South Carolina boxing gym fights violence

AIKEN, SC — In 2015, James and Brittany Hankinson started a nonprofit boxing gym in their backyard to fight gun violence in Aiken County, South Carolina. Six years later, their trainees include half a dozen professional boxers and 13 state champions.

James Hankinson, co-founder of Hankinson Boxing Gym, started boxing when he was 8 years old.

The first gym Hankinson trained at was owned by a local couple. He said that experience inspired him to emulate the program with his wife, Brittany, in Aiken County.

“Seeing how my coach and his wife welcomed us and how they loved us, I wanted to keep that same love,” Hankinson said.

Growing up in boxing, he said he recognized the impact the sport can have on young people and saw a need in Aiken County.

“I never played any other sport, so boxing was one of the things I knew how to do,” Hankinson said. “With all the violence going on around Aiken at the time, my wife and I wanted to make a difference – all the kids were carrying guns and killing each other. So we named the gym ‘Gloves Up, Guns.’ down.'”

Hankinson said the gym was more family than anything. Photos of young boxers fill the walls around the ring.

“That’s history,” Hankinson said, looking at the pictures on the wall. “When the kids in the program leave, we follow them. When you grow up, that doesn’t mean Brittany and I are out of your life. We go to all the graduations, and it’s nice to remember of those memories.”

The gym has no age limit and they start training kids at age 7.

Hankinson said the program relies on word of mouth and social media to recruit participants.

He said Aiken Public Safety Chief Charles Barranco and school principals have also been publicizing the work they do.

Jabreiona Hankinson, the Hankinsons’ 15-year-old daughter and national champion in her weight class, said boxing helps young people stay active and get off the streets.

“It helps you to be free,” Jabreiona said. “Anyone can do it, it just has to be in your heart to do it.”

Tyesha Harrison, another 15-year-old who is a national champion in her weight class and trains with Hankinson, said the gym provides opportunities.

“It gives us the opportunity to travel, learn self-control and build our confidence,” Tyesha said.

When asked what it was like to break into a male-dominated sport, she said people at school were impressed.

“They’re amazed that we’re boxing,” she said

Tez’Waun Starlings, who also trains with Hankinson, is now a professional boxer and recently won the 2021 UNBC title.

Starlings said he started boxing at another gym when he was 9 years old.

“At first I didn’t really like it, but the more I got into it – it’s something I fell in love with,” he said.

Starlings took a break from boxing to join the military. Upon his return, he decided he wanted to turn professional, and Hankinson became his coach.

“I felt like the next level was needed,” he said. “So I got in touch with him, told him I wanted to go pro, and he told me what to do.”

Even though Starlings is a national champion, he said Hankinson Boxing Gym isn’t just about sports.

“It’s more than boxing here,” he said. “We are a family. We put God first, then family, then boxing.”

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