By Khalil AlHajal | [email protected]
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on May 01, 2015 at 8:30 AM,

DETROIT, MI — A small youth boxing gym that has been gathering attention, praise and donations for years is about to make a major move into a massive east-side building that will allow the after-school program mixing pugilism and academics to expand.

The Downtown Boxing Gym purchased a former book bindery on East Vernor Highway last year with help from Madonna and an anonymous contributor, and with about $2 million in ongoing renovations funded by other supporters, the new site could become a state-of-the-art boxing facility.

Only 65 youths are currently enrolled in the program, learning to box and getting attention from tutors and mentors after school at the original gym on St. Aubin Street.

Another 500 are on a waiting list.

“We’re very lucky to be going from a 4,000 square feet to a 27,500 square feet,” said Downtown Boxing Gym Development Director Carolyn Geck.

The new gym will host the ROSSETTI 2015 USA Boxing Junior Olympics Tournament on Saturday and Sunday, and the youth of the Downtown Boxing Gym will start training and studying at the new gym by the end of May.

Designs for the new training center were provided for free by ROSSETTI, the architecture firm that drew the plans for Ford Field in Detroit, Van Andel Arena in Grand Rapids and renovations at the University of Michigan’s Yost Ice Arena and the Palace of Auburn Hills’ player facility.

The renovated building will have a large training area, full locker rooms, separate space for tutoring and studying, a conference room, a snack room, a computer room and office space.

Many of the program’s youths attend schools with dismal graduation rates, but every single one who trained and studied at the Downtown Boxing Gym made it through high school, Geck said.

“One hundred percent of our kids have graduated from high school,” Geck said. “Most of them are in college right now.”

All 252 participants who aged out of the program graduated high school, she said.

“We’re scheduled to have 43 kids from our program graduate from college this year,” Geck said.

“…This is like training them to go to college, putting them in a position where they understand they can go get a job, giving them opportunities to see the world in a different way so they can be citizens of the world, and not just the singular focus of like ‘OK, you graduated high school. Now you’re done.’ … It works. It’s successful. That’s what draws people in.”

The gym was founded in 2007 by Khali Sweeney, at first just to teach his own two kids to box.

“They kind of slowly brought some friends in, and the kids would come and he was working on the boxing with them. But what he would discover over time is that they needed help with their homework,” said Geck.

“So they started asking for help with things or talking about things they needed to get done for school and it slowly evolved into this program where, clearly, there’s a need for not just the determination and focus and athletic portion of it, but the educational portion of it.”

While more kids will be allowed into the program with the added space, the growth will be slow.

“The growth means: For every 10 kids that I add, I need another tutor. For every 16 kids, I need another van, I need another driver. For every 15 kids, I need another coach and another mentor, and those kids have to be acclimated into the program as well,” Geck said.

“Once we get to a certain tipping point with expansion, we’re going to need to make sure that we have the right people in place, and that they’re reinforcing the values that Khali has been reinforcing this whole time, because that’s what works. That’s why we have success, because of his knowledge and experience living on the east side, dropping out of high school, having friends that are dead or in jail. That’s the legacy of these neighborhoods and he knows that, because that’s where he’s from.”

Moving from a dark, cramped space to a bright, spacious, freshly designed youth haven has the crew at Downtown Boxing gym hoping it can eventually help make Detroit, once again, a central part of the boxing world.

“We have such a legacy and history of boxing having an impact on not just the city of Detroit, but the world,” Geck said.

“… It would be really nice to get us into that position again.”

Detroit Lions linebacker Tahir Whitehead, a member of the gym’s advisory board, plans to attend the tournament at the new facility this weekend. And he plans to bring some teammates.

“It’s more than boxing,” said Sweeney. “This facility develops the total kid, and I can’t wait for everyone to see that. And Tahir knows our kids — it will mean a lot to them that he’s a part of the weekend.”

After the matches, the long awaited Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao boxing match will be shown at the new gym Saturday night.

Tournament ticket information is available here.

MLive paid a visit to our new facility before the ROSSETTI 2015 Junior Olympics. Read more HERE.