Phil Williams and Mohammed Kayongo are thirty-something men who live in the Twin Cities. Williams is a barber. Kayongo is a security guard. Friday night, they will box on the same card at Grand Casino Hinckley, because boxing gives everyone who can punch a puncher’s chance.
Both talk about world titles. Both know that they already have won the fights of, and for, their lives.
Williams had to survive the roughest streets of Minneapolis. Kayongo had to survive the bloodthirsty rebels of Uganda.
Phil “The Drill” Williams was born in Queens, N.Y., of a teenage mother. She moved him to Minneapolis when he was 5. With no male role model, he grew up fighting on the streets and dabbling in other crimes. His younger brother became a bank robber and still is serving time.
“I was headed nowhere, constantly in jail, maybe 20 times,” Williams said. “I never did a long stint but I was constantly bumping my head, bumping my head. I think what saved me was the barbershop.”
Williams started working at a barbershop in north Minneapolis when he was 20. About seven years ago he hired on at Kingdom Kuts. Monday, he pulled down a chair there and showed off knuckles the size of grapes, scarred by the teeth of the men he has punched.
“When I first got to the barbershop I didn’t open my mouth,” he said. “I didn’t want to give myself away. I didn’t want to bring the street inside. I even had a few incidents in the shop.
“When you work here you’re introduced to people from different walks of life, men who want to mentor you, who have some love for you, who want you to get away from all of this stuff.”
When he was 22, Williams first walked into Glover’s Gym. Now 38, he is 15-7-2, with 14 knockout victories. The cruiserweight is ranked fourth in the nation by Boxrec.com, the highest he has climbed. A father of four, Williams has watched his 16-year-old, Deontae, take up the sport, and has become a mentor to the youngsters who frequent the barbershop.
“I have learned to be a role model,” Williams said.
Kayongo was 10 and sitting in class in his native Uganda when rebels stormed his school, slaughtered those who couldn’t work as laborers, and abducted the rest.
“It was a war-torn country,’’ he said. “Every day we would go to school, we’d find dead bodies on the streets. When the rebels came, if you couldn’t do something for them, they’d just shoot you. Or throw you in the River Nile.”
For more than two years, he lived among the rebels before the army rescued him in a bloody raid.
Living in army barracks, he took up boxing, and proved skilled enough to qualify for the national team. He won the silver medal as a light welterweight at the 2002 Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England.
He negotiated his release from the national team and traveled to Cleveland to stay with relatives. He stayed with another relative in Brooklyn before traveling to the Twin Cities. He speaks five languages and plans to become a police officer.
Kayongo, 35, is 18-4-1 and boxes as a light middleweight. He is nicknamed “The African Assassin,” but over lunch Monday he was soft-spoken, and despite his elevated conditioning he began to perspire when talking about life in Uganda.
“If it wasn’t for boxing, I wouldn’t be here,” he said. “Boxing has taught me a lot of things. Discipline and integrity and work ethic. And it has made me friends.”
Williams’ nickname has a purpose beyond promotion. It stands for “Directly Related to the Inner city with Love and Loyalty.”
Williams and Kayongo have trained together at Uppercuts Gym, and have sparred. They plan to work out at the Fighting Chance Boxing Club in north Minneapolis when it opens in March.
They are different sizes and tell different stories but Williams and Kayongo will fight for the same things Friday night — to take another step away from their former lives, and another step toward the championships they crave.
“I was the kid who was most likely to not succeed in school,” Williams said. “I was that guy. So I like to tell kids that if I can make it, anyone can. And I think there’s more out there, waiting for me.”