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Fighting to Succeed
Published Monday, June 01, 2009 9:51 PM
By Paul Zoeller
Summerville Journal Scene
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It is hard to stay out of trouble when trouble surrounds you. Johnny Lewellen knows that better than anyone but was saved from the downward spiral of drugs, gangs and violence when he was introduced to boxing. Lewellen, the president of the School of Hard Knox, turned his life around and went on to become a professional boxer before an accident ended his career.

His story is no different from many of the kids he now teaches at the gym across the street from Summerville High School. The gym, a small building on the edge of a crime ridden neighborhood, has become a home for many teens who have found a safe haven from the troubles that surround them on a daily basis.

Boxers spar in an outdoor boxing ring at the School of Hard Knox.

Once a professional boxer, Lewellen now dedicates his life to helping others. He does this because he wants to help kids in the community. His goal is to reach out to troubled teens and put them in a place of learning and discipline.

The gym has been around for 10 years and close to 300 different kids have come through its doors. Lewellen happily reports that while only some have gone on to become professional boxers, many have gone on to lead productive lives working or joining the military.

Boxers gather as coach Johnny Lewellen talks with them before practice.

"I have some kids in the last two years that have turned their life around... they were in bad situations and turned their life around," Lewellen explains as he gives me a tour of the gym.

Ismael Clark helps Christian Wilkins wrap his hands before the start of practice.

An empty building once used by drug dealers, the space was transformed into a gym. With the help of parents and many of the kids who train, the empty building was cleaned, remodeled and filled with punching bags and weights.

It is here Lewellen teaches kids about boxing.

Justin Daniel, 9, gets help putting on his gloves.

His philosophy is simple, if you can control yourself and your emotions inside the ring, you can take that control and apply it in everyday life in the real world. Kids learn to listen and take instruction. They learn discipline. They have to he says because all those skills are necessary to win in the ring.

Aquila Jenkins, 16, swings at a heavy bag.

Four days a week for two hours a day kids come to train at the gym. The boxers range from 6-30 years old and many of them train to compete and travel to tournaments across the nation. The training and bonds they build with other boxers at the gym keeps them out of trouble.

They look at the gym as a safe haven away from the streets says Teresa Mott, vice president of the gym. Mott, whose son trained at the gym, said it gives them something constructive to do for 2 hours each night-- it has a positive effect on them.

Boxers line up outside and work on proper hitting and stances.

The result is noticeable when talking with the boxers.

Ryan Stewart said he had always loved watching boxing on TV and dreamed of one day becoming a boxer himself. Instead of realizing that dream he found himself in trouble on a daily basis. Johnny Lewellen, president of the School of Hard Knox, found Stewart and got him into boxing and out of trouble. Boxing for two years now, he says it has taught him discipline, self control and how to be a better person.

Ismael Clark and Ryan Stewart focus on their training.

Coy Lambert, 23, had been boxing about two years when he was in a car accident that many felt would leave him disabled. A fighter on the inside, he wanted to prove them all wrong and now is back in the gym training again. He said boxing gives him a sense of knowing who he is and a sense of self respect.

A diagram allows boxers to work on proper footing while boxing.

Stories like these keep Lewellen motivated to keep teaching and mentoring the athletes at the gym even as he fights his own battle to keep the gym open. A nonprofit organization, he says it is hard for them to find the money to sponsor the boxers or buy new equipment.

Frustrated by his dilemma, he says programs like County Council give the gym funds to help train kids but more is needed. Financially he believes the money given to the gym saves the community money down the line.

"It costs less to train a kid in a sport of boxing than to pay to send them to jail," He said.

Tiffany Daniel, right center, and Dennis Mckinney spar in front of the School of Hard Knox.

For now, he wants to focus on the kids training at the gym. Lewellen says boxing is the goal of the gym but a faith-based teaching of values is core to the program. Every Friday, boxers attend a Bible study and are encouraged to carry these Christian values into their daily life.

Not able to box in the ring without a boxing card, Christian Wilkins watches as others spar.

Lewellen does not shy away from the fact that he teaches the Christian values that have helped him through so much in life. Mentoring the kids and being a male role model to them is not what he intended to be when the gym first opened but he accepts that responsibility and says the relationship is a two way street.

They make me want to be a better person he says.

Coach Johnny Lewellen helps Aquila Jenkins with her hitting during a break in her sparring match.

Its hard to argue with the results after watching the kids train. From the moment they arrive until the prayer at the end, they train hard and that has translated into success in the ring. Tiffany Daniel, for example, has been training at the gym for two years and has won a national boxing title.

For others, success has translated into a better life outside of the ring.

At the end of the day Lewellen ends the workout with a prayer.

Lewellen wants to help the kids and believes programs like this benefit the community. "We as a community need to save them from the drugs, gangs and violence. This will protect the community and save us money in the long run through programs like this. I just want to see them not go to jail," he says.

To sign up for boxing or to help sponsor kids at the school contact Johnny Lewellen at or call (843) 478-9667.

Paul Zoeller is a freelance photographer new to the area. Do you have an idea for a new blog or a question about a current blog? If you do contact Zoeller at

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