Boxing for life: Gym’s reach goes beyond skills in the ring

Photo by Ivan B. Phifer (l-r) Ryan Burnet and Phil “The Drill” Williams

Following the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police, the Twin Cities have seen an uptick in crime and social disenfranchisement. But with the pandemic easing, maybe slowly coming to an end, a lot of businesses and community centers are opening back up. 

One such establishment, planted in the heart of the community, is the Northside Boxing Gym located at 1704 N. 33rd Ave. in North Minneapolis. The boxing gym, previously a firehouse for the 4th Ward, has been a feature of the North Side since March 15, 2016.

With summer now upon us it is imperative to keep young people engaged in constructive activity. This is where Phil “The Drill” Williams and Ryan Burnet come into play.

Williams, a Northside native, made his professional boxing debut in April 2006 with a first-round TKO defeat of Jason Medina. “The Drill” is credited with the fastest knock-out punch and has a 15-8-2 record with 14 knockouts. 

Burnet, meanwhile, always had a love for the sport and wanted to pass that appreciation down. “I saw what Williams did in the ring, and it turned out we used to train at the same place,” said Burnet. 

“The purpose is to give these children an outlet—give them a safe place,” said Williams.  “We also teach life lessons and give them family structure. Boxing comes second here.”

Just a few blocks from where six-year-old Aniya Allen was killed from multiple gun rounds, Williams and Burnet both understand the importance of the little things, such as giving young people attention. 

“We give all the kids hugs every day, too. There’s a lot of negative energy outside of these doors. It’s normal to them now to see somebody get shot and killed, with teddy bears and balloons on the pole,” Williams said, his voice full of emotion. “It’s not right and it’s not normal.”

This has influenced Burnet and Williams to reach out to public schools to attract students to the facility. “We started with Lucy Craft Laney, and they came with the program through us. It also helped that my history of boxing influenced the parents to enroll.”

The gym is open six days a week from 3:30 to 7:30 pm, with classes and training sessions starting at 4:30 pm.  

“The exercise is rigorous—running, sparring, push-ups, squats. We want the kids to have a healthy and positive lifestyle,” Williams said. “We provide them with healthy meals as well. We go over nutrition, water intake, etcetera.”

The club also aims to offer a new environment for children. “We have tournaments three times a year. We go to Kansas for the silver gloves each year; we have the golden gloves coming up in Wisconsin,” Williams said.  

He continued, “We went to Montana just to go. We also went to Florida where many of us had never seen the beach or ocean before. This gym gives kids another vision of life.”

This vision also includes self-esteem and confidence: “We have kids who came in here head down, don’t like to speak with people, no friends. They get in the ring, they start to get nicknames and are known for their skills. We have parties for the kids, play music, and just have fun.”  

The Northside Boxing Gym also has classes for adults. For more info, visit northsideboxing.org.