He fought his way out of 'hell' as a young boxer. He wants to help Hernando County kids do the same.

All kids are welcome at Jackie Wilson's gym in Spring Hill, but he takes a particular shine to the ones who are lost, angry or forgotten.
Published July 3
Updated July 3

SPRING HILL — The music here has changed. Minutes ago, clamor resounded: gloves on the bags, clanging weights, snatches of teenage gossip, Gloria Gaynor’s declarations of survival hurtling through speakers.

Now the chatter has settled, the speakers cut off. Inside Shaquille’s Boxing Club Operation Turnaround, where young boxers are about to spar on a sticky Tuesday night, the noise drops to its barest rhythmic elements. Big box fans whirr from one side of the room. Two sets of teenage feet patter on the canvas.

The kids train for free here. Most of them have never boxed before. Even some of the more promising fighters, like the ones in the ring now, have never done more than spar.

But building a boxing dynasty isn’t the point. The coach, the man who started this place in his garage before it grew to a small gym and then a bigger one, wanted to build a place for kids to go, especially when they don’t have anywhere else. To read poems or write songs. To socialize face-to-face, not through their phones. To learn discipline or to let out aggression.

The coach’s voice weaves across the din. The running monologue comes in rapid bursts between long pauses. Observations on his boxers’ technique. On boxing. On what boxing means, what it can do. One thought interrupts another, then yields to a sudden criticism or compliment directed at one of the fighters.

“... more times you do this, this is how you get better, by sparring,” Jackie Wilson is in the middle of saying. “You can — you can come out here and punch the pads all day long. It’s nothing like getting in the ring and someone throwing, actually throwing live punches at you ...”

Wilson was 12 when The Cat saw him fighting on the street. This was Jersey City in the ‘70s.

“It’s always been hell,” he says now. Every block had its own gang, and leaving your block was an invitation to get jumped.

The city of his childhood taught him quickly. Keep your head on a swivel. Go down the street in too-nice shoes and wind up walking home barefoot. A brother’s friend, who'd stolen a car, was shot by police in an apartment stairwell and dragged into the street as Wilson watched. Later, the crack epidemic consumed his friends from the inside out.

Amid all that, it was intestinal cancer that reduced his dad — his great hero — from a 6’4” giant to skin and bones and then to nothing. Wilson was 9. From then, it seemed, there was nothing to do but get in fights.

Jimmy “The Cat” Dupree had a gym nearby, where Wilson's cousins boxed. He was a light-heavyweight champion, winner of 40 professional fights. He pulled the kid into the gym.

“You like to fight?” the boxer asked.

“I don’t care,” the kid said. “You know, that’s regular.”

Come to the gym, the boxer said. “What’re you gonna do with your life?”

“... it’s a lot of people fighting there, and you don’t know what fighter you’re going to fight, and you’re nervous, and you’re anticipating. And then all of a sudden, someone says, ‘You’re fighting this guy, and you’re up next,’ you know, now, boomboomboomboomboom, your heart’s racing, adrenaline’s flowing, and then you’re going to start fighting …”

What Wilson did with his life: Learned to box; learned discipline; learned to respect himself. Once he knew how to fight, he realized he didn’t want to fight anymore, not outside of the ring. It put pain in a different context. He knew how badly he could hurt someone, and he didn’t want that.

At 18, he was broke. His friends were selling drugs, buying Mercedes with gold rims, but his coach told him to stay away. So he joined the Army. He kept training, boxing on base, planning to go pro after his service.

He got out of the army in 1989, with three years in the reserves ahead of him. In 1991, his girlfriend got pregnant, and he gave up boxing for something more stable. He didn’t want his kids floating around, fighting on the street or caught in something worse. He worked on a Navy base, worked hospital security, drove trucks for 15 years. He took his kids to his old neighborhood and pointed out the once-rich dealers who'd gotten hooked on their own supply.

Five years ago, he and his wife moved to Weeki Wachee to be with her ailing father, who lived there.

Hernando County was so different from the place he’d grown up, but to Wilson, it seemed like the kids had a lot of the same problems. Drugs were around, the opioid epidemic blossoming. Some parents, he knew, were absent or incarcerated. What he’d thought of as the belly of the beast, the place he fought his way out of as a kid, seemed to be everywhere now.

And something else disturbed him: He never saw kids playing outside. This, he thought, is the land of the lost.

Paul Douglas, the local NAACP president, met Wilson soon after he moved here. Douglas was struck by his charisma and enthusiasm, and by what he said was an ability to find positive solutions in negative situations. As kids started to box in Wilson’s garage, Douglas helped him get it off the ground as a nonprofit.

“His thinking is not just inside of Shaquille’s,” Douglas said. “His thinking is big.”

In the gym, Douglas sees Wilson filling a gap in Hernando County. It’s a place for all kids, but especially those who already have been in trouble or who need extra support to avoid it. Some come to him on a court order and help keep the gym clean. Others just need something to occupy their time.

Fifteen-year-old Isaiah Aguirre, who trains at the gym Sunday through Friday, said he wasn't doing much of anything before he started boxing. In the past nine months, he said, he's gotten stronger and more confident.

"Before I came here, I didn't feel weak," he said, "but I wasn't the strongest kid."

One night, Douglas remembered, he stopped by the gym for a conversation with Wilson. What they were talking about was unrelated to boxing, but Wilson’s eyes locked on a kid sparring in front of them. Douglas started watching him, too.

And then the conversation shifted — not to boxing but to the kid, the change Wilson had seen in him during his time at the gym, how the coach thought the kid could contribute to society. They talked for a long time.

“His eyes never left that kid.”

“... the most important thing is, learn the voice of your coach. That’s why we’re here and we’re on the side. … You got to hear my voice out of all these hundreds of people. … Let’s say if a guy hits you hard, and you’re dizzy, you should still be able to hear my voice. I may tell you to take a knee for 8 seconds. I may tell you to hold the person. And then I want you to look at me. You gotta trust me …”

Wilson went back to New Jersey four months ago for a brother’s funeral. He could bear to stay for only two days. Home, he says, feels as much as ever like a place of no sunlight, like Night of the Living Dead. It’s like there’s a force there, he says, that pulls people into cycles of poverty, addiction, crime, grief. And when he gets off the plane and into the rental car there, he feels something old rise up in him. Antisocial, on-edge, angry.

"When you're there, you have to become a beast," he says. "I want to put the wolf to rest."

Wilson fought his way out of those cycles, and now he sees it as his job to help kids here do the same. For some, he’s become the person teachers call when the kids don’t turn in their homework. He’s talked kids out of selling drugs, he says, and talked one kid down from the urge to kill the man who abused him as a young boy. Recently, he’s taken a few kids from the gym into his own home.

He cannot save everyone, he knows. But he can try to show them how to break the rhythms they feel trapped in. He can keep his eyes locked on them from the side of the ring. And he can teach them to pick out his voice in a crowd.

Contact Jack Evans at jevans@tampabay.com. Follow @JackHEvans.

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