By Ali Lucia

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A nonprofit gym is nestled near James and Lowry in North Minneapolis. In the mornings this place is quiet, but come 2 p.m. the place lights up, filled with a team committed to serving not just future boxing champs, but also kids looking to have a little fun after school.

Formerly an old fire house, Fighting Chance Boxing Club opened its doors in its North Minneapolis neighborhood in April of this year.

Twin Cities restaurant owner and Wayzata native Ryan Burnet opened the gym in April. He picked up boxing 15 years ago, and through Fighting Chance he is making sure others get exposed at an early age.

“We teach them technique, the science of boxing, discipline and that also teaches them the general discipline in life,” Burnet said. “Boxing is the tool, but really it’s getting them in here to be a part of the community.”

In the beginning, the program was more a shuttle service making sure the kids could just step foot in a ring, but it was through the long drives that he realized these kids needed more.

“I started the initial program where we picked them up, then I got to see what they were going through and it just touched my heart,” Burnet said.

That’s when Burnet knew this ring full of abs, jabs, and jumps had to be curated close to their home. From Monday through Friday, 40 to 60 kids show up for some training and tough love. And they’re not just fighting; they are also served a hot meal.

Every gym needs a fighter, and that’s exactly why Phil “the Drill” Williams was hired. The barber turned boxer is a champ straight from Minneapolis, though he moved to New York City early on in his life.

“I’ve been boxing for 17 years,” Williams said. “The competition, just fighting itself and then the crowd and I like to please the crowd.”

He certainly did that at this fight in June of 2009, known as the fastest knockout in boxing history.

Williams said he understands exactly where sometimes that anger and aggression is coming from.

“I was one of the kids they could have thrown away a long time ago, but it didn’t happen and, by the grace of God, I was able to still be here,” he said. “I’m able to understand what they’re going through. So that’s why I’m going to give back.”

He wants Fighting Chance to be a safe place for them to learn not just the skills of the ring, but of life.

“It’s a war zone going on around here, but in here that’s where they get their peace, that’s where you can get your hugs,” said Williams. “Sometimes they open up to you, and there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on that you’d be surprised about that a kid’s going through.”

Both his job as a barber and his career in boxing kept him on the right path, he said, unlike a lot of his friends, including his brother.

“My brother’s still locked up. From doing an eight-year sentence, he got out and now he’s doing a 15-year sentence,” Williams said. “(These are) the issues you’re dealing with in the inner city, a lot of times you’re surviving.”

Just like the way Williams feels about his training, he wants to instill the desire of discipline in kids like DeShawn McKizzie to make sure they return to the ring day after day.

“There’s a lot of stuff going on, but these are really loving people, the most loving people you’re ever going to meet. They’re just missing somebody to show them that love that will open up to you,” Williams said.

At 39, Williams may be past his fighting prime, but he certainly is not past his pushing the next generation.

“We know in reality everyone can’t be a champion. But at least we’re going to learn some discipline and learn some structure in life, and come in and you’ll be around some positive males, which is a good thing,” Williams said.

By the way, there is a meaning behind Williams’ nickname, “The Drill.” It stands for “Directly Related to the Inner city with Love and Loyalty.”

Burnet called the gym the most fulfilling project of his career. The food program incorporates some of Burnet’s restaurants. On Mondays and Fridays, Loaves and Fishes donates meals. Then from Tuesday through Thursday it’s Bar La Grass, Burch Steakhouse and 112 Eatery.

If you would like to help donate the club or the cause, there is an event coming up. All proceeds for the LEAD Project 10th anniversary party will benefit Fighting Chance Boxing Club.

Ali Lucia