Toriano Porter

‘Boxing saved my life’: Could this program keep young black men off KC streets?

A collage of photos is a constant and brutal reminder for Deshawn “Squito” Prather that life in Kansas City is a perilous proposition for young black men.

The 22-year-old is a boxer with championship aspirations and a 7-1 professional record. On his Facebook page are pictures of six comrades all under the age of 30 who have been gunned down during the last three years.

But even amid unceasing violence and unbearable loss, Prather has managed to stay above the fray.

“Boxing,” he said. “Boxing saved my life.”

Among those memorialized on Prather’s Facebook page are: Aaron Mason, 23, who was shot to death in August after a verbal spat with a worker inside a Kansas City fast food restaurant, and Marcus Neal, 29, who was gunned down the same month after a physical altercation in the parking lot of a local community center.

A 17-year-old was charged in connection with Neal’s death.

Larenzo Hudson, 20, is also pictured. He was killed last April, allegedly by a 15-year-old after the sale of a PlayStation video game went horribly wrong. The teen was charged with first-degree murder.

Another victim, 23-year-old John T. Wilson III, was murdered in September, allegedly by his friend, Daniel A. Bigge. Wilson was a musician, model and actor and had just started showing interest in training with Prather.

Earlier this year, 25-year-old business owner Jackie Johnson was killed in a shooting in the city’s historic 18th & Vine Jazz District. Johnson was Prather’s barber.

Gun violence also claimed the life of Jaiair Strong, another of Prather’s close friends. Strong was shot to death in 2016 at age 15.

“I’ve watched a lot of my friends … go to jail or they die,” Prather said. “That just keeps me far away from it. I don’t want to end up like that. I just box and take the hard way out.”

At top, from left, are: Jackie Johnson, 25; Aaron Mason, 23; Jaiair Strong, age unknown; Larenzo Hudson, 20; Marcus Neal, 29; and John T. Wilson III, 23. All six died before the age of 30 due to gun violence.

Boxing as an answer to violence

For many young black men in Kansas City, the odds simply are too much to overcome, the hill too steep to climb.

Economic despair, a lack of access to educational opportunities and health care, combined with other socioeconomic barriers have hindered a generation of young people.

Eight of the city’s 121 homicides this year through Monday were perpetrated by teens younger than 17, police say. Five victims were 16 or younger.

Almost 70% of all homicide victims, 83 in all, were black males. Another 73 of them were between the ages of 17 and 34.

But there is hope for some at-risk kids. And a way to a better life.

Prather is a boxing coach for Kansas City Parks and Recreation, which has offered free boxing lessons since 2016 for children 5-17 at the Garrison Community Center near River Market and the Gregg-Klice Community Center near 18th and Vine.

He wants to nudge more young people down the right path and into the ring. The program helps kids to learn how to defend themselves but also teaches hard work and self-control.

“Boxing gyms are an environment of discipline, physical fitness and respect,” said Chris Walden, president of the Kansas City Golden Gloves amateur boxing organization. “It takes courage to climb into a boxing ring by yourself against someone who is going to punch you and compete.”

Developing tactical skills requires will and want-to. The ability to remain focused and steer clear of the pressures and pitfalls of the neighborhood is paramount.

“After training, the last thing I want to do is be in the streets,” Prather said. “I just want to lie down.”

Chris Thompson, a two-time Golden Gloves amateur champion and head boxing coach at Gregg-Klice, has seen the self-destruction and violence that plague Kansas City. Thompson knew Neal and Wilson from boxing circles. He has followed Prather’s career and coached with him at Gregg-Klice.

Last week, between 40 and 50 kids trained inside the center’s gym. While Thompson eagerly awaits his pro debut in December, he is delivering the message to the next generation that boxing does save lives.

“You just have to stay at it and stay out of the streets,” he said.

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