At this Independence gym, young boxers enter the ring and leave their fights behind
Boxing has lost ground with younger generations, but a referee and a gym in Independence, Missouri, want to bring it back. Their partnership uses the “sweet science” to build community and produce the next generation of boxing champions in Kansas City.
Coaches, fighters, and fans were packed inside a converted conference room at the Stoney Creek Hotel in Independence in February, fixated on one of three boxing rings built for the 2023 National Silver Gloves Tournament.
Boxing judge and referee Wayne Bailey Jr. had to ignore all the commotion. He pirouetted around fighters in the center ring, locked in.
“Don't listen to the crowd,” he explained after the match. “Because sometimes the crowd might be booing, or they might hear their mama or cousin in the background.”
“You have to keep that laser focus, and stay dedicated to the mission,” Bailey said: to accurately and safely critique some of the nation’s most talented young fighters.
“Number one, you're looking for clean and effective punching. You're looking for competitiveness, you're looking for footwork, you're looking for defense,” he said.
What Bailey has learned in three years working the ring, here and in other cities, is now about more than just calling a fair fight. The sport is how he and two coaches at M & A Youth Athletics are connecting with vulnerable youths in Independence, steering them away from the allure of street life and shaping the metro’s next generation of fighters.
Bailey got into this work as a volunteer, building rings for local events, something he started doing after meeting former Kansas City Golden Gloves President John Brown.
Bailey also runs a nonprofit out of his garage, called Leave No Doubt. After watching many of his Central High School peers end up in prison and working at a group home for young boys, Bailey wanted to find a way to make a positive impact.
“That’s my goal, is to build confidence, outside of coming over here to work out,” he said.
By partnering with M & A gym, Bailey can identify promising young boxers and hook them up with a coach who can help them develop.
“I know the basics of boxing,” he said. “But if it's a kid that I see that really might be something, I'm going to take him to the master.”
Training builds discipline
Courtney Epperson is that master. One of several trainers at M & A Youth Athletics, the 48-year-old has been in and around the sport for more than two decades.
His daughter Brijhana Epperson won a silver gloves title in February, and another tournament in Michigan last month. She is now an 11-time national champion and the most decorated female amateur boxer in Kansas City history.
Epperson said he knew Bailey was serious the day he walked into the gym.
“He shared with me his dream, his views and what he thought. I was on board with it,” he remembered. “When I saw him open up his own house to the youths in his area, I said, ‘OK, he meant that.’ So I’ve always been impressed with his vision.”
Bailey had by that point visited several gyms in the area looking for a partner.
“Anytime you want to send somebody here, I'm open to it,” Epperson told Bailey.
M & A now works with about 25 kids from Independence and Kansas City, from beginners to amateur level, putting them on the path to change the boxing landscape in the metro. M & A also offers beginner classes Mondays and Fridays, plus competitive training throughout the week for burgeoning fighters and people of all ages looking to stay in shape.
Epperson is a consummate student of the sport. He follows other gyms around the country for new coaching styles and tips, and he’s had his eye on a particular system.
“The places like the DMV area, they are on it,” Epperson said, referring to the region around Washington, Maryland and Virginia. “That’s how I would like for us to interact, just like that.”
Epperson said that system has produced current and former champions because of the cohesion between gyms in the region.
Those champions include the undefeated Lightweight Gervonte “Tank” Davis out of Baltimore, Featherweight Gary Russel Jr. from Maryland, and Junior Middleweight Jarret Hurd.
Kansas City has not produced a boxing champion in any weight class since the late great Tommy Morrison. Morrison went on to defeat Hall of Famer George Foreman in 1993 for the WBO Heavyweight title.
Tino Camacho, 51, is co-founder and youth trainer at the gym. During the days, he also works for Harvest Meat Company in Kansas City, Kansas. Camacho also formerly built custom low-riders and has lived in Independence for more than two decades.
He says the city has changed from a thriving, middle-class suburb to impoverished.
He got into coaching three years ago, when he and his son found themselves in a random gym in Shawnee after a shopping trip. Since then, Camacho’s learned boxing is perfect for keeping kids engaged.
“The sport of boxing requires complete dedication to be successful,” he said. “When you're passionate about anything, everything else kind of goes to the side.”
Camacho says the experience can transform young people, and the effects don’t end when boxers step out of the ring.
“Some people are born fighters and if you don't give them that outlet there's only one place for them to go, and that's generally the penitentiary,” he said. “To give a kid that is the spark that can drive them in a positive direction.”
Camacho said he could even see his gym partnering with the city or school district to find more of those young people.
In the meantime, these three mentors said they’ll continue giving youths a place where they can learn some discipline, develop some skills, and blossom into productive adults – even if they never become the next great boxing champion.