Children and teenagers in Cleveland’s Fairfax neighborhood often must contend with gang violence, unsupportive home environments, and other challenges. And resources are mostly limited or not marketed correctly throughout the neighborhood. But some unsung heroes try to give the kids hope. One of them is Coach Fred Wilson.
Wilson runs the Cleveland Inner City Boxing Club, also known as Team 216
, a free program for boys and girls from grade school level to early adulthood, at the Fairfax Recreation Center. When he was a kid, Wilson learned to box at the Westside Gym on West 25th Street. As an adult, he believes it’s only right to share his knowledge of boxing with kids in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Coach Fred Wilson at the team's gym at the Fairfax Recreation Center.
Wilson has trained and mentored more than 100 kids. On a typical night, he works with eight to 15 kids. From the time they step in the door, the kids participate in everything from stretches and various exercise circuits to extensive boxing rounds and even yoga for breathing technique.
Wilson has developed 11 champions within different rankings, including his son Fred Wilson Jr., who started boxing when he was 8. Now 24, he’s won 10 national championships and holds an amateur record of 6-0 in the junior middleweight division.
Two current Team 216 members are training for the 2024 Olympics tryouts. Barrick Wilson, 17, has been boxing since he was 5, following in the footsteps of his older brother, Fred Jr. The program has helped him with discipline and focus, inside and outside the ring, he says. Barrick has won seven titles and at one point was ranked seventh in the nation before breaking a hand.
The other Olympic hopeful is Kayla Huff, 13. She discovered the program at 6, because her Girl Scout troop was meeting across the hall. She would walk over and watch while waiting for her siblings to finish training. One day, she decided to give it a try.
Huff was a Junior Olympic state champion in 2015 and 2018. She's too young to compete in the 2020 Olympics, but she is ranked second in the nation in her age group, 13 to 15, for girls intermediate, 119 pounds. She will compete in the finals Dec. 12 at 1 p.m. (see sidebar) at the USA Boxing team in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
Most Team 216 participants don’t go on to compete, however, and that’s just fine with Coach Fred. He sees the bigger picture.
Most of the kids he trains are growing up in broken homes, often amid poverty and gang violence. Getting kids from those circumstances to see the brighter side of life may seem hard, but Coach Fred says, “Once you show you care, I mean really care, then they are willing to open up to you and fully trust you.”
Building that trust can take years, but he will never stop trying. Wilson works full time for RTA but devotes most of his free time to Team 216, and he personally covers many of its expenses. The rest of the funding comes from candy, popcorn and hotdog sales, car washes, and cabarets. You name it, he has done it for the kids.
What makes him smile the most is seeing the kids believing in themselves, knowing that they can achieve something with hard work and dedication.
“Once they trust in their ability,” he says, “now you see a whole other person inside and outside the ring.” Seeing a kid go from having no confidence to all the confidence in the world is what warms his heart.
“Even though the perception of the neighborhood is negative to the outside world, these kids are still human and they matter. The majority of them did not ask to be born or raised here,” he says.
He is trying to see to it that they understand their potential outside of their environment and themselves. Over the years, he has blown three engines in his personal vehicles, driving kids to boxing tournaments, training, and exhibitions in Toledo and Cincinnati, Wisconsin, Tennessee, West Virginia, Missouri and Kentucky.
Some of these kids have gone on to be police officers, business owners, and even boxing trainers in other countries.
Kayla "Sweet Baby" Huff is ranked second in the nation in her boxing category.
He only wishes he had more time in a facility of his own, in donated or rented space, in order to reach more kids. The recreation center only lets him work with kids two hours a day for four days a week. He'd like to schedule various times to give busy kids a chance to take part.
He is raising funds to keep the equipment and boxing accessories free for kids in the community and to transport them to events around the country. Supporters can donate through a button on the website
Coach Fred’s mission is to lift these kids’ self-esteem and belief within themselves higher than they realize; to allow them to travel outside of the 10 blocks from their homes that some kids are accustomed too; showing them that there is something better and that they are worth it, despite what their environment tells them.
Kyle Wilson is part of the Fairfax Correspondent program, designed to lift up residents’ voices by encouraging and developing neighborhood residents to become storytellers. Kyle is not related to Fred Wilson.