On the south side of Minneapolis, a decrepit garage in the Powderhorn community throbs with activity.
Inside, sounds of trainers barking instructions mix with blaring hip-hop tunes and the thumps of violent blows crashing into battered punching bags. Pictures of men and women hoisting championship belts plaster the walls. Up above, international flags dangle.
Beside two square-shaped rings fenced off by black rope, kids perform body-resistance exercises while teens throw jabs and hooks. It's just another evening at the Circle of Discipline boxing gym, a safe haven for adolescents, particularly during the school-less summer days.
"If you don't provide them with something to do, they will find something to do," said Sankara Frazier, Circle of Discipline gym owner and executive director, "and it isn't always something positive,"
The Minneapolis native witnessed the deterioration of some city communities and the toll crime-infested areas took on neighborhood families years ago. He understood the need for large-scale change. The result: the Circle of Discipline.
"We can talk about it as much as we want," Frazier said of crime in society. "Action is the key word."
Turning kids around
At this gym, the rules are clear. There is no profanity. There is no defiance -- everything is yes or no sir, yes or no ma'am. There are no gang colors or affiliations, either. Inside, it's a place of learning, a place of solidarity.
The Circle of Discipline welcomes all kinds -- including kids such as Michael Barreta, who initially came to the gym with plenty of baggage.
Barreta, then 13, had already been assigned a probation officer, spent time on house arrest, been expelled from Sanford Middle School and possessed a juvenile record. Frazier still greeted him with open arms.
"We give everyone a chance," Frazier said. "They can't bear this burden on their shoulders alone because it's not always solely their fault."
Before his introduction to Frazier and the Circle of Discipline, Barreta was on a path of destruction. At Sanford, he disregarded rules and regulations. He was angry. Anything triggered Barreta's compulsion to fight, and often classmates were handy targets.
"I love fighting," Barreta said. "I'm a fighter."
And that hasn't changed. But there's this: Three years ago, his fights resulted in multiple suspensions, an expulsion and several run-ins with the law. Today they're encouraged, but in a controlled and monitored environment inside the boxing ring. There, Barreta has amassed a 10-2 record against opponents trained the same way he's been trained.
"Back then, it was more out of hatred for another person. I would think that you're fighting someone that you don't like," Barreta said. "But sparring with other fighters gives me good tips. We help each other out. Even when I'm fighting in the ring, of course we try to knock each other out, but at the end of the day, we're still friends."
That's the change and growth Frazier and his staff hope they foster in troubled youth. The rehabilitation process starts with boxing.
"For those that are shy, it gives them confidence," said Jamal James, a professional boxer and amateur coach. "And for those tough guys who fight and bully others, it gives them the confidence to walk away. They prove themselves in the ring, not in the streets anymore."
Developing skills beyond ring
The sport has other benefits, Frazier said. It's therapeutic, it teaches a person to think critically, it humbles them, teaches them discipline, improves their focus and teaches them how to control their anger. Those are among the reasons the sport is so effective in reaching some struggling kids.
"Boxing provides a sort of temporary escape from everything," James said.
By no means, though, does it end there. According to Sierra Samuels, Circle of Discipline's program director, additional programs such as Challenge and Lifestyle FIT provide kids with the tools necessary to achieve success in the classroom and the ability to become productive, trouble-free citizens. Challenge educates youth in multiple school subjects; Lifestyle FIT promotes and reinforces the importance of nutrition and exercise.
"My intention is not to build them into great boxers alone," Frazier said. "My intention is to help them make it through this thing called life."