MANSFIELD — Jovonte Myers watched as his three youngest students practiced their punches.

Over and over, they repeated the drill — pushing off the wall, hopping back and launching a right jab.

“One, two! Good,” he said, injecting rapid-fire encouragement between each rep.

“One, two! Good. One, two!”

On the other side of the dimly lit gym, a group of teenage athletes rotated between punching bags and a double-end speed ball. One worked with a second volunteer coach, practicing combinations. Their words echoed off the basement walls, interspersed with the thwaps of gloves.  

Myers is the founder of Tyger Style Boxing, a training program for students ages 6 to 17.

His primary goal isn’t to create a league of prize-winning boxers. Instead, he hopes the program can reduce youth gun violence by giving students an outlet.

The death of 15-year-old Khaalil Petty, 15, brought the issue of gun violence to the forefront of community consciousness. 

But data from the Mansfield Division of Police shows residents in their teens and twenties are more likely to be victims and perpetrators of gun violence than any other age group. 

Between January 1, 2018 and October 24, 2022, police identified 212 gun violence incidents in the city of Mansfield. Police identified 324 gun violence victims and 167 offenders.

Twenty two percent of gun violence victims were between the ages of 13 and 19. Thirty seven percent were in their twenties.

Just over 25 percent of offenders were teenagers and 44 percent were in their twenties. 

Mansfield isn’t the only place where youth advocates are turning to boxing as a means of violence prevention. Similar programs have popped up in PhiladelphiaIndianapolisSt. LouisDallasChicagoDetroit and Washington D.C.

In Cleveland, boxing is offered as part of an after-school program for middle school students.

“I’m tired of seeing 13-year-old boys running around shooting each other and holding guns. I don’t understand that at all,” said Myers, a 2012 graduate of Mansfield Senior High School. 

“I’m really after building better character in this community. With boxing, or with any sport really, you can learn lessons and apply it to real life.”

Little guys with fists up

Myers is an aspiring boxer himself. He took four months of boxing lessons as a teen, then picked up the sport again about a year ago.

“I was looking for something in my life to really absorb my energy, work on my mental health,” he said. 

“Since I’ve been doing boxing, I’ve been getting so much better sleep at night.”

About 25 students are involved in the program, but attendance fluctuates a bit with each school sports season. Myers still has dreams of going pro, but he said they’ve taken a back seat for now.

“Those pro dreams, they’re up there,” he said. “But these guys right now they’re the most important to me.”

“I feel so much more led to be an outlet and an ear to these young guys and encourage them to go a better way.”

Craig Weber, a retired professional boxer, sometimes teaches the advanced students. Weber trained at the Friendly House in his teens, then continued under professional fighter Mickey Scadova and launched his own career at age 24. He retired with 21-2-2 record and 11 knockouts.

“I love what Jovonte’s doing for the kids down there,” Weber said. “He has good interactions with the kids. They look up to him.

“It makes me feel good to give back my knowledge and to be on that other side of it.”

Tyger Style Boxing got its start last year, when a local mom overheard Myers and his wife discussing boxing at a grocery store. 

Latasha Butts’ son Gabriel had expressed interest in the sport, so she asked Myers if he would coach him. After multiple requests, he conceded. He began training Gabriel in his backyard.

Almost a year later, Butts said boxing has transformed her son in more ways than one. His physical and mental health have improved. His confidence is higher, as are his grades.

“He is more vocal. He expresses himself better,” Butts said.

That change in perspective doesn’t just impact Gabriel inside the gym. 

“Having a male role model around has really changed his attitude,” she said. “I noticed a change in his character. He started doing things on his own, like cutting the grass.”

Before boxing, Gabriel used to get headaches and struggle to focus on school. Now the headaches are gone, replaced with a sense of focus and determination.

“He’s driven, he’s working out more,” Butts said. “He’s really opened up and is going after what he really wants.”

Gabriel isn’t the only one responding positively to the sport.

Elias Uznouff, 13, started the program in January. He said the sport has taught him how to stay in shape and be healthy, as well as have a good work ethic.

“You learn how to be a better person with the discipline,” he said. “You get respect, you give respect.”

Uznouff said his favorite thing about boxing is working with his coach and teammates.

“I learn a lot of things from (Myers),” he said. “He knows how to teach.”

“It’s a good community. They treat us well, treat everybody well.”

Caleb Cantrill, 15, said his health and concentration have improved since taking up boxing. 

An aspiring MMA fighter, Cantrill said he appreciates the techniques he’s learning and the chance to shape his training to align with his goals.

“(Myers) teaches us good, but he also lets us have our own style,” he said. 

Myers said he regularly gets texts from his students asking for tips. He enjoys watching their confidence grow.

“They got a goal now and it’s a personal, individual goal,” Myers said. 

“One kid couldn’t do nothing but talk about guns and stuff. Now all he wants to talk about is, ‘How can he fight like Tate Davis?'”

Jovonte coaching

Myers believes boxing teaches many of the same values he learned during his five years in the Army — leadership, integrity, determination, sportsmanship, courage, duty and respect.

“You have to respect this game. You can never get into a ring and underestimate your opponent. That’s a life skill,” he said.  

“Whenever life throws you a punch, you got to be able to keep moving and circling around. Whenever you feel like where you are in life is just not good enough, you’ve got to move past that,” he added. “You’ve got to figure it out.”

Some of his students want to pursue boxing professionally. Others are simply there to relieve stress or blow off steam. 

But regardless of why a student chooses to box, Myers has a list of expectations they have to meet to come to class. He won’t tolerate bad grades or outside fighting from students.

“I want the parents to know that I’m keeping their child honest,” he said. “I don’t want your child to stray away and depend on this boxing stuff and forget about what he’s got to do at home.”

“You get bad grades, you get banned from the gym for a couple days,” he added. “I had to suspend a couple guys and they respected it.”

Guns Down, Gloves Up

Derek Calvin is the executive director at the Leon Calvin Boxing Gym in St. Louis, Missouri. The gym’s Guns Down, Gloves Up grew from 10 students to 100 in its first year. 

“It’s impacting (the youth) very well. They come in, they’re staying off the streets,” Calvin said. 

“A lot of them came in as troubled kids who are not troubled kids anymore.”

Calvin has run the program for about two years. In addition to boxing lessons, students receive a free meal and access to tutoring.

Parents report improvement in their child’s attitude as a result of the program, Calvin said. A handful of local judges now refer youth they believe would benefit from an alternative to sentencing.

“Boxing is really a stress reliever. The things you may have wanted to do, you can take it out on that punching bag,” he said.

“Maybe you want to punch somebody in the face. But at my gym, you can punch that bag as much as you want.”

Calvin’s advice is to always be real with the youth.

“Be real with them and they’ll be real with you,” he said.

“As grown-ups, sometimes we don’t always have the answers. Sometimes we need to hear them out. Let’s hear what they’re going through and then see, ‘Can we help them fix that?'”

Capt. Nashid Akil of the Philadelphia Police Department’s 22nd Precinct offered similar advice. He founded Philadelphia’s Guns Down, Gloves Up program nearly three years ago. 

“You gotta be authentic,” Akil said. “These young kids know when you’re fake. If it’s not genuine, they’ll tear that right up and you’ll lose them.”

Akil has seen gun violence continue to plague the city. Young black males between the ages of 15 and 25 are most likely to be involved, both as perpetrators and victims.

Akil said that all too often gun violence stems from high emotions in the heat of the moment. When people don’t know how to handle those emotions and work through conflict, the results can be deadly.

So, he turned to one of his fellow officers, George Gee, who has trained professional boxers. 

Akil’s initial vision was to have pop-ups in high-risk neighborhoods and rec centers across the city. The onset of the pandemic made meeting indoors impossible, so the program moved outside.

During the warmer months, the program takes place right outside the police station on a blocked-off section of 17th Street. Once winter comes, it moves to a gymnasium inside a nearby church

Nearly three years in, Guns Down, Gloves Up averages 70 kids every Wednesday and Friday. A grant from the city of Philadelphia now helps cover the cost of meals, equipment and a small stipend for volunteers and coaches.

According to Akil, the program is run entirely by off-duty police officers, which has helped strengthen the relationship between the department and the community.

“We would love to do it everyday, but we still gotta do some police work around here,” he said.

While Akil couldn’t provide firm statistics that show a decline in gun violence, he said there tends to be less in the district during sessions. 

“That could be a coincidence,” he acknowledged.

The most immediate impact Akil has seen is in the kids themselves. When they know they’re in a safe space, their attitudes shift and the anger dissipates.

Behavioral issues don’t completely disappear, but kids gravitate toward the coaches and they keep coming back.

“(The kids) refer to them as coaches, but they like mentors, big brothers, father figures,” he said. “We’ve got female coaches too.”

Coaches don’t just teach boxing skills. They also ask the kids about their lives, their grades and their families. They talk to them about the dangers of gun violence and encourage them to walk down a different path. 

Akil said boxing teaches youth how to defend themselves without guns in a dangerous situation. It can also instill the confidence and maturity to simply walk away before conflicts escalate.

“When you have boxing training or you just have the skill set, you are confident in your skills,” he said.

“You don’t have to be going around, putting your hands on people and getting into trouble.”

Akil said the most challenging part of starting a youth boxing program is getting buy-in from parents and other adults in the community.

“Once they’re on board, they’re on board. It’s gotten to the point of parents dropping their kids off like it’s daycare or something, which is fine. They’re safe here,” he said. 

“I just wish that the rest of the adults through the 22nd district, regardless of what they believe in and what their lifestyle is, give their kids a chance.”

For Myers, the most immediate challenges are logistical. He’s still looking for volunteers, coaches and a means to pay them, as well as funding for equipment and uniforms. 

The club meets at Friendly House, but Myers said his goal is one day to have gyms across the city. Myers is currently in the process of renovating a small space on Ashland Road. 

Akil advised Myers and anyone else interested in starting an anti-gun violence boxing program to build a network of supporters. Contact churches, local non-profits, city council members and state representatives. Be active on social media and spread the word.

Akil also said finding a staff and doing whatever you can to compensate them properly is key. So is targeting the kids who really need it — the ones from neighborhoods impacted by gun violence. Care about them, while still demanding respect.

Be prepared to sacrifice your time and energy.

“You’ve got to be committed,” Akil said. “A lot of them will be looking at (their coach) as a father figure, a big brother figure and you gotta represent that.”

“It may not be what you signed up for, but that comes with the territory.”

punching bag

While proponents say boxing is beneficial for youth, it doesn’t have unanimous support. The American Academy of Pediatrics opposes youth boxing due to the risk of head and facial injuries

Calvin said training and sparring have a fairly low risk for injuries. Most injuries associated with boxing happen during competition, which is typically optional for youth anti-violence programming. 

Butts said she’s not concerned about her son sustaining injuries. In her view, the benefits outweigh the risks, especially with proper training and protocols in place.

“You have the same injuries with other sports, particularly football, which he was in,” she said. 

“There’s risk in everything that we do. At the end of the day, it’s helping him to stay off the streets. He has an outlet.”

Myers knows the program won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to the issue of gun violence, but he believes boxing has the potential to change the trajectory of a child’s life.

“I won’t say that I have a 100% success rate. There is that 20, 30 percent that tried it and are just like, ‘Nah, I’m going back to the streets,” Myers said. 

“I can’t save them all, but I know I can save a few.”

To learn more or support Tyger Style Boxing, contact Jovonte Myers at or 419-610-9155.

Editor’s Note

Figures provided by the Mansfield Police Department include the following gun violence crimes: aggravated murder, aggravated robbery, aggravated burglary, felonious assault, murder and robbery. With both datasets, it’s possible that an individual was a victim and/or offender in more than one incident over the nearly five year period. 


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