rope. I run the exercise class.” While Imani Redmon, 7, aka Queen Bee, said, “I like to hit the punching bag, and I like to spar too.”
Lebanon’s Renay Torres has three children in the program, Ronnie, Bella and 6-year-old Bennie.
“My sister’s son is in the program and she told me about it,” Torres said. “My children have been participating since the last of August. Two of them just want to come home from school and play Nintendo. Their attitudes have changed. To me they seem more disciplined and they have been doing better at school.”
Neal was born and raised in Lebanon and was a nine-time Golden Glove boxing champion from 1984 to 1992. He won 12 pro bouts between 1995 and 2001.
Cason grew up in Mt. Juliet but started boxing at the age of 14 in Lebanon. “I played football. I always liked the contact, but there was not enough for me. A friend invited me to come box and that was the sport for me,” said Cason, who won 150 bouts as an amateur, was a five-time Golden Glove champion, and won 15 pro contests before retiring from the ring last year.
As teenagers both men were trained locally by James Mullins, after whom Cason named his son.
“ J a m e s has had a big impact in my life,” Neal said. “At the time I was going through juvenile rebellion and trouble in school. He’s been by here several times and given me a lot of pointers on how to run a gym and what to expect out of the kids.”
“They’re doing a good job. It looks like they got their training down pat,” said Mullins, 61. “It is hard to get started. I started in a two-room basement in Mt. Juliet in 1973.
“Boxing builds character and self-confidence and gives some of the underprivileged kids a way out, showing them there’s a life,” said Mullins, who worked with 60 to 70 athletes a year from 1972 to 2003. “A lot of kids in poverty think there is no future. I had one little boy tell me he was born in the projects and he would die in the projects, and we showed him that wasn’t true. Some of my students have become preachers and p o l i c e-man.”
Both Neal and Cason are unemployed and looking for jobs. Neal managed a Nashville Mrs. Winners restaurant for five years, and Cason has been laid off from construction work. But each is finding their tutoring of youngsters to be rewarding.
“I pray about it. God’s blessed this program in a lot of different ways,” said Neal, who is hoping for more help from the Wilson County community. His wish list includes new boxing gloves, help on the utility bills and a van for transporting the boxers to matches. “This program is not just for troubled youths, and we’d like to get more parents and children involved,” he says.
Cason’s boxing adventures took him halfway around the world as he fought in 49 states and in Canada, Japan and Denmark. Now, he’d like to take the youngsters in Team Lebanon Boxing Academy across the state and the Southeast.
“I want the kids to know the world is bigger than your little 10 to 12 block radius,” said Cason. “I want to show them that as we travel to different cities for tournaments.”
But, as Neal and Cason know, it all begins with a big dream in a tiny ring.
For more information about Team Lebanon Boxing Academy or to make a donation, call D’regis Neal at 453-0876 or 453-9761 or write to Team Lebanon Sports, P.O. Box 2477, Lebanon, TN 37088.
Coach Neal and trainer Rico Cason are at the Market Street Gym (321 East Market St.) most late weekday afternoons.