These Fighters Always Win: The Losses Too

From reputed gang leader to respected coach

Former gang leader turns life around, uses boxing to help youth

By La Risa Lynch

(written for the North Lawndale Community News)

It’s Tuesday afternoon and Coach Derek Brown watches with a critical eye. He stands just outside of the boxing ring, but within ear shot of two young men sparring in a Maywood gym.

Brown shouts “‘Keep your head down;’ ‘Keep your feet moving.’ The normal banter expected from a man imparting boxing knowledge to young thirsty teens hungry to find a way to vent pinned up energy.

“My daddy was tired of me getting into fights at school so he wanted me to stay out of trouble so he put me in here,” said 10-year-old Thaddeus Carter, of why he joined Brown’s boxing program. “I fight here (so) that will keep me occupied enough so I won’t fight or nothing in school.”

It is kids like Carter that Brown wants to reach. He wants to find a way to keep kids off the streets, away from trouble and out of the gangs. He uses boxing as the hook. Kids, Brown explained, want attention, but are often seek the negative kind that gets them involved in gangs.

Brown formed the North Lawndale Boxing League (NLBL) in 2009 to keep kids off the streets. He wanted to give something positive back to the same streets he once ruled as a chief for the Vice Lords street gang. He called it his penance.

“Gang leaders … can change a whole lot of things within the community if they just stepped outside of their negative realm of what they are doing,” said Brown, a former gang member known as “Shotgun” on the streets of North Lawndale. He also works with CeaseFire, a citywide violence prevention group.

“The only thing that is going to come behind doing wrong is wrong,” he added. “But if you do something good, only thing that can happen is great.”

Brown started the program after seeing kids throw rocks at passing cars near an elementary school. It was a childhood mischief Brown did as a youngster that ultimately led him to join a gang, get shot and cycle in and out of jail by age 13.

“It was like me happening all over again,” Brown said.

He knew just telling the kids to stop wasn’t enough. So he used boxing to show them an alternative. The few boxing move he showed a group of boys eventually turned into regular boxing lessons outside the school. His group quickly mushroomed from six to 84 kids, a mixture of boys and girls.

“What I was doing was trying to give them something to do,” Brown said.

The goal, he explained, was to show kids the art of boxing as a way to “channel negative energy into positive energy.” It’s a concept he called “boxing out negativity” or BON for short. And the affects were soon evident.

“For one, they weren’t on the corner any more hanging out,” Brown said. “That was the main part. They were a lot calmer; a lot more structured.”

Brown didn’t know that the sparring exercise would evolve into the North Lawndale Boxing League. He operates boxing programs in Maywood and North Lawndale. Brown was filling in at the Maywood facility after one of his coaches fell ill when the North Lawndale Community News spoke to him.

“I already started something not knowing it was a boxing league,” said the father of six, who is also a licensed boxing coach, judge, referee and trainer.

NLBL is sanctioned by U.S.A. Boxing and 21 of the league’s members are registered with the association. NLBL had its first bouts last month in Springfield with an impressive debut. Only three members lost fights out of the 14 who competed — many fighting for the first time.

Martez McGregor was one of the winners. For his first fight, the 20-year-old said it was a good practice run, but wished the matches lasted longer. They were abbreviated from three-minute rounds to one-minute.

“It was a nice little event to get the butterflies out,” said the North Lawndale resident, who passed up college to focus on boxing. He aspires to be a professional boxer, like his grandfather, Willie Ross.

“That’s all you need is some good guidance and you can go anywhere,” he added. “I felt the love.”

Brown said he is not trying to create the next Floyd Mayweather, a five-division world champion boxer, but one less gang member.

“I see it as one leader we gained,” he said. “One role model we gained. It is definitely one less child headed down the path of destruction. That road is the jail or the graveyard.”

He wants the youth to know they have options. “They can be whatever they want to be as long as they put their minds to it,” Brown said. “I can say you’re great all the long, but you got to know it in your heart.”




  • Richard atkinson

    November 11, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    Hi after spending decades in prison for gang related crimes, I have with the help of a friend, from the same projects as me, created a youth program similar to what I had read above. It is good to hear your the success of your program and gives me great encouragement to forge ahead in these troubled times. Thanks for being you. Ricky Atkinson

  • Rosita

    July 30, 2013 at 7:10 am

    Well to me Martial Arts means respect and discipline. I have
    trained in different Martial arts now for well over 21 years.
    I have seen several people come and go but one thing that I have noticed will be the
    respect and discipline having changed those peoples perception of life.

    Youngsters that have started which have been on the wrong side of the tracks, always in trouble and no idea how to respect other kids.
    Put them in a controlled environment with discipline and fighting and
    they soon start to understand.
    Martial arts is a way for infants and adults to get rid of their aggression without hurting or bullying anyone.

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