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Boxing and talking: How a 1988 Olympian gives back

by By Amicia Ramsey CSM Correspondent from EAST ST. LOUIS, ILL.

146654Jarmani Taylor (right) faces off with a competitor in the Arthur Flash Johnson Invitational on Oct. 9 at the Sunshine Cultural Arts Center in East St. Louis, Illinois.Amicia Ramsey

November 30, 2021

Amateur boxer Kevin Hill remembers when his mother begged high school administrators to give her son a second chance after he’d gotten kicked out of three different high schools for fighting. They did. He graduated from East St. Louis Senior High School in 2007, an accomplishment he doesn’t take lightly.

Mr. Hill recalls experiencing chronic homelessness while growing up, and losing friends and family to street violence or drug-related crimes. He dealt with it all by fighting.

“I wasn’t friendly,” he reflects. “I would have an attitude, … and that would stir a fight up.” Today, Mr. Hill is still fighting, but he’s not getting in trouble for it. He spends his days at the Flash Boxing and Activity Center, a haven for children and young adults in East St. Louis. Despite finding a coach in Arthur “Flash” Johnson later in life, Mr. Hill still has an opportunity to turn pro.

146654Amicia RamseyAmateur boxer Kevin Hill hits the speed bag at the Flash Boxing and Activity Center as a volunteer coach from the center watches.

Mr. Johnson, who holds both amateur and professional world titles and competed in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, is the founder of the activity center. He also co-founded the Arthur Johnson Foundation with his wife, Latonya Johnson, in 2001 to give back to the community and serve youth through boxing and mentoring programs.

In a high-poverty, high-crime area, where fighting is a frequent response to adversity, Mr. Johnson works to redirect that impulse into the sport of boxing and to nurture the discipline and respect needed to succeed not only in the ring, but also at school, on the job, and in the community.

“You could’ve had a lot of bad things happen to you in your life,” he says. “But at the end of the day, when you reach a certain age, life expects you to make better choices.”

From competing to coaching

After retiring from boxing in 2003 and later overcoming a disease he was told would kill him, Mr. Johnson developed a heart for coaching athletes. That’s the most obvious thing he focuses on at the activity center, which was built in 2017 following years of effort. “You have to keep knocking when the doors are closed, even if they say go to the next door and the next,” he says.

This year, after rebounding from the worst of the pandemic, the center has 40 children and young adults registered, about 85% of whom are under 18. Boys and girls can begin as young as 8. Mr. Johnson also trains men and women who want to pursue boxing careers.

Boxing is “going to demand you to be disciplined,” Mr. Johnson says, pointing out the importance of developing character – the less obvious focus of both the foundation and the center.

Alongside the coaching, a mentoring program is designed to instill values and nurture character growth. “Twice a month we get the guys in the gym, and we go to the conference room. We have a roundtable talk,” says Earnest Rice-Bey, a volunteer coach who grew up in the neighborhood. Boxing was Mr. Rice-Bey’s first love, but the streets pulled him away from it, resulting in three stints in prison, he says, before he turned his life around. “I try to mentor to that toughness,” he explains. “I know what it is like because I was there. I see it in them.”

146654Amicia RamseyArthur Johnson, founder of the Flash Boxing and Activity Center, adjusts the gloves of Jamal Simmons at the Arthur Flash Johnson Invitational held in October.

Nothing is off-limits during the roundtable discussions.“I had trust issues at first,” says Mr. Hill, who was a young child when his father was shot and killed at just 21 years old. From that day forward, Mr. Hill explains, his only ambition was to stay alive longer than his father. Although he’s exceeded that life expectancy, it can be hard to see beyond the violence and scarcity prevalent in his environment. Mr. Hill isn’t the only one to have experiences and feelings like these come up in the roundtables. It’s where everyone comes to lay down their burdens. Then, in the ring, they can tap into their potential.

Page created on 12/22/2021 7:53:23 PM

Last edited 12/23/2021 1:09:49 AM

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