The first things you notice about 12-year-old Malachi Ross are his bright eyes and the dimples that come with his broad smile.
Nothing in that first impression would reveal that the quiet, wiry, 95-pound Grandview middle schooler packs a powerful punch. Literally.
This summer, Malachi (pronounced MAH-la-kai) became the 2018 USA Boxing National Junior Olympic bantamweight champ, winning a gold medal at the competition in Charleston, W.Va.
That means he’s ranked No. 1 in the country among 11- and 12-year-old boxers in his weight class.
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And you can see why when he practices with his dad, Micah Ross.
“One, two,” whispers Ross, towering over his son and holding up two leather practice mitts one morning this week.
Pop, pop, Malachi responds with a rapid right-left combo with his big blue boxing gloves.
Malachi has been training at RNE Boxing Club in Merriam for the last three years, but his dad has been coaching him since before the boy started school.
Malachi weaves around a ring that nearly fills the small gym, shuffling his feet and bobbing his head from side to side.
“One, two, three,” Ross again whispers. Right, left, uppercut is Malachi’s popping glove-to-mitt response.
Boxing runs in the Ross family. “My grandpa boxed, and my uncles,” says Malachi, the youngest of his parents’ three children — the other two are 22 and 18. “My dad started training me with mitts when I was about 4 and I just started liking it.”
Dad, who works at the Ford Kansas City Assembly Plant, says Malachi was “a natural.” “Once I started messing around a bit with him I seen that he had potential.”
They worked out at home nearly every day until Ross thought his son was ready for a training gym.
“I started taking him to some gyms and letting him spar with some of the kids,” Ross says. “He did real good, and after that I knew he just might be a boxer.”
A giant canvas-mounted photo of Malachi, taken in 2016 when he won silver at the National U.S. Olympic Boxing tournament, hangs high in the gym along with similar photos of a few of his older teammates who won medals in previous years.
Malachi has wanted his face hanging on the gym walls since the first day he walked through the door. First he had to win a national silver or gold medal. Now he has both. The gym will be updating that photo to include this year’s gold medal soon.
“He’s got a big future ahead of him,” said Leo Moreno, who owns RNE gym. “He’s outgoing, a very smart kid and he’s humble. The nicest kid in the world outside the ring. You would never know he’s a boxer. And inside the ring he is the real deal. He’s really good.”
When he started boxing other athletes his age, Malachi says, he was scared. “I didn’t want to get hit,” he says. “I was nervous until I got in the ring.” He won his first fight. “It felt really good because all that hard work paid off.”
While Malachi has won more times than he’s lost, he says he’s learned that losing is part of the sport.
“I learned to train hard and never give up,” he says. He’s caught more shots to the head than he can count, but he’s never been knocked down.
And when he wins, “he’s humble about it,” Ross says. “He’s not dancing around the ring” like other winners often do.
Back in 2016, Malachi didn’t get the gold at the U.S. National Junior Boxing tournament because he wasn’t fighting aggressively enough, his dad says. “He was just sticking and moving, trying not to get hit. The judges like to see you be aggressive.”
Ross says the loss made him realize his son had to change his boxing style. The two worked for a year on how to get inside an opponent’s punches without getting hit — and then “stick” him.
At the recent nationals tournament, Malachi won all three of his matches — the first with a technical knock out, the second a unanimous decision and the third with a split decision.
“The last guy I fought was way taller than me and had a longer reach,” Malachi says. “I really surprised myself because I was able to get inside his punches and hit him. That’s how I won.”
His proud dad believes Malachi’s hard work made the difference. But he said it also helped that the Sunday before the big tournament Malachi was baptized at the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith in Kansas City.
Malachi was in the gym with his dad six days a week for about two hours each day. Several days a week the two were running about two miles.
The hardest part of the training, Malachi says, besides learning to throw a left and right punch with equal power, has been losing the weight. His favorite foods are pizza and pancakes. Neither are on the menu when he’s trying to keep his 5-foot 2-inch body right around bantamweight — 95 pounds.
Boxing has made father and son “very close,” Ross said. But it’s more than that. “It teaches discipline not just in boxing but in life, and it’s keeping him in good physical shape,” Ross said. Raising young black men anywhere these days, Ross said, can be a tough job. “Boxing keeps him away from a lot of danger and out of the streets.”
Conditioning for the sport, takes a lot of time, Malachi said. But when he’s not training — lifting weights, running, jumping rope and doing pushups — he’s studying or reading and sometimes playing basketball with friends. If he weren’t boxing, he said, he would be playing basketball. This fall when he starts the seventh grade, Malachi plans to join the Grandview Middle School cross country team.
Beyond that, Malachi said, “I want to keep training, win a lot of tournaments, box for my country in the Olympics, and one day maybe pack Sprint arena.”