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Fred Wilson, SR & Team 216: Life, Death, & Boxing in Cleveland

LeadExclusive Interview by Roy “Sharpshooter” Bennett

“This is why I stress staying in the gym and not giving in to the temptations of the street to my boxers. I can tell you first hand there’s nothing in that kind of life but trouble and death…” –Fred Wilson, SR.

Amateur boxing is the bedrock of the professional game. The roots from which mighty oaks grow. Most of the great boxing champions in history have come from underprivileged beginnings. It’s a demographic that has always served boxing well. Low income, and high unemployment areas, beset by crime, predominantly inhabited by ethnic minority groups, provide the raw material from which amateur boxing coaches like Fred Wilson, SR. – Head Coach at Cleveland Inner City Boxing – can begin to shape not only future boxers and champions but upstanding men and women.

The history of boxing in America is inextricably linked with the story of it’s minorities. Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrant communities produced many of the top pugilists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As they prospered African American fighters also grabbed the opportunity to make their mark in the sport and raise themselves out of widespread poverty. Following a similar dynamic, Hispanic and – to a lesser extent – Asian fighters followed and now – increasingly – Eastern European boxers are leaving their home countries and coming to America to seek fame and fortune in the hardest game of all. But the other common denominator shared among these groups is most of these hungry fighters learned boxing’s fundamental skills in the amateur ranks long before they ever started punching for pay.

Clubs like Cleveland Inner City Boxing have a vital role to play in their communities and are still as important as ever in helping kids to develop a positive mindset and confidence in their abilities. In the early 1980’s I was a member of an amateur club myself – boxing competitively as a teenager- and it did me the world of good. The required discipline taught me how to respect other people, work hard, take care of myself, and be a responsible member of society.

Recently I came across a video doing the rounds on several boxing forums which left a deep impression on me. Titled: Fighting Back – Cleveland Inner City Boxing – it tells the story of Fred Wilson’s Cleveland Inner City Boxing Club and the young people he trains and devotes so much of his time to. It is a story of keeping faith and hope alive in dismal conditions, of helping young people to believe they can achieve something positive in theirs lives and, in the process, lift up not only themselves but those around them through boxing. I decided to reach out to Fred Wilson, SR. to find out more about him, his boxers, and his mission.

RB: Unfortunately Cleveland appears on the 12 Most Dangerous Cities in the U.S list. Is it a fair assessment? Give us an overview of life on the ground there – both good and bad.

Funny that you ask that question. Especially now. In the past two weeks we’ve had at least five children killed in drive by shootings – and one of them was a six month old baby.
Yes – it is fair assessment. Situations can occur real fast without warning. I myself have lost one of my boxers to the violent street life in Cleveland and had several others wounded in shootouts. I know of a kid named Silver – a boxer from the Mother Gym – who was also murdered. But in every instance the young men were in the wrong place at the wrong time and not in the gym. I like to preach you’re safe in the gym. I tell them don’t put yourself in situations or places where violence can happen. You know those dangerous areas – don’t go over there. I also like to work my boxers so hard in the gym that the only thing they want to do when they leave is go home and soak in the tub. Good things about Cleveland are the sports. We have the best basketball player in the world in this city! Also we have a lot of talented boxers. In that sense Cleveland is on the upswing.

SP and LeadRB: For our readers who may not be familiar with you please explain your background in the sport?

I’ve been a Boxing Coach for over 14 years. Within that span of time I’ve trained over 50 amateur boxers including two professional fighters. At the age of fifteen I started training as an amateur fighter – on the west side of Cleveland – with a very good coach but at the age of seventeen I stopped my boxing career when I got mixed up in the Cleveland street life, running with the wrong crowd, and getting involved in the wrong things. This is why I stress staying in the gym and not giving in to the temptations of the street to my boxers. I can tell you first hand there’s nothing in that kind of life but trouble and death. I think God took me to that level so I can help the youth of today stay away from that, and also I can relate to some things they’re going through. But I sometimes stay awake at night and wonder what a pro career would have been like for me.

RB: Tell us about the Cleveland Inner City Boxing Club and how it got started?

I started teaching boxing out of my basement in 1999. In 2000 I started a boxing club called Brighter Side Boxing. This club was formed because of the violence and drug selling in my neighborhood – right in front of my house. I know that in Boxing you have to be disciplined and I didn’t want to see any more young men fall by the wayside. In 2005 I met the most wonderful person ever. Ms. Tamzin O’Neil. She donated a lot of her time as an attorney and incorporated the boxing program which gave us the ability to get grants and other types of funding. We changed the name of the club to Cleveland Inner City Boxing because we wanted to help the youth all over the city – not just in one particular neighbourhood. Then right after that Ms. Earthie O’Neil came aboard as our publicist and she is responsible for the videos and the media that you see of the team. I thank God for these two women. Their invaluable contributions are helping to keep this dream alive. However, we need more funding and we are trying to find a larger location to house all the youths that want to join the program.

RB: Who are your boxers and what have they accomplished? Are there any of your fighters we should be looking out for in the coming years?

Well our boxing team is primarily made up of youths from the community of Fairfax which is in the middle of Cleveland. From these youths we have won 11 national amateur titles, and we have won 3 City of Cleveland Golden Gloves titles. I have several boxers that I’m real proud of but the one I have to say to be on the lookout for is Fred Wilson, JR. He is now in the middle of an Olympic qualifying run trying to represent our country in the 2016 games. He is a two time Golden Gloves champion, and a two time
Ringside World Amateur champ. Most notably he’s known for being Shawn Porter’s sparring partner.

RB: What is your boxing training philosophy and what is the most important piece of advice you would give to an aspiring amateur boxer?

Stronger & Stronger – that’s my training philosophy. Each time you leave the gym you’re stronger than the last time you came in. Every loss makes you stronger and every win makes you stronger. My advice to anyone aspiring to be a amateur boxer is – Never give up. Never give up! Set your goals high and keep aspiring to attain them. Never give up. You can equate that philosophy to life itself. Never give up. Never quit.

RB: With so many potentially negative distractions out there on the streets to influence a young person’s mind what do you say and do to keep your boxers motivated and focused?

First of all you have to make the routines fun and at the same time very challenging. You have to try not to be monotonous. Every now and then add a twist or different challenge or new routine. I tell them you may be the next Floyd Mayweather but this won’t come easy. It takes hard work and dedication. You have to get them to buy into your philosophy.

RB: Boxing clubs like yours are of incredible value to communities across the country – allowing boys and girls to channel their energies into something positive while building self esteem. Why isn’t more being done by the Cleveland authorities to assist your program?

Wow. I ask myself the same question. I went from Council officials all the way to the Mayor for assistance, and then to the State Representative, and it’s like pulling teeth. You have to be politically connected, or have some type of pull with the news media, and then maybe they will listen to public pressure but other than that they don’t seem to care. I asked them to donate abandoned buildings. They won’t do that. I asked for money to help. They won’t do that. I asked them to put pressure on local businesses to donate space. They won’t do that either.

RB: What are your long term goals for the club?

My long term goal is to have the brand – Team 216 – known across the country and to have it live on past me. And, as difficult as it may sound, proceed in opening up several more locations across the city.
I would also like to provide a vehicle for our athletes to get into college and have them give back to the club as mentors and coaches. Boxing wise I want to continue to turn out nationally ranked amateurs and top class professionals.

RB: You’ve taken on a big responsibility mentoring all these kids and it must keep you tremendously busy. How do you foresee the club being able to grow and move forward to reach these goals and become something more permanent?

I think we’re already a concrete fixture in the city after 14 years of grinding, and we’re well known as a winning team with a unique style of the sweet science. But in order to grow across the city like we want to – with no help from city officials – we need help from individuals and private businesses. We need more volunteers and like minded people like yourself that can spread the word across the country and across the world. Let’s face it….the powers that be don’t care about the inner city children. I often equate the Inner city or the ghetto to an Indian reservation. That’s where they put unwanted people in society and forget about them. But the more noise you make the better your chances are to be heard. We plan on making noise.

RB: Who will take over when you retire? Are you training an assistant?

I do have two assistants helping me coach right now. One who is a former boxer, and one who is a parent with three kids in the program. I believe the successor to me has to have the same feeling towards boxing – the same philosophy for the 216 – and also he or she has to believe that his or her ministry are these at risk youth.

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