L.A. kids won't throw in the towel on their lives

A troubled bunch of kids in an L.A. high school are replacing fighting in the hallways with fighting in the ring. The result? A new lease on life and hope for a future, writes Kieran Mulvaney.

Originally Published: June 12, 2007
By Kieran Mulvaney | Special to ESPN.com

Nancy Cabral was involved in her first drive-by shooting when she was 10. By the time she was 17, she had been shot twice, and had been shanked while serving four years in juvenile hall.

Finally, Cabral, now 18, decided she had had enough.

"I used to be in the streets, gangbanging with my people, and I decided I didn't want to do that anymore," she said. "I didn't want to be a lowlife. I didn't want to do what I'd been doing in the past no more."

Less than a year after electing to turn her life around, Cabral is a straight-A student with designs on becoming a probation officer.

Coty Raphael and Mark Pierce
Todd Wawrychuck for ESPN.comMark Pierce (seen here with Coty Raphael) got the ball rolling at KO High.

The key to her turnaround? She has replaced gangbanging with boxing as one of the charter members of the fledgling KO High Boxing League -- an attempt to provide purpose and direction for high school students in Greater Los Angeles and ultimately, its founders hope, across the country.

The first seeds were planted about two years ago by Mark Pierce, dean of students at Taft High School in the Woodland Hills area of L.A.

"I was trying to find a way to have kids who are at risk, who are not motivated to come to school, find some way to get them to connect with school," Pierce said. "If they make connections with school that are positive, then you can transcend that to other areas of your life. But, how to do that, that's the thing."

As a former fighter in both the amateur and professional ranks himself, Pierce contemplated the notion of using a boxing program as a way to attract at-risk students not only to come to school, but also to develop themselves physically and emotionally.

"I knew the kind of discipline it meant to me, and how it changed me, mentally and physically -- the respect that was given to you, just for having participated in that," he said. "Not everyone can climb between those ropes. And I know that it can affect kids positively."

Marvin Columbus and Nancy Cabral
Todd Wawrychuck for ESPN.comMarvin Columbus and KO High have helped Nancy Cabral turn her life around.

After initial inquiries revealed interest from several students, Pierce scrounged some equipment and began working out some kids at a local Police Athletic League gym. But as participation rose, transportation became an issue, as did the ability to provide a growing number of students with the requisite degree of time and attention.

That's where Marvin Columbus came in.

If Pierce breathed initial life into the program, Columbus -- almost certainly the only amateur boxing coach on the planet who also has been a screenwriter, dancer and professional bull rider -- has become its heart and soul, the students' mentor and father figure, as well as their coach. He volunteered to become involved, he said, when he heard about the program and immediately identified with its goals, having himself used boxing as a release when, at age 15, he was homeless in Cincinnati, Ohio.

"I would go to a place like a boxing gym and hit the bags, spar, jump rope," he recalled. "At the end of my training, I was tired. I was relaxed. I would release stress. Even though I was living in my car, I felt like I had a bigger goal to go for. Boxing gave me self-confidence. It gave me self-esteem. I thought I could do anything. And I thought, I know if I can do this, other kids can do this. Boxing is the hardest sport to train for. If you get in the ring and box, then win or lose, you've got something special. If you can do that, you know, hey, I can be a firefighter, I can be a policeman."

The program's participants must adhere to a strict dress code at school: shirt and tie for the boys, pantsuit or skirt below the knee for girls. When school ends for the day, there is a mandatory supervised and tutored hour of homework, followed by between an hour and a half to two hours of training. By the time the students get home in the evening, said Columbus, "They're too tired to get in any trouble."

"It's great because it keeps me out of trouble and keeps me on top of my schoolwork," said Duevone Broomfield, 15, whose father was killed when he was three and who has now gone from prowling the streets to being on the verge of trying out for the Golden Gloves and Junior Olympics. And, Broomfield added, "My grades have come up a lot since I've been training."

Kiarash Ahankoob
Todd Wawrychuck for ESPN.comKiarash Ahankoob is among the winners at KO High.

Kiarash Ahankoob, 16, agreed. Before becoming involved in the program, he said, "I wasn't really doing anything. I was just going home after school, and now with boxing, I get better grades, because I have to get my grades up. So, it helps out a lot."

Students must maintain at least a 2.50 grade point average to participate, but Columbus points out that although they are encouraged to strive for higher marks, those who struggle academically are not turned away, but nurtured and tutored until they reach the required standard.

"I had a kid named Raymond. He had straight F's. And he came to tell me, and I said, 'Raymond, what's going on?' And I saw he had tears in his eyes, and I said, 'It's OK, we're going to fix this problem. We're going to fix this, me and you.' And he looked at me and I asked, 'You got help?' And he said, 'Nope.' And I said, 'You have now, buddy.' He was afraid to ask for help, and you know why? Because he was embarrassed. It was a pride thing.

"One of his teammates, Ivan, he's got a 4.2 GPA, he's good at math and English, and I said, 'OK, every day you're going to work with him on math and English.' And then it's, 'OK, who's good at reading? Who can help with reading?' The team came together, and his teacher actually came to the gym one day, and said, 'Raymond has been incredible in class. His grades have gone up, he's an improved student, he's a pleasure to have in class.' I go, 'Wow, Raymond, you're doing it.' And he got this smile on his face, and on March 9, he came in, his grades were up, he had a fight, and he won. He won. And he now is on Cloud 9. I see him at school, books in his hand. I see him now focusing, because he knows he can do it. He just needed someone to believe in him, and to keep pushing him."

KO High teammates
Todd Wawrychuck for ESPN.comBeing part of an interracial group has helped broaden horizons and bridge gaps. (Above, from left: Francisco Hernandez, Duevone Broomfield, Matt King and Dominique Columbus cheer on Coty Raphael.)

And therein, asserted Columbus, lies the fundamental value of the program.

"One thing these kids look for is someone really being there," he said. "You got to be hands-on with these kids. These kids need to be reassured you're going to be there for them. If you say, 'Oh, yeah, I'm going to be there, I'm going to do this or that' and you don't even show up, these kids lose interest quick."

Such is the success of the program that what began with a couple of kids from Taft working out at a PAL gym and has grown to become an L.A.-wide league, currently involving about six schools, all of them instructed by USA Boxing-certified coaches. Several other schools in the area -- and even from as far away as Pennsylvania and Ohio -- have expressed interest. In a city where gangs of at-risk kids face each other across racial dividing lines, the multicultural aspect of the boxing team -- with African-Americans, Hispanics, and, in the case of Ahankoob, one Iranian-American -- attracts particular notice.

"In L.A. there's this big racial issue right now, the Latinos and blacks, and the gangbanging we have, and this can be a way they can get involved in an after-school program and stay out of trouble," asserted Columbus. "Just the other week, at a school in Inglewood, two black kids stabbed a Mexican kid, [and] he died. … And Monday come around, some Latino kids retaliated. I was there Tuesday morning, meeting with staff over there to set the program up over there."

On March 9, an enthusiastic, standing-room-only crowd at Taft Hall cheered on the first interschool event of the KO High Boxing League -- between Taft and Crespi Carmelite High School of Encino. On April 20, Crespi hosted a rematch. At every event in the league, bouts that end in a draw are resolved in favor of the boxer with the higher GPA. Participants receive medals and trophies. And all the events are overseen by USA Boxing doctors and officials.

Columbus has been joined in the venture by Rachel Charles, a former publicist for Goossen Tutor Promotions who's now with Star Boxing, who sought out Columbus when she heard about the program through the boxing grapevine.

"Marvin's spirit and enthusiasm is so contagious," said Charles, "that the moment I met him I wanted to volunteer my services. I hope we can get enough muster under this league and take it from state to state. There's a real need for this."

Her boss when she was at Goossen Tutor, promoter Dan Goossen, has provided monetary support for the league, and Charles has been able to secure funding from, among others, Skyline Financial Group, to help purchase new gear, something Charles said the kids desperately needed. "The kids have worked so hard, and take so much pride in what they have accomplished so far, they deserve the best we can get them," she said.

Those accomplishments, and the pride the students justifiably feel in them, are perhaps best exemplified by Nancy Cabral. Although she still lives in the same neighborhood where she was shot and involved in gangs, she said, "I don't even go out anymore. I concentrate on doing my work to keep my grades up and stay in the boxing team."

Nonetheless, danger continues to lurk around every corner, and even as Cabral turns her life around, friends and relatives continue to fall victim to random, gang-related, and sometimes deadly, violence. Only a few weeks ago, Cabral's cousin was shot dead in front of her.

Nancy Cabral
Todd Wawrychuck for ESPN.comNancy Cabral feels fortunate to have had a second chance.

And yet, despite the trauma and horror of the incident -- or, perhaps more accurately, precisely because of it and the innumerable other examples of violence and despair that infect her neighborhood -- Cabral is determined to remain focused on her new lease on life and the opportunities it has presented.

"Right now I feel so good about myself, that I'm actually off the streets, and I'm in a good sport that can help me out and can teach other people," she said. "It just helped me a lot being in boxing. I never had a straight-A report card before, but if I want to be in the boxing team, I got to have good grades. That's something I never imagined I would have, or thinking about college, nothing like that.

"I have gone to the college office a couple of times, which is something I never imagined doing, but I've been getting information about a couple of places, and Marvin, he's been helping me, and trying to get me in a four-year college so I can be what I want to be.

"If I can do it, anybody else can."

Kieran Mulvaney is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He covers boxing for ESPN.com, Reuters and TigerBoxing.com.

Kieran Mulvaney covers boxing for ESPN.com, HBO.com and Reuters, and also blogs for Discovery Channel News.