Jaden Medley, 8, knows how to scrap.
On Monday afternoon, he sat on the edge of a boxing ring, feet dangling off, and held up his right hand. He spread his fingers wide and began winding a strip of pink tape around his wrist and palm, meticulously wrapping and re-wrapping parts of his hand to ensure every joint was protected.
"What I like about boxing is that there's a whole bunch to learn and practice," he said, threading the tape between his thumb and index finger. "I get the opportunity and actually get to learn really good. Once I get to sparring, I can use everything that my coaches taught me about boxing."
› What: Capital Punishment Boxing fight series
› Where: 1200 Grove St.
› When: 4 p.m. Saturday
› Cost: $10 at the door
Medley said he wants to be a "champion" and "get belts," and thanks to Mike Dawson, the founder of Capital Punishment Boxing, he's got a better shot than most, so long as he keeps coming to this small gym on Chattanooga's Westside.
Originally from Cincinnati, Dawson moved to Chattanooga a little over a year ago and started hunting with his fiancee for a space to start training kids. He said he settled on College Hill Courts, the city's largest and oldest public housing site, because it's those kids who need the gym the most and he wants to offer them an alternative to gangs.
"The kids love it. It's an outlet for them," he said. "They stay out of trouble and get to release energy and I know when they're inside these walls they're safe. They're not running around. You don't gotta worry about no drugs, no fights, none of that, because they're in here."
It's easy to miss Dawson's gym — the front entrance is on the back side of a brick community building in the 1200 block of Grove Street. The boxers and their parents park in a small lot out back that local residents constantly cut through on their way to work or the store.
Inside, the gym is mostly comprised of a single large room with a full-size ring in the center. Punching bags and pieces of gym equipment are scattered against three of the walls, while the fourth is covered in lockers where the kids can store their gear.
Atop the lockers is a collection of trophies and colorful championship belts.
"My son won that one recently," Dawson said Monday, grinning and pointing to a red, white and green belt. "He's dedicated. He's in here training almost every day."
The gym is only four months old, but it's a work of passion for Dawson, who boxed professionally years ago. He won several competitions over the course of his career, including a Golden Gloves tournament, but things started to go downhill when he started mixing with gang members.
Dawson was in and out of jail, working various jobs to get by, when his son's mother died. Shortly after, he saw his son shadowboxing and realized he wanted to get back to a sport he loved and use it as a tool to keep his boy and others from making the same mistakes he did.
"I want to do anything that would bring these kids in this community off the streets and keep them active and keep them from running down the wrong path, because it's easy to get in trouble out there," he said. "It's easy to get caught up with the wrong people, and I know from experience."
He moved to Chattanooga and started collecting equipment, training his son and friends on the patio in the backyard until he settled in on the Westside.
But now he has to contend with a building with its own share of problems. The roof leaks constantly when it rains and several windows are either shattered entirely or riddled with bullet holes.
Dawson said he pays a little over $2,000 a month in rent, but he's been told by property managers that the Chattanooga Housing Authority is responsible for repairs, and he's already thrown what money he has into the gym. He wants to serve kids in College Hill Courts, but their families can't offer much financial support and he's already lost some because their families can't cover the $40 a month he asks for membership.
"All the kids come in here, they want to be in here," he said. "But some of them would come and they never made any payments. Their parents would say to them, 'We don't have the money for it, so no reason for you to be down there.'"
He works with the dozen or so boxers who come regularly to find sponsors and host fundraising events for kids who don't have the resources to pay, but he's found that the community he wants to work in would be hard-pressed to support this program on its own. He wants to keep kids out of gangs, but poverty fuels those groups while preventing community members from building alternative options.
"It's a high-crime area. It's so easy to get sucked in," he said. "There's always shootings. I know from experience living in the projects, it's no different. I see it. You see the drug transactions, the kids fighting, gang-banging, you can see it because it's right there in view."
There's a lot that needs to be done to keep the gym afloat, but thankfully Dawson isn't alone. Supporting his work is John Disterdick, who is celebrated for having won Ringside World Championships weight-class titles annually starting in 2007. He has won a master's record 10 championship belts in all, including nine from Ringside from 178-198 pounds.
Disterdick has coached at the Red Bank Boxing Club, but he heard about Dawson's project while doing advocacy work in the neighborhood. Now he's all in because he sees the potential for what it could become and what it could mean for the area.
"This is an area people avoid. This is a place where you need to put resources into the community. What would the economics look like if you kept 25 people from going into gangs? What if instead they pursued athletics, scholarships to college, pursued careers?" he said.
"This whole place could be turned into a manufacturing facility for future leaders of the community instead of a place that molds crime and gangs."
Dawson has the support of leaders in the local boxing community who have organizations focused on kids who have been referred to the program by either the juvenile court system or their schools. Andy Smith, executive director of YCAP (the YMCA Community Action Program), said he's excited to see another gym setting up in Chattanooga.
Thanks to state and federal funding, kids from the ages of 8-17 can train with YCAP for free.
"He's just trying to get that thing going down there. Trying to create a service in that community," Smith said. "I just think that the majority of juvenile crime takes place between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. because that's when kids are home unsupervised and they've got nowhere to go."
Capital Punishment Boxing will be hosting a series of fights Saturday with boxers from multiple states, and Smith said YCAP will be represented to support the fledgling program.
"We're going on Saturday to support him, and he comes to our events and supports us. Anything we can do to help his efforts, obviously we want to do that," he said. "Whether it's boxing or whatever. It's not just sports. There are all kinds of opportunities that keep kids off the streets and out of trouble, so I believe that it's vitally important to have those opportunities."
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke echoed Smith.
"Community partners like Mr. Dawson provide invaluable resources to our City's young people," he said in an emailed statement. "There is no question that finding more productive, safe ways for children to spend their time outside the classroom correlates with a reduction in criminal activity."
The gym also has longstanding members of the neighborhood pulling for it. Kenny Mac Sr., one of the mentors who works with kids at Capital Punishment Boxing, said he grew up in College Hill Courts and fighting was an everyday part of his childhood.
"Out here you've got to have a reputation, because in order to walk to school or the store and make it back home with your package or your lunch money, you had to fight," he said. "I just got into it because I started liking it and I had to make it to school."
Mac said his friends and other groups used to gather at the flagpole in the center of the courtyard to settle issues and build their reputations.
"Everything happens down there. Boxing, fighting, shooting, robbing. That's where everything happens — in the middle where everyone can see it," he said. "You want everybody to see it."
Now he supports the gym because, like Dawson, he wants to offer local kids an alternative route. He wants to see them alive and safe and doing something they love. It's important to him personally, because he's been shot three times and he wants the next generation to put down the guns.
"I'm the hood champ. My record's pretty good out there, so they started shooting at me. When they started shooting, that changed the game," he said. "You get a black eye, you still live to see another day. When you get out the guns, you don't see no more."
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.