On a cold and drizzly grey November afternoon, restaurateur Ryan Burnet and retired police officer Victor Mills are looking lean and mean in sweats and stocking caps. They’ve just come from training a boxer in the boxer’s back yard, as they have no other place to do so. Yet.
The two men are from as divergent sides of the proverbial tracks as possible: Burnet, the son of real estate mogul Ralph Burnet and VP of a half dozen of the finest eating establishments in town, including the impressively appointed new Eastside and award-winning Burch, among several others. Mills, the son of a working single mother and incarcerated father, born and raised on hard scrabble streets, doomed to follow in the footpath of his dad.
But the two of them individually found personal redemption through boxing. And through that sport, they found each other. And then they masterminded a plan.
The abandoned fire house at 33rd and James in Minneapolis’ Folwell neighborhood on the Northside is currently standing empty, as it has been for nine years since the fire department abandoned it for a new one on Lowry Avenue. The years have taken their toll with ceiling leaks, mold, damp and rodents. But come mid-February, all of that will be a distant memory when Fighting Chance Boxing Club opens to neighborhood youth; for exercise, for guidance, for discipline, for nutrition.
Mills, who spent 23 years on the Minneapolis police force, grew up in a poor and fatherless home and started early with a life of crime, violence and drugs. He says his mother, not knowing what else to do, dragged him to a local boxing gym. And there he says he found some modicum of salvation. But how?
It didn’t happen instantly, but gradually. “There were role models there who came from the same background I did and were willing to accept who I was. They’d say ‘I know who you are. I know you’re a bad kid.'”
But bad or not, the coaches offered the individualized instruction that the sport requires, and Mills gradually developed the discipline that he needed to change his life. “Boxing is a very pure sport. A lot of these kids don’t get any one-on-one attention. With some of the activities that the sport requires— hitting a bag, understanding how to box, you literally have to hold someone by the arm.”
Burnet came to it quite differently. He says he was burned badly in business by partners he trusted and thought of as friends. “Basically I was wronged, and I went through all the stages of grief.” That grief often brought him to places mentally and emotionally that he didn’t much like. And eventually, he found his own salvation through the discipline of boxing. “I learned a lot about myself.”
Neither man is naive about what their reach will be when it comes to the very real and very multifaceted problems facing North Minneapolis. It’s one of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in the city.
“We just hope it will be a good experience and a safe place and hopefully change their lives even a little bit,” says Mills, who will be the Executive Director of the program.
They’ve already been running the Fighting Chance program, picking up kids from all over north three afternoons a week and driving them to boxing gyms in South Minneapolis. They say they were a project without a home.
Mills finds it pretty shocking that North Minneapolis has gone without a boxing gym for as long as it has. “If you look at any other city— LA, Chicago, Detroit, all of them have boxing gyms. And gyms on every side of the cities— northside, southside, eastside. No boxing gym in North Minneapolis?” He asks incredulously.
As they worked, Burnet began to notice something beyond the ring. He says that about an hour of the allotted time they had with the kids each afternoon wound up getting spent gathering water and power bars for the kids because inevitably they would have been up all night eating Cheetos and Mountain Dew and candy and little else. They didn’t have the strength or alertness to actually box. Eventually Burnet had food from Barrio delivered daily so the kids could eat before their workout and then have a second meal to bring home.
“For a lot of the kids, that was going to be all the food they got that day. It may not have been so much so for Victor, but from my perspective, what I saw was shocking.”
Mills remembers often having little more than green beans to eat as a kid because they were cheap and abundant. “And you know how you feel when you’re hungry. You’re crabby, your head hurts, your stomach hurts. And someone is expecting you to sit still and pay attention?”
At Fighting Chance, they’ll try to alleviate some of those nutritional hurdles by implementing a working kitchen with a fully stocked refrigerator and pantry, and invite chefs to share cooking primers. “We’d like it if the kids could learn how to cook a meal or at least cook a vegetable.” An adjacent vacant lot will provide space for a community garden and chefs from Burnet’s restaurants will assist with that aspect of the project as well.
The upper level of the building will house a yoga studio (possibly also the first in North Minneapolis) run by local yogis Radiant Life, and Burnet plans to run his corporate offices out of that same upper level space. He calls the entire enterprise the realization of his life’s dream.
The project is entirely non-profit and is being funded through nonprofit dollars. The boxing programs will run on a donation-based system— you pay what you can afford, and if you can afford nothing, that’s what you pay.
“And if a kid wants to come in here and not even work out and just have a meal and sit down and talk, great,” says Burnet.
Boxing programs, coached by Mills, Burnet and a lot of other volunteers will begin in February. After-school sessions will begin around 3:30 and go for an hour and a half, and then another session will begin. Summer programing will be more extensive. Drop-ins will be encouraged.
Fighting Chance will also serve as a community gym with regular hours. Rates for anyone over 18 will be in the $15-$25/month range. Anyone under 18 does not pay a monthly gym fee.