As students trickled into a repurposed classroom on the third floor of Frazier Preparatory Academy in North Lawndale, they started skipping rope, wrapping their hands in cloth, putting on boxing gloves and shadow sparring.
A heavy bag decorated with signatures rocked back and forth as a student threw a left-right punch combination.
But Jamyle Cannon, the man overseeing the makeshift gym at 3711 W. Douglas Blvd. last week, was just as concerned as how the kids were doing academically as he was focused on helping them with their boxing technique.
“Hey Cam, where we at with that ‘B’?” Cannon asked a student dragging a book bag across the floor as he walked in. “We bringing that up to an ‘A’ or what?”
“I’m working on it,” Cam, a fifth grader, said as he knelt down to tie his shoes.
Cannon, 31, is the executive director and founder of The Bloc, a boxing club committed to helping West Side kids. But while the Bloc aims to “spread the love for boxing,” it also focuses on providing educational tutoring and academic opportunities and makes sure kids in the program are focused on their studies as well.
“They can come and have a sense of belonging here,” he said.
Cannon grew up in Lexington, Kentucky, and saw firsthand how inequities in education affected the lives of young people. He had his own problems and was even arrested at the age of 13 after getting into a fight. He believes it stemmed from his internal battle with “false confidence” and wanting to feel a part of something.
But it wasn’t until he was in college at the University of Kentucky that he found boxing — and realized it could help with more than just staying in shape.
“Boxing taught me the triggers to my anger. It taught me that I could be a problem-solver, and that is something a lot of people don’t recognize about the sport,” Cannon said. “It made me deal with my lack of confidence that I was trying to hide with arrogance.”
Injury doesn’t stop championship hopes
In 2008, Cannon entered the National Collegiate Boxing Association’s Collegiate National Championships tournament and made it to the semifinals before suffering a torn rotator cuff, ending his tournament run. He was devastated, he said, but refused to let the injury define his boxing career, so he continued to train.
Then, in 2009, he won the NCBA Collegiate National Championships’ welterweight division.
That bout ended up being his last boxing match after he tore his rotator cuff again.
After graduation, he joined Teach for America and spent two years in Phoenix. In 2012, he moved to Chicago and started working as a teacher at DRW College Prep, 931 S. Homan Ave.
The next year, with just 12 students, he started teaching boxing, pushing desks and chairs so they could spar in the middle of a classroom. He started noticing a change — hard-to-reach students seemed more open to the idea of learning.
Cannon started holding Saturday “Boxing Boot Camp” classes, raising money for equipment and snacks through GoFundMe and other fundraisers.
In 2016, with the help of grants from foundations and other donations, he launched The Bloc and made it his full-time passion.
Today, the Bloc is in three CPS schools on the West Side, and he hopes to eventually be in five.
In addition to boxing training, the nonprofit provides tutoring and academic help. Parents grant him access to look at the kids’ grades online which he checks before every practice. For some kids he just provides a safe space for them to do their homework.
He said his group tries to get kids to understand that despite the challenges they face, they can succeed.
“A lot of students have good reasons to fail. You come up in an underfunded school, you come from a background where you don’t have enough, you deal with violence on a day-to-day [basis], you have family members that have been killed,” he said.
“We have to teach them we have to overcome these things.”
Cannon said the organization now works with about 150 elementary and high school students, and its fighters have an average GPA of 3.2. The Bloc has had a 100% high school graduation rate among its students that take part in the program at least twice a week for a 10-week period and a 100% college acceptance rate.
Some of his boxers also have competed for the Golden Gloves and for spots in Team USA boxing.
“I am most proud of creating a space where kids can feel like they belong, and that kind of acceptance helps us push them into higher levels,” Cannon said.
Manny Ramos is a corps member of Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of Chicago’s South Side and West Side.