click to enlarge
- Luke Awtry
- "King" James McMillan training with Raina
The small Winooski gym at 88 Malletts Bay Avenue echoed with the staccato of jump ropes slapping the hardwood floor as Messiah, Jaleel and Malachi warmed up for their Thursday afternoon boxing class. The three 10-year-old boys tried to outdo each other, and impress a visiting reporter, with their jump rope skills, occasionally inserting double jumps, crossovers and playful banter into their warm-up routine.
"Less talk, more jumping," warned their coach, "King" James McMillan, who sported a black jacket with the logo of the gym, King James Boxing, on the back. Normally, the class would have had another eight to 10 students, McMillan said, but heavy snow that day kept most of them away.
After two minutes, an interval timer beeped and McMillan sent the boys to separate workout stations: Jaleel hopped onto a stationary bike, Messiah jabbed at a heavy bag that hung from the ceiling, and Malachi aimed punches at a springy speed bag.
Along the gym's back wall, just above a small boxing ring, a television screen replayed an old pay-per-view fight between boxers Timothy Bradley Jr. and Manny Pacquiao. The latter, a Filipino welterweight champion nicknamed "PacMan," is considered one of the greatest professional boxers of all time. He went on to become a senator in the Philippines, McMillan told the boys.
If that subtle message — that boxing can be good training for other pursuits in life — went over the boys' heads, a more overt message was painted in bold white letters across one wall of the gym: "Know that you are KINGS & QUEENS."
Entering the boxing ring was a life-changing event for McMillan, a former welterweight boxer and mixed martial arts fighter who won five Golden Gloves titles in Vermont and a world championship in karate. Now in his mid-forties, McMillan used the pugilistic arts to overcome a troubled youth in New York City, where the odds of success in life were stacked against him. Today, McMillan tries to instill in his students, mostly kids from Winooski, the grit they'll need to overcome their own challenges and punch above their weight.
McMillan opened the new gym a couple of weeks ago, but he's been teaching boxing out of his home, to children and adults, for more than a decade. Last year, he founded the nonprofit Fight for Kids Foundation with the goal of raising $1 million to buy and renovate the old Winooski Press building on Stevens Street. McMillan wants to set up a much larger youth center, open seven days a week, where he can train more young bodies and minds.
"I see the trajectory of what the kids are doing now," he said. "They need structure, and they need more mental and physical fortitude."
Indeed, many of McMillan's boxing students face challenges similar to those he encountered growing up in New York City. Of the nearly 900 kids in the Winooski School District, more than half are students of color, many of them children of recent immigrants who live in low-income households. Often, they lack extracurricular activities to keep them out of trouble, McMillan said.
About 10 minutes into the warm-up, Lamar, a ruddy-faced boy with a crew cut, entered the gym, laced up a pair of boxing gloves and began shadowboxing in front of a mirror. It was clear that the 10-year-old boy, a new student, had boxed before.
Donning a pair of punch mitts to cushion the blows, McMillan directed Lamar on where to aim his jabs and crosses.
"Jab! Then back to your face," McMillan said, instructing the boy on how to protect his jaw from a counterpunch. "Turn your hip more. And always be looking at your opponent."
"I've been in a lot of fights," McMillan added, raising his voice so that the other boys could hear. "Never been hurt, never been knocked out."
McMillan's fights happened in and out of the ring. He recounts a difficult childhood, growing up in a Brooklyn housing project where both of his parents were addicted to cocaine. Because of their substance abuse, McMillan said, he was never interested in drugs or alcohol; he doesn't even drink coffee. "I don't want to be dependent on anything," he said.
McMillan entered August Martin High School, in Queens, with good math and reading scores, he said. However, his lack of parental supervision, combined with a school environment rife with guns, drugs and violence, led McMillan into what he called a "gang situation."
"I was focusing more on being popular and being the man and all that stuff," he said. "One of my best friends is in jail for the rest of his life for murder."
When McMillan was 15, he said, his father kicked him out of the house, and he was forced to live on his own. While still in high school, McMillan had what he called a "spiritual awakening." A Muslim man from a nearby mosque took McMillan under his wing. McMillan transferred to Bushwick Community High School in Brooklyn, where no one knew him and he could start over.
It was through the mosque that McMillan began mentoring another boy who was a few years younger. The boy's mother offered to pay for McMillan and her son to attend boxing and jiujitsu classes together. Those classes charted his life's course.
click to enlarge
- Luke Awtry
- From left: Jaleel, Newton, Malachi, "King" James McMillan, Raina and Messiah
"It was empowering," recalled McMillan, who stands five-foot-nine and weighs 155 pounds. Boxing, he said, "taught me from an early age that no one is gonna do it for you. You gotta do it for yourself. As I tell the kids, the only place where success comes before work is in the dictionary."
Though Bushwick offered him a fresh start, McMillan didn't feel sufficiently challenged. So when a guidance counselor suggested that he take the GED exam, McMillan did and aced it. He enrolled at the State University of New York at Binghamton, where he studied business until his financial aid ran out.
After college, McMillan took up a trade that he'd taught himself as a teen: cutting hair. Back when he was 13, his mother gave him money to buy a winter coat. Instead, McMillan bought himself a pair of electric clippers and started experimenting on friends, aiming to earn extra cash. He became adept at shaving intricate designs, such as the Yankees logo and a basketball player slam-dunking a hoop, into people's hair.
In the late 1990s, McMillan moved to Vermont with his then-partner. In 2000 he opened Diversity Hair Salon on Burlington's Pearl Street, providing mostly Black clients with hairstyles that were difficult to find in Vermont, such as dreadlocks, fades, Afros and braids.
In the mid-2000s, McMillan considered moving to Las Vegas to pursue a professional boxing career. But after separating from his children's mother, he opted instead to stay in Vermont, open a gym and train other boxers.
Not all of McMillan's students are kids from Winooski. Newton Parker is a 17-year-old welterweight who drives down from St. Albans five days a week.
"I've trained with other coaches. His style fits me best," Parker said. "He's been more than a coach to me." McMillan regularly offers life advice, Parker added, and the two have even taken a few road trips together. "If I have something on my mind, I just come to the gym, and it all goes away."
As the 10-year-old boys finished up their Thursday class, Mariah Barrows entered the gym with her 4-year-old son, Gus. Barrows, who's 25, drives from Stowe three days a week.
"I wanted to do something that was totally outside my comfort zone," Barrows said. "I literally just googled 'boxing in Vermont,' and this was the first thing that came up." That was two years ago; she's been training with McMillan ever since.
"He's great. He's caring, focused and very levelheaded when he teaches," she added. "And he's so good with the kids."
Fellow Winooski resident Bruce Wilson described McMillan's work with kids as vital to the community. A longtime youth services provider and community activist, Wilson serves on numerous boards and committees, including the Vermont Human Rights Commission. Since moving to Vermont in 1989, he has opened and run various youth centers and arts and music programs for kids in malls around the state.
Recently, Wilson agreed to join the board of the Fight for Kids Foundation. He believes in its mission and its founder.
"King James has been working with youth for 10 years or more," Wilson said. "He's always believed in helping youth with their dreams and aspirations and ... helping them build their minds and bodies."
In an interview, McMillan addressed a common concern many parents have about boxing — that it glorifies violence and makes kids more prone to get into fights. As he pointed out, his own training in boxing and martial arts instilled in him a self-discipline that actually discouraged him from fighting outside the ring.
His own boxing classes can do the same for local kids, McMillan added, especially young men of color who struggle to find a place for themselves, as he once did. They just need the right coach to show them the ropes.