Whether in or out of the ring, brothers Ahmad and Samad Mickens teach kids at Revolution Fitness Youth Boxing how to straighten up and stand right
photographs by Andrew Sullivan
bash! whup! pow! The sounds are loud, sharp and powerful, and ricochet all over Revolution Fitness like the steady pulse of a drum machine at a nightclub. But it’s after school in the middle of the afternoon, and the rhythmic percussion, mixed with pulsating club music, lends a soundtrack to the graceful and nimble moves that a group of boys enrolled in RF Youth Boxing (RFYB), a fitness and mentoring program, are learning and practicing. These are not just any teens. All exhibit a forceful dignity and intensity as they work on improving their physical and mental conditioning. The workouts are hard but all share the single-minded goal to get in shape and learn how to incorporate cross-training into a lifelong fitness plan.
But a number of them are here because they have to be. They come from low-income backgrounds, where parents may not be a steady presence, putting them at greater risk of trouble with the law. Indeed, such trouble is the reason some are here, and they meet after school, in part, to avoid any further brushes with the police. Boxing, the thinking goes, gives them an outlet for aggression; better to attack one another in a ring with fists, say, than with guns out on the streets. But learning how to land a right hook is just part of the story: These kids also learn about self-respect, nutrition, focus, the importance of punctuality and how weak links can hurt teams. It can be difficult to measure the effects of a program like RFYB, which is one of the few of its kind in the state to also serve at-risk kids; after all, the 500 or so students that have gone through the fitness program since its inception in 2006 leave it when they are still young. Yet, anecdotally speaking, there is a clear consensus that RFYB, a nonprofit run out of this Canal Street gym, has turned lives around. “It’s not 100-percent foolproof, and it can’t be,” said Silas Redd, a Stamford police officer focused on youth cases, who has diverted 200 arrested teens to RFYB as a condition of their probation. But “success is measured by not seeing these kids at the police department again, and by that measure, it’s been very successful.”
Ahmad and Samad
In inexperienced hands, wrangling teens with arrest records, behavioral problems and frequent disdain for authority might seem a near-hopeless cause. Compounding that difficulty is the expectation that these students must show up for ninety-minute classes three times a week, for three months. No excuses. But more than half of the kids mandated to be here by a judge complete the program; some stay on longer. There are two easy explanations for RFYB’s high retention rate: the one-two punch of brothers Ahmad and Samad Mickens, who run the classes. With sleeve-busting physiques, and a long list of professional certifications, the Mickens brothers are inarguably prepared to share the importance of physical fitness with anyone who signs up. What lets them connect with the kids, especially those required to attend, and in a sense makes the youth boxing program what it is, is a background that appears to parallel those of some of their students.
Ahmad and Samad’s parents, Reginald and Linda, were divorced when the boys were infants. Soon after the boys went to live with their father. But Reginald’s battles with drug addiction forced Ahmad and Samad into foster care for a few years, before they wound up with their mother. Before Ahmad was ten, he had lived at eight different addresses, many of them in tough neighborhoods in and around Newark, New Jersey. Never a great student, Ahmad struggled in school, and his fists were always flying. “I always felt like I had to prove something,” he says. Some of those fights could be epic. During his first year at Clifford J. Scott High School in East Orange, New Jersey, Ahmad ended up on the floor of a hallway, trading punches with a junior who, Ahmad says, shoved him in passing. But the dustup didn’t end there. One period later, the junior and a group of his friends gathered at the door to Ahmad’s homeroom class, and when Ahmad stepped outside, they pounced. “Long story short, the school erupted into a riot,” says Ahmad, who was suspended. In other ways, the fights were just an offshoot of Ahmad’s natural athleticism, which was nurtured by his mom, a nurse who banned red meat in the house and encouraged her children to ride bikes and avoid TV. At one point, Linda, Ahmad, Samad and sister Karimah went to live with Geraldine, Linda’s sister, and her family in the Ivy Hill projects in Newark’s crime- ridden West Ward.
One night in 1986, at the age of eleven, Ahmad was taking out the trash in the project’s basement when “I heard this ‘duh, duh, duh,’ all these noises,” he recalls. “I’m like what is that?” It was a small boxing gym. “Before I knew it, a guy says, ‘Come in, you want to box?’” Ahmad was soon learning the sport and strapping on gloves to duke it out with other kids—this time in organized fights. (Basketball would eventually take precedence.) By his late twenties, frustrated by employment as a carpenter, Ahmad put his health consciousness to a test and became a trainer. Figuring that his clients might want to step into the ring, he re-acquainted himself with boxing. “He was aggressive at the beginning, though many are when they first learn how to fight,” says Lee Shabakah, Ahmad’s longtime coach. “But as his skills increased, he became a very studious fighter.” He could be dominant as well. In his amateur boxing career, Ahmad, a heavy-weight, has fought thirty-eight times, winning thirty-one of those bouts. He’s won one of three pro fights as well, including a four-round decision in Rye, New York, in 2009, for which he took home $1,000.
Like Ahmad, Lee believes discipline, the kind learned by sweating through a workout, is good for everyone, and for those who need it, can keep demons at bay. Growing up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, Lee’s mother made him attend weekend martial arts classes; she was worried that he was brawling with other teenagers too much, he says. And after turning sixteen, she encouraged him to move in with his grandparents, who lived in Raleigh, North Carolina—a place “with a drive-in, like you see on Happy Days,” Lee jokes—thinking he would stand a better chance of graduating in a safer environment. In an ironic twist, he fought more, but as a competitive kick-boxer by age seventeen, in kung fu and boxing during college, and years later, as a career. “Once you get in the ring and get punched in the face a couple of times,” he says, “you really don’t want to go out and hit other people anymore.”
Seeming to take that kind of wisdom to heart is Chordale Booker, an RFYB alumnus who went from almost becoming another police statistic to a two-time Golden Gloves champion, all before turning twenty-one.
An arrest led Chordale to enroll in RFYB but today he focuses on becoming a pro and points to a tattoo on his left arm that reads ‘On the road to riches.’ “I hope,” he says. In the ring one recent day, he strikes like a viper, shouting “Ah!” with every straight punch he delivers to an imaginary opponent. In ninety seconds, he manages a speedy 300 hits, which pleases Ahmad; that’s how many Chordale needs to throw to win a match, Ahmad explains. “I didn’t want to be in trouble; trouble just finds you sometimes,” says Chordale about his teenage problems. Some of those problems seemed to be beyond his control. His father, Dale, was incarcerated when Chordale was five; he and his brother, Dale Jr., were mostly raised by their mother, Sheryl Saunders, who moved the family to Stamford’s East Side from Bridgeport, in part for the boys to attend better schools.
After graduating from Stamford High in 2009, Chordale was set to attend Lincoln Technical Institute in Shelton. But during an impromptu party on the lawn of a school, Chordale was busted for carrying two guns that he says he was holding for a cousin. It was off to RFYB, which helped him focus enough to attend classes that fall, and get a job as a clerk at Walgreen’s. Today Chordale’s fortunes are brighter. “I had problems at school, problems at home,” he says, “and this helped me with a lot of things.” Having left the drugstore behind, Chordale’s employed full-time at Revolution Fitness, where he helps with training the kids at RFYB. “I’ve realized the potential I have,” he says. “The sky’s the limit, I guess, thanks to Ahmad.” Like Chordale, RFYB has also helped Raul Rivera, a Stamford High sophomore who came to Ahmad and Samad by way of Stamford Youth Services, which has placed kids at RFYB since 2008. On his first day in the program, Raul considered quitting after a particularly grueling workout. “I kind of didn’t like it but I had to stay. So I had to step it up as the weeks went by,” he explains. Raul has since flourished. Though his legal commitment ended in January, he decided to stay on for at least a few more months to get in shape, and he hopes the training pays dividends on the football field in the fall. There are ancillary benefits too. “It really keeps me out of trouble,” he admits. According to Youth Services director Terri Drew, RFYB is great for kids “who are angry and have a lot of stuff going on and need to vent their frustrations,” she says. Plus, Ahmad “is a great role model.”
In Their Corner
In many ways, Ahmad’s first fight, held in 2004 at Gleason’s Gym in Brooklyn as part of a “white-collar boxing” night, set the tone for what followed. Pitted against a Wall Street banker, Ahmad delivered just two blows—a left jab and a right cross—before his opponent fell. “I destroyed the guy,” Ahmad says bluntly. After moving to Stamford in 2003, Ahmad worked at SportsPlex until his girlfriend Moyosore Paupau, now his wife, suggested that some of the kids she knew through her work at the Stamford YMCA could use a constructive hobby. Five of them signed up for RFYB’s first session, which was held in the same Canal Street space, though it was then shared with Sound Fitness health club. Two years later, Ahmad took over the whole 4,200-square-foot space for himself. Today older brother Samad handles conditioning, which for the teens means forty minutes of rigorous exercises, like jumping rope, squats and crunches. If somebody tries to skip, say, a push-up, the whole group will start from the beginning. “You might be lazy, and you might not want to do it,” says Sam, “but each person is responsible for the entire community.”
Actual boxing instruction falls on Ahmad, who teaches the difference between an uppercut and a cross, then pairs the kids off under the watchful eye of a life-sized cutout of Muhammad Ali in the clean, bright space. But there doesn’t seem to be any Rocky or fighter-style intensity in Ahmad’s approach. He instead exudes a low-key vibe. One recent day, while a fighter shadow-boxed across the ring, jabbing and bouncing and circling, Ahmad watched from a sitting position on a bench, his spaghetti-thick braids pulled back into a ponytail. “Get your right hand higher,” he says quietly, the music from the overhead speakers nearly drowning out his words. It’s perhaps a sign that Ahmad has softened over time, since his younger, pugnacious phase. “I know now that it’s OK to be a nice guy, it’s all right, which I try to tell the kids,” he says. “It’s not a sign of weakness.” But adult hurdles, like securing financing to keep the nonprofit afloat, are a concern.
Because most of Ahmad’s fights don’t offer prize money, he can’t rely on his fists to pay the bills. Instead, much of his income is derived from standard gym memberships at for-profit Revolution Fitness. For its part, RFYB asks kids to pay $60 a month if they can, though some are unable to, which means the United Way of Western Connecticut and the police department help pick up the slack. Other donations come from the annual Fall Fisticuffs fundraiser, a night of matches that raised $3,000 last fall. But revenue streams have recently dried up. Approximately $120,000 in federal Justice Assistant Grants, which paid for masks, bags and overtime for police officers who track down mandated students when they don’t show up, were cut in 2011. So was $80,000 in federal money for the Truancy at Risk Intervention Program, some of which flowed to RFYB. For his part, Ahmad takes the challenge in stride, as he has done for much of his life. In the end, might doesn’t make right, but it can bring peace of mind, he believes, and as the sounds of pow rattle the gym, it makes sense that Ahmad considers this place a refuge. “If you grew up in the jungle, you learn where not to step,” he says. “If the lion’s over there, you stay away from the lion.”