Punching Up: Macon-Bibb United Boxing Club Teaches Strength, Discipline and Resilience
By Traci Burns
Photography by Matt Odom
On a Wednesday evening in December, a few days before Christmas, the atmosphere in the Macon-Bibb United Boxing Club is friendly and mellow. It’s less crowded than usual, but both rings are occupied by coaches sparring with young boxers, the air filled with the rhythmic noise of muffled punches. Several other students are scattered around the gym, engaged in solitary exercise moves, waiting their turn in the ring.
Operated by Macon-Bibb Recreation Department, the club opened its doors in 2014. SPLOST funds were used to transform the former Freedom Park Recreation center into an impressively well-appointed boxing gym.
Inside, there’s a workout room, an open area filled with punching bags, restrooms and a small office. Bright signs featuring quotes from famous boxers and other sports heroes offer inspiration and break up the monotony of the otherwise-bare walls.
Above the entrance to the gym’s main area, a sign reads “Box like a champion today.” Inside are two full-sized boxing rings, bleachers that can expand to seat 600 and a video camera installed above each ring so matches can be broadcast. The club has hosted many events since its opening, including the Georgia State Golden Gloves Championship, a fact that may surprise those not yet aware of this serious, professional sporting facility in our midst.
Earnest Butts Jr. has been the boxing coordinator at Macon–Bibb United for five years now. He also coaches boxing and owns his own business, E. Butts Jr. Promotions. Boxing is more than just a job for Butts Jr., it’s something that runs in his blood. His father, Earnest Butts Sr., was a professional boxer in the early 1960s who matched with the likes of Sonny Liston and Joe Frazier.
Butts Jr. was 13 when he stepped into the ring for the first time. Since then, he’s had more than 120 amateur fights, been a member of the All-Army Boxing Team and coached and mentored countless young boxers. In 2017, his skill and dedication were recognized when he was inducted into the Georgia Amateur Boxing Hall of Fame for his coaching work.
“Boxing is a good tool,” Butts Jr. said. “People think they can come in here and learn to fight, but it’s not about fighting. It’s about learning control – body and mind.”
The club’s focus is on offering a way to build confidence and character and an outlet through which to channel the sometimes-destructive aggression and anger of adolescence.
“I’ve changed a lot of kids’ lives,” said Butts Jr. “I was a probation officer for 10 years before I came on board here, so I’ve worked with a lot of at-risk kids. I’ve got patience, and I can tell when a kid is in trouble. A lot of guys trust me because I can handle the roughneck kids. I’m not intimidated by a kid who’s got prior charges – I use boxing as an outlet to draw them in. Not that they’ll be a successful boxer, necessarily, but it shows them – hey, your toughness got you somewhere not so great, now it’s time to channel it in a useful, positive way.”
Trayvion Butts, 25, is the product of his father’s disciplined approach. Coached by his dad, Trayvion’s talent, skill and determination have made him a name to watch in the world of boxing.
“It’s cool to have my dad as my coach,” Trayvion Butts said. “Lots of boxers don’t have that, and it’s a good feeling to have him on my team. Boxing is a family tradition for us. We all love this sport. It’s good for me, discipline-wise, and it helps me control my attitude and be more calm. I’m trying to continue the boxing legacy in my family, keep the love going.”
When talking about his son’s skill in the ring, Butts Jr. radiates pride.
“I’m always so impressed with him,” he said. “He’s doing real big things for our city.”
Patrick Anderson has coached at Macon-Bibb United for three years. Now 34, Anderson started training himself in boxing and Mixed Martial Arts at age 14.
“I was always different,” Anderson said. “I grew up in the hood, but listened to country and rock. My friends were into gang stuff and, like, hydraulics, and I was into art, psychology, human behavior. Knowing about that stuff helps so much with coaching. Some people won’t or can’t open up, so knowing how to read body language is very important.”
At age 18, Anderson’s mother passed away, an experience that jolted him out of the reckless lifestyle he’d been living.
“The last time she saw me, I was in handcuffs,” he said. “She told me, ‘You can’t fight all the time. You’ll end up in jail or dead. You’ve gotta stay focused and achieve your goals and dreams.’ She knew I was into art and boxing, and she supported me, always. I felt like I owed it to her to grow up and get it together.”
As the youngest coach on staff, Anderson works most with the younger kids who come into the gym.
“I have a way of making them comfortable and making things fun, but also getting them to work,” he said. “I’m at an in-between age, so I can help everyone communicate. I’m like the peanut butter and jelly between the bread.”
One of those younger kids is Dean Gerwig-Moore, 15, who has been training at the gym for a year now.
“I love the community here. It’s a really good place to spend your time. Coach Pat takes the time to work with everyone individually, and so does Coach Butts. It feels like everyone is included,” he said. “I’ve been into boxing since I was 8. My dad used to be a boxer, and my brother and I would play-fight and stuff. I like the competition. Boxing’s the only sport where it’s really all on you individually – there’s nothing your teammates can do to change the outcome.”
“As a parent, I have to admit I was a little concerned about Dean boxing,” said Dean’s mother, Mercer University professor Sarah Gerwig-Moore. “He’s a really bright kid, and I’ve done an awful lot to protect his brain.”
After spending time with the coaches at the gym, Gerwig-Moore knew that safety was a priority and Dean was in good hands.
“I can’t say enough about the gym – the coaches, the kids who Dean works out and spars with,” she said. “It’s an amazing community with intentional work, not just in exercise but in growing as a person, honing skills and character. That place is really special to us.”
Boxing isn’t only helpful and therapeutic for young people. Last year, Navicent Health teamed up with the Macon-Bibb United Boxing Club to host Rock Steady Boxing, a nonprofit organization offering a non-contact boxing curriculum to Parkinson’s disease patients. Parkinson’s disease, a degenerative movement disorder that can cause deterioration of motor skills, speech and balance, affects more than 1 million people in the United States. More and more studies show that some Parkinson’s symptoms can be slowed or alleviated by certain types of rigorous, specific, muscle-stimulating exercise.
“Boxers condition for optimal agility, speed, muscular endurance, accuracy, hand-eye coordination, footwork and overall strength to defend against and overcome opponents,” said the Rock Steady website. “At RSB, Parkinson’s disease is the opponent.”
Coach Anderson flew to Indianapolis to train to be a Rock Steady-certified coach, an experience he named as one of the best of his life.
“Hearing everyone’s stories of depression, loss of strength, mobility issues and how boxing helped them rebuild their confidence so much that some of those same people work as instructors now – that’s just amazing. They took one of the biggest negatives you can imagine and they flipped it,” he said.
Boxing is catharsis. Boxing requires its participants to actively embrace experiences most of us would prefer to run from: pain, fear, vulnerability, humiliation. There’s freedom in facing those challenges and continuing to keep going, even if you’re knocked down again and again. There’s a metaphor in there about life, resilience and our capability as humans to triumph over adversity.
Macon-Bibb United Boxing Club celebrates this sport with the respect it deserves and makes it accessible to those who need it most. A quote on the gym’s wall serves as a good reminder that, in the words of pro boxer Jack Dempsey, “A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.”
Macon Bibb United Boxing Club at Freedom Park
3301 Roff Ave., Macon
Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and 1-6 p.m. Sunday