From the outside, the industrial building where the Macon Bibb United Boxing Club can be found looks nothing like a place for the serious pursuit of the brutal sport that originated in ancient Greece some three thousand years ago. A plumbing service or a painting company would be a more likely tenant, not the dungeon of pain and sacrifice that is a genuine fight club. But walk inside and one finds all the markings of a legit boxing gym.
Stroll down the hall to the room where there’s nothing but heavy bags and you can watch the young fighters put in their work. Further down is the room where, as one aspiring pugilist puts it, “all the action happens.” Here there’s not one, but two, full-size rings. In one, a trainer is having a heart-to-heart talk with some teens about taking training more seriously. In the other, a serious-looking young man is shadow boxing, his fists wrapped and ready for work. At the far end of the room, two more young boxers are doing sprints, pushing each other to go all out.
On the walls around are signs and posters with inspirational quotes by some of the biggest names in the history of the fight game, such as Mike Tyson (“I fight for perfection”), Sugar Ray Robinson (“To be a champ, you have to believe in yourself when no one else will”) and Muhammad Ali (“If you even dream of beating me, you’d better wake up and apologize”). Yes, this is a serious boxing gym. And in Macon-Bibb, Georgia of all places.
“It wasn’t smooth sailing when we first introduced the club to the community,” admits James Hand, director of the Macon Bibb United Boxing Club. “It took people time to get used to boxing actually being here, but it’s gotten better every year. We’re building something that will last.”
Originally, the Macon Bibb United Boxing Club was called “Freedom Park,” and it was a recreational center known for youth basketball leagues and AAU tournaments. But Freedom Park wasn’t just a place for kids to play hoops; it was also a popular hangout scene. So when Hand helped open a boxing gym there in October 2014, he did so to the chagrin of many in town.
“When it started off, it wasn’t too good,” says Hand. “People thought we were kicking out the kids from the neighborhood by adding boxing. Everybody was so used to basketball, they didn’t give boxing a chance. But one of our directors—he’s gone now—had a vision of trying to bring a boxing gym here and they followed through on that. And when they were getting ready to open up, they knew I had some boxing experience, so they asked me to get involved.”
To help with the sudden shift, Hand hired Earnest Butts Jr., a former boxer with over a hundred amateur fights, to serve as the head trainer. “When they came to me, I was a juvenile probation officer,” says Butts Jr. “I used to get kids and train them in garages. I asked God to give me a place to train young boxers, where they can come in, pay a small fee and just learn to box. This started up in 2014 and now I’m here.”
To properly tell the story of the five year ascension of the Macon Bibb United Boxing Club, one needs to take a close look at the gym’s two leaders, James Hand and Earnest Butts Jr. Born and raised in Macon, Hand has a certain loud-mouthed individual to thank for initiating him to fisticuffs.
“When I was in the military, some guy challenged me to a fight,” says Hand, recalling his time at Fort Bliss in El Paso. “And when that happened, I realized boxing was entertaining. After my service, I moved to Atlanta to try and find a boxing gym.”
While working out in Atlanta, Hand was approached by Josh Dunlap, a trainer known throughout Atlanta for working with teenagers. In fact, Dunlap helped train Evander Holyfield during his early years. “[Dunlap] wanted to talk with me,” recalls Hand. “So I went to see him and he asked me, ‘Where did you learn to box?'”
Inspired by his idol, Muhammad Ali, Hand used the most economical punch in boxing to control fights from the jump. “I liked to throw the jab,” says Hand. “Even though I wasn’t a tall guy, I have long arms. People looked at me like I was 5’9″ but in the ring I was really like 6’3″ because my reach was as long as the guys that tall. I liked the way Ali moved and shot his jab. I didn’t box pretty like Ali, but I like to think my jab was a little stiffer than his. You were gonna feel it.”
At twenty-one years of age and with the guidance of Dunlap, Hand traveled to Albuquerque, New Mexico to take part in his first boxing tournament.
“I was nervous,” recalls Hand. “And Dunlap said to me, ‘All these boys have good records but ain’t none of them better than you.’ That shook me up.” The confidence Dunlap instilled in Hand that day propelled him to a victory and what looked like the beginning of a promising career. “After that, they started calling me ‘Coot.’ That was my nickname,” says Hand. “People watching me would say, ‘Boy, look at Coot. Look at him in that ring.’ The name stuck.”
But then Hand lost his job in Atlanta and he ended up moving back home to Macon. Boxing stopped and, after sinking into a depression, he got pulled into the drug scene.
“The fast life messed me up, man,” says Hand. “You know when you’re good, but you don’t realize you were that good until after the fact? Well, that’s what happened to me. Looking back, I know I should have had a better career than what I had.”
Now sixty, Hand recalls attempting to qualify for the famed 1984 U.S. Olympic Boxing team, which included future world champions Holyfield, Pernell Whitaker, Mark Breland, Meldrick Taylor, and Virgil Hill. That squad set an American team record by winning nine gold medals at a single Olympic Games.
“Holyfield and I trained in the same gym in Atlanta. At the time, I didn’t know who Holyfield was until I saw him a year later on TV and I said to myself, ‘I know that man,’ and I watched his career grow. In my dreams, I always thought that should have been me on that team. But now, when I look at the big picture, this is where God wanted me to be.”
Earnest Butts Jr. has been involved in boxing for over four decades. His connection with the sport started with his father, Earnest Senior, a pro boxer who fought in the early 1960s. “Most of his fights were at light heavyweight,” says Butts Jr. “He taught me everything I know. He was a boxing pioneer in the Macon area.”
As a pro, Butts Sr. rumbled with prominent heavyweights like Sonny Liston and Jimmy Young in non-sanctioned bouts and he also sparred with Joe Frazier. “Sonny Liston broke my dad’s jaw,” says Earnest with pride. “Jimmy Young broke his nose.” Earnest Senior had a 76-12 amateur record and retired with an 18-6 mark as a pro. And Butts Jr. would soon follow in his father’s steps.
“I was thirteen when I had my first match,” recalls Earnest. “It was in Atlanta and I boxed on the same team as Holyfield in 1976 and ’77. I was a junior Olympic champion both years.”
Then in 1980, fresh out of high school, Butts Jr. enlisted in the army. Based at Fort Lewis in Tacoma, Washington, he compiled a 22-5 army boxing record as a featherweight that led to his being on the all-army team in 1983. “I was a real aggressive fighter,” says Butts Jr. “I threw a lot of hooks upstairs and to the body. The left hook was my favorite punch.” And that left hook took Earnest to three high stakes match-ups with arguably the best pound-for-pound boxer of the 1990s, Pernell Whitaker.
“‘Sweet Pea’ was some kind of challenge,” says Earnest. “He and I fought in the Washington State Golden Gloves in Tacoma in 1983 and he won. Then we locked up two more times at featherweight. He won one and the other was a draw.” Butts Jr. had his sights set on the same dream as Hand: making the U.S. Olympic boxing team. “I was in the ’84 trials and I got the chance to spar against Meldrick Taylor,” says Butts Jr. “But I didn’t make the cut. That was a stacked team that year.”
Butts Jr. decided not to turn pro in the hopes of qualifying for the ’88 Olympics. After coming up short, and still a reasonably young fighter, he gave his Olympic dream one more shot. But during the national championships in 1990 a 28-year-old Butts Jr. faced a 17-year-old Oscar De La Hoya in a qualifying match. The rising teenager got the better of the hardened veteran and he went on to win a gold medal at the 1992 Games. Butts eventually turned pro, but his career was cut short due to an injury sustained in a car accident.
Now 56, Butts Jr. says he gave up on boxing more than once after he was done fighting. “I got caught up in the streets,” he says. “But when I turned thirty, I decided I wanted to start training young boxers.”
Five years in, Macon Bibb is indeed a boxing institute worthy of respect. Kids ages eight and older come to train and take lessons, and while some are here to get in shape or lose weight, there’s a core group of eager teenagers looking for something more.
“One of my homeboys started here,” says T.J. Ward, one of the gym’s promising young amateurs. “He told me about the club, and it gave me something to do after school.”
“One day my uncle asked if I wanted to box,” says Timothy Mitchell, another prospect. “I didn’t know there was boxing in Macon. I came here and just fell in love with it.”
While some learned about the club by word of mouth, others, like Jalen Middleton, have family members with a close association to the sport. “My dad used to box when I was little,” says Jalen, “so I was in the gym a lot. But once I got to a certain age, that’s when I started competing and training serious.”
Others like Saeb Saidi, a volunteer trainer at the club for three years and a constant daily presence in the gym, used boxing to negate anger issues. “This sport saved me,” he says. “The coaches that I had, those guys became my role models.” Saidi, who is originally from Iran, now serves as a police officer in the Macon-Bibb Police Department.
Hand says his gym has more than its share of future pros and probable world champions. “Some of these boys got the potential to go pro. And eventually somebody out of them is gonna be a champion. I’ve seen pros and I’ve seen amateurs, and the level some of our guys are at, if they keep going, they will get there.”
Butts Jr. goes even further, pointing out that at least ten fighters have what it takes to make it as a pro down the line, including Timothy Mitchell, T.J. Ward, Jalen Middleton, Pat Thorpe, his son Trayvion Butts, Akihiro Nakamura, Corey King, Christian Brown, Deondre Jones and Timothy Kemp. Hand lists the top fighters in that group as Middleton, Ward, Mitchell, Jones, and Nakamura. Out of that quintet, the 15-year-old Middleton, who fights in the 120-130 weight classes, is the most aesthetically pleasing to watch and the smoothest.
“He can flat-out just box,” says Hand of the young fighter who has won six belts and has been ranked as high as number two in the nation in his age group. “His dad and I would always disagree because he wanted him to stay in the pocket and fight on the inside. But in my opinion, Jalen is a much better outside fighter.”
Then there’s T.J. Ward. “There was a kid that Jalen used to kill when he first started out. Even though he was bigger than Jalen and they were in two different weight classes, his level and talent was above him,” says Hand. “The kid kept working. You know the saying ‘iron sharpens iron?’ Well, that’s what happened with this kid.”
That “kid” is the 16-year-old Ward who competes at 145 pounds. Standing 5’9″ with brawny shoulders and a solidly-built frame, Ward can easily intimidate fighters in his age group. He describes himself as an aggressive fighter, and it showed in his first two matches, which he won by knockout. “He’s got one of the best left jabs out there by far, just punishing,” says Hand. “He’s also been blessed with power in that right hand too.”
Then there’s 17-year-old, super bantamweight Timothy Mitchell, whose poise belies his age. “He’s a real distant type, one of those kids that don’t say much,” says Butts Jr. “But once he gets in the ring, he’s a cool customer.”
“I’m a counter puncher,” says Mitchell. “I’m patient, but I can be aggressive when I need to be.”
Out of all the kids that have trained at the club since it opened five years ago, Deondre “Speedy” Jones is the one that has built a father-son, love-hate relationship with Hand. Their interactions often amusing yet insightful exchanges. It’s the classic teacher-pupil alliance where the mentor tries to teach but the student feels the need to do it his way. “He needs to work harder and box smarter in the ring,” says Hand of the 16-year-old, whose best attribute is his speed.
“I didn’t know why they gave him the nickname ‘Speedy’ until I saw him for the first time sparring,” says Hand of the 120-pound fighter. “If he reminds me of anybody, not saying he will get there, but it’s Sugar Ray Leonard. He’s got that kind of potential.”
The tough-minded youngster realizes that the nagging and berating from Hand is nothing but endearment. “If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t be where I’m at now,” says Jones. “I would have quit. He gets in my head, but I know it’s all love and I know he wants me to be the best. He’s the only one that believed in me.”
None of the five have quite the unconventional and disparate background like Akihiro Nakamura, who goes by “Aki.” Most of the kids at the club are in high school, but the 5’7″ Nakamura is a 21-year-old college senior at nearby Mercer University. “I first got involved with boxing by watching fights on YouTube, but I did kickboxing first when I was 12-years-old,” says Nakamura, who Hand calls “the hardest worker in the gym.”
Half-Japanese and half-Indian but born in America, Nakamura kickboxed for six years before he went to college. “I switched to boxing because I was drawn to figures like Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, guys like that. There weren’t really any figures like that in kickboxing,” says Nakamura, an enthusiast of boxing history. “I spent my first year doing my thing in college, and then I looked around for a boxing gym in my second year.”
Since 2014, the club has participated in twelve tournaments and hosted the Georgia State Golden Gloves Championships in 2015 and 2018. In last year’s Sugar Bert Boxing National Qualifier Tournament in Montgomery, Alabama, The Macon Bibb United Boxing Club brought back four belts. The club can also be proud that it produced one of the best amateur fighters of the last five years in Maliek Montgomery. He won the U.S. National Golden Gloves Championships at lightweight in 2014 and 2016.
Montgomery became the first amateur boxer from Macon to win a National Gold Gloves title and the second boxer from the state of Georgia to capture a National Golden Gloves. (Calvin Stewart from Atlanta being the first.) Maliek also competed for an alternate spot on the U.S. Olympic team in 2016. “Maliek was one of the best amateur fighters to come around here in a long time,” says Hand, adding that Montgomery comes up every once in a while to spar at the gym where it all started.
The partnership of Hand and Butts Jr. has made boxing a marquee attraction in the central part of Georgia and they dream of expanding awareness across the South.
“I know boxing, but when it comes to boxing acumen, I always defer to Butts because of his experience as an amateur boxer and trainer,” says Hand. “But I’m the one that’s going to build their confidence and character.”
Butts Jr., on the other hand, gets down to the nitty-gritty when it comes to teaching and developing his fighters. “Lots of time styles come into play when I’m working with my fighter. The main thing I stress to my guys is being in condition. For amateurs, we teach them volume punching because the amateur game is scored differently than pro boxing. I teach my pros to throw crisp, hard punches and use the jab.”
“When you really think about it,” says Hand, “Butts is like Angelo Dundee. He’s calm, prepares the fighters, and gives you the proper instructions in the corner. Me, I’m like Bundini Brown, pumping you up and being like the hype person when you’re fighting.”
But when it comes to advocating the sport of boxing, no one currently plays a more significant role in the South than Butts Jr., who currently runs his own professional boxing promotion company called Earnest Butts Jr. Promotions. He’s been christened with the title as the “Most Active Promoter in the State of Georgia.”
“I’m like the number one boxing promoter in Georgia,” says Butts. “It’s been that way for the last ten years. I’m leading the way.”
As proof, Earnest can point to fourteen boxing shows in Georgia in the last four years, the majority taking place in his home city. Butts Jr. currently trains and promotes four pro fighters and eight amateurs that are not only in Macon but in cities like Atlanta, Augusta, Savannah and Valdosta.
“My goal is to bring ESPN here someday to highlight one of these kids,” says Butts, who still enjoys being a trainer more than a promoter. “I’m a trainer and manager by nature, but you can’t promote and manage at the same time. It’s a conflict of interest.”
As a promoter, Butts Jr. has had the opportunity to rub shoulders with Al Haymon and has access to the matchmakers at Mayweather Promotions, Top Rank, Golden Boy, and Lou DiBella Promotions. His fighters have even appeared on the undercards of major shows such as the Kovalev vs Ward rematch in 2017 and the first Andre Berto vs Victor Ortiz fight in 2011.
One of the club’s most important days was in May 2018 when former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes stopped by for a visit. “I took the day off because I had no idea he was coming here,” says Hand. “By the time Butts called me, Larry was about to leave. That hurt me a little bit,” says Hand jokingly, who did get the chance to later talk on the phone with Holmes. Butts Jr. says the visit was totally unexpected.
“Larry came in that day and spoke to the kids about financially how he benefited from boxing. He got emotional talking about how he grew up, how he only had a seventh-grade education, how he had to go back to school to learn how to read, and how promoters screwed him over. He shared a lot of stuff with us I didn’t know.”
And one imagines that when he walked through the door of the Macon Bibb United Boxing Club, the great heavyweight champion they called “The Easton Assassin” recognized he was entering a legit fight gym, one not too different from the place where Larry Holmes first learned how to skip rope and hit a speed bag. That’s one thing no one can deny about boxing: every fighter, no matter where they end up, starts out in the same kind of place. So why not a world-class boxing gym in Macon-Bibb, Georgia? With boxers winning medals and belts? And who knows what it all might lead to? For the people involved, the ambitions and objectives are clear.
So when he’s asked where Macon stands in terms of respect in the boxing world, Hand puts it all in perspective: “We can go anywhere and not be embarrassed. They can call us country boys or whatever they want to call us, but they’re going to know Macon was there. Macon is building a reputation.” — James Simpson